Spontaneity – Fostering Student engagement

by Cody Lee (UCI):

How do you get students involved on their campuses? With a plethora of responsibilities and interests, how do you get students to step outside their comfort zones and jump into something they’ve never done or ever thought about getting involved in? Classes are ridden with students who disengage from the lecture to mindlessly browse Facebook or play games to kill the time until the end of the lecture. Motivation in school has always been the grades, the pressure; if we pressure students with a failing grade, they will have to pay attention. Outside this institution, can we implement this kind of motivational strategy that relies purely on pressure?

When we read up on Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, a social-behavioral theory of human motivation, we understand humans need several different things. Starting with the necessary – the physical demands of the human body like food, water, shelter. This moves up through personal safety, love and belonging, self-esteem in a social environment, and then personal fulfillment or self-actualization. Grades threaten the esteem of students and subsequently plays into their feeling of control and pursuit of their future.

Step outside and talk to students. There is a societal pressure that urges these young adults to go to school so they can get an education specifically for the purposes of getting a good paying job post-graduation. Grades connected to monetary pressure – where does this stand on Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs? Can one find personal fulfillment from making a lot of money? How about esteem and belonging in a social context? Is it possible one can feel disconnected from their peers and their society if they can’t fit in – if they’re the one person in their group wearing off-colored clothes and driving an old, beat up car? What about the struggle of survival – for food, water, and shelter? Everything costs money and it’s getting harder for many by the day.

As tuition prices increase and many students have to work one, two jobs on top of full-time coursework, how can we encourage student involvement and engagement with the community and with the world around us? Maybe facilitated involvement through class sessions is an answer. Give students credit for getting involved. Instead of requiring hours of studying an unengaging text for temporary grasp of material for an unengaging test, enable students to step outside and do something, anything that matters, that makes a difference, that allows them to experience and live and do something they enjoy.

Professor Matthew, from the department of Planning, Policy, and Design at UC Irvine, did just that during his class April 29th, 2015. A student in his evening sustainability class asked Professor Matthew how to get people engaged and involved when “many students are more engaged with Facebook and games on their phones” than with their course material and with the world around them. As a response, Professor Matthew told everyone to pack up their belongings and follow him outside, “We’re gonna go do something.”

Following the Nepal earthquake on April 25th, 2015, students on the UCI campus had arranged for a vigil for the victims of the tragedy. An event that had only a dozen and a half attendees soon grew nearly two hundred stronger as Professor Matthew’s class joined; strengthening the resolve, showing their support. An evening that would have otherwise ended monotonously with students begrudgingly sitting through a lecture instead took a positive turn; showing that students can indeed get involved on their campuses and can, in fact, get much more out of that involvement than they would through a lecture. There was energy in the air, an emotion and moving aura as students bowed their heads, paid their respects, and felt, cried, for the immense human loss on another side of the globe.
As we gauge student engagement on their campuses, perhaps we should ask not what it takes for organizations and clubs to garner more members and involvement. Maybe we should ask how we can better work with our educational institutions and professors to create an environment we want to see and want to get involved with.

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