Bringing the “Back Row Student” to the Front of the Class

By Dr. Melissa Wehler, Dean of Humanities and Sciences

The under-engaged student is perhaps the most elusive types of students you will encounter during your teaching career.  More often than not, they are the disembodied names on your roster, the ghostly presence of a student that you might begin to think was never real at all.  When they come to class, they are usually late, sit in the back row, put their headphones in, and their head down.  In an online class, they tend to vanish suddenly and quietly, reemerging to take an exam or submit an assignment.  These “back row” students present some interesting challenges, but also some of the most rewarding teaching experiences.

Here are some quick techniques on bringing the “back row student” to the front of the class:

  • It starts on the first day. Setting the right tone of the first day is crucial to engaging the under-engaged student.  Ask them to weigh-in on the “rights” and “responsibilities” for the class.  Allow them to vote on any negotiables such as assignments, readings, and topics.  By doing so, they have a hand in their learning experience and feel more responsible for its outcome.
  • Give it a personal touch. Whether you are online or face-to-face, find ways to engage students in the learning process.  Send a personal email.  Respond to every student at least once on a discussion board.  Come to class early.  Stay late.  Even the smallest gesture can make a big impression.
  • But don’t take it personally. Too often we don’t engage the ‘back row student’ because we take their non-participation personally.  We see their texting, yawning, or ignoring as an indictment of who we are as educators and human beings.  Rather than put ourselves out there (even as we ask them to), we shut down.  Instead, take a quick survey (I like the “Keep doing, Quit doing, and Start doing” survey) to refocus on the classroom experience from the student’s perspective.
  • Move it! When you stand at the front of the class, you are going to engage the students in your direct sphere of influence.  Walking around the rooms and through the aisles helps you communicate to students that you are targeting each one of them with your message.  In an online class, this might mean doing a weekly ‘check-in’ post to let students know that distance doesn’t mean distant.
  • Move them! If possible, on the first day, ask students to move into the empty seats in the front rows by using a “light touch”: a joke, an anecdote, or a simple “I’d appreciate it.”  If they try to move back to the last row, ask again (and again) until they realize that there is no “back row student” in your classroom.  Moving online students can be difficult, but there are ways to do it.  Create a quick video response to a discussion board post, ask a follow-up question, and write on students by name if they are being too quiet.
  • Round robin. Have students complete a quick feedback assessment and go around the room to ask for their responses.  Make it clear that you can’t “opt out” of participation even if you have to “come back to them”—demonstrating that students can’t hide from engagement. For online students, you can rotate a discussion leader position for each week, so that everyone has the chance to share in the responsibility.

When we can engage an under-engaged student, we may make a positive, lasting impression. As faculty members, we play a crucial role in the acculturation of a student to college and eventually to the world beyond it.

Melissa Wehler, Ph.D. serves as the Dean of Humanities and Sciences and Professor of English at Central Penn College.  Her academic writing has been published in several essay collections including Demons of the Body and Mind,  Transnational Gothic,  and A Quest of Her Own: Essays on the Female Hero in Modern Fantasy where she discusses topics including the gothic, feminism, performance, and culture.  She enjoys teaching classes about writing, literature, culture, and film and has won two teaching awards for her student-centered approach.

 

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