Do you believe that your courses benefits students? How strongly do you believe that? Could you convince your students of those benefits? If you could, do you think they would do anything to get those benefits?
If you can’t convince students that the benefits are valuable, and obtainable, then why should they put any effort into your course? If you can’t convince them of the benefits (or simply don’t even try to) then they will see your course as transactional: they will do the minimum in order to get the grade they desire. The point of your class will be the grade, and that’s it. In this case you will have to demand, require, threaten, and punish them into doing any work in your class. This is how education normally works (for the past 100 years or so). I used to teach this way and I was quite clever and successful at manipulating my students to jump through my hoops. I even believe some of my students learned lasting lessons from my courses. But I have come to believe that those successes came in spite of and not because of my demands. There is a better way.
If you convince them that there is some benefit from doing so beyond just the grade they will engage with the material in a meaningful way, without requiring attendance, without policing their readings or honesty, without the threat of the loss of points, without the threat of a bad grade. My experience is that students convinced of the benefits will do MORE work, even work you could not have anticipated, and the work they do will mean something to them. Teachers sometimes tell wonderful stories about a student grasping a tough concept or improving their grade throughout the semester. Great stories for sure, and I’ve told my share of them. But those stories don’t compare to when a student tells you your class improved them and their life. That’s another level.
Great teaching requires trust. You have to trust in the value of your course. You have to trust in your pedagogy. And most of all, you have to trust students’ choices about how they engage with your class. When students really understand (and believe) that real benefits are in the offing, then every engagement with your course will spring from their interest, not their obedience. But this requires that you truly give your students the power to control their engagement in your course. Not the illusion of power; real power. And that means that you must give up grading, evaluating, ranking, and comparing student work. And you must give up control of the final grades in your course. Grades are a form or coercion that students and instructors sense intuitively. Grades create a power dynamic that kills trust, exploration, freedom, and the willingness to take real risks.
Most student will never have had this trust and responsibility given to them, and many find it either suspicious or disconcerting. Grades have been their focus for so long that they might not know how to engage in your course when there are no grades. This is where the Engagement Plan (EP) comes in. Engagement Plans start with a list of all the course activities. I like to list the types of activities, their frequency, and – importantly – the potential benefits of each type.
Students would fill in the rightmost column of the table, proposing that they will engage in a certain number or percentage of each type of activity. I ask students to try out each type of activity before making their EP so they know how long the activities will take and whether they deliver the promised benefits. This should help students stay on track and schedule their time. The EP also
Students should reflect on their adherence to their EP as part of their proposals of the midterm and final grades. You can assess no penalty for not sticking to the EP because students determine their own grades; students can assess a penalty on themselves if they wish. Students should be allowed to modify their EP at any point.
Care should be taken to acknowledge the impact of extra-course obligations and unforeseen impediments to following the plan. You should urge students to consider their work schedules, their other courses, their social and family obligations, the unpredictability of the world when creating their EP. Life happens. The plan is not an obligation or promise, it is a plan. Plans change, and adapting plans to unavoidable events is a skill students will draw on in their lives after our classes are over.
I would point out that the EP can be seen as part of the hidden curriculum, in that in most courses the EP would merely be a list of requirements that students assume they must complete, meaning they have no choice. Asking students to plan their own engagement in the course in light of everything else going on in their lives gives them the responsibility to get as much benefit from your course as they want (and can get), and also communicates your trust in them. You should not chastise them for an EP that does not include every activity – that’s them being honest with themselves and you. Remember, you cannot force students to obtain the benefits you believe your course delivers. You couldn’t when grades and obedience, and you can’t with trusting them with choosing themselves. The best you can do is create learning opportunities that really work, convince them of the value of the benefits and effectiveness of the activities, and set them loose.