Increasing Engagement and Infusing Positivity into the Classroom

by Emily Baxstrom
November 2018

Some of the challenges faced by today’s teachers surround a decreasing attention span in our society. Commercials and advertisements are shorter and more fast-paced, Twitter limits our word count, and smart phones and social media absorb more and more of our time. Studies have even found that our ability to focus has decreased by 50 percent during the last ten years.

Andrew Pueschel, director of the Emerging Leaders program in the Robert D. Walter Center for Strategic Leadership and lecturer in the Department of Management in the College of Business, uses several strategies to not only combat these challenges in the classroom, but to simultaneously infuse positivity and increase engagement among his students.

Tying into the University’s strategic pathway to explore and create more opportunities for student engagement and learning, Pueschel’s goals are to not only increase engagement, but to also boost energy and retention. “We want retention of the information and we want to increase critical thinking skills,” said Pueschel, “and we can’t meet those goals unless we interact with students in ways that speak to their individual ways of learning.”

Upping Classroom Engagement

Pueschel implements several strategies to keep his students hooked and energetic during his classes. One such strategy is that he changes his delivery techniques every 15–20 minutes, switching from lecture to discussion or from PowerPoint to team-based activities, for example. He also emphasizes the importance of standing up and moving in the classroom.

“Moving around can be challenging in a large lecture with 130 students,” said Pueschel, “but you could have all the students stand and tell the person on each side of them something that relates to the course instruction, both increasing energy and supporting learning retention.” He also likes to lead students in a stretch once they are standing, or simply have them deliberately maximize their posture by sitting up straight, smiling (with teeth), and visualizing their future success in order to spike their attentiveness and refresh their energy. “Sometimes, the energy activities are just as effective on me as they are my students!” he said.

Pueschel is not alone in helping students manage their energy and engagement. If students in Shawnee Meek’s class look especially sleepy at any point, she also has them stand and stretch, or jump up and down if they are able. Meek, lecturer in the Department of Management in the College of Business, has even taken her class on quick walks through College Green or the bike path. Students benefit from exercise, such as walking, which releases endorphins that trigger positive feelings. Walking through open spaces on the beautiful Athens Campus enables students to appreciate life’s joys and garner an appreciation for beauty, which leading researchers and psychologists Dr. Sonja Lyubomirsky and Dr. Martin Seligman identify as ways to increase positivity.

Pueschel enjoys using another strategy in his classroom to encourage 100% engagement during his lectures: If, by chance, there is no engagement when he asks a question (after counting down three seconds), he has every student raise their hand, “all the way up,” and he calls on someone. This gives everyone an equal chance of being called on, so students will more actively try to think of an answer, nudging them into an alert mindset. Pueschel notes that it’s always okay for students to answer with “I don’t know the answer,” because a time may come in the real world when we don’t know the answer. The experience also reminds student about the importance of paying attention throughout the entire lecture.

Pueschel utilizes technology as much as he can—particularly Kahoot, a gaming platform that helps break up the lecture. When used at the end of a class, Kahoot is an interactive way to measure student retention of the information. If students’ answers do not reflect strong understanding of the material, Pueschel can easily revisit those concepts (just in time) and make sure the students are learning what is expected. Pueschel also uses Kahoot in the middle of class if his students aren’t as energized as he would like.

Pueschel also tasks his students with keeping track of “concepts that changed their lives.” Before the end of each class, students record three things that resonated with them, things they will take with them. Three random students are encouraged to tell the class about the learning objectives that stood out to them.

Finally, Pueschel concludes his large lecture courses by encouraging verbal responses from the group as a way to always end on a positive note and with an increased level of energy. He always asks the same three questions:

  1. Did you increase your knowledge?
  2. Did you increase your personal and professional development?
  3. Will you go out and make a positive difference in your community?

Students respond by answering a resounding “yes!” for each question. Once this is done, class is excused.

Bringing Positivity

Hand-in-hand with increasing his students’ engagement, Pueschel also brings positivity to his classroom through various techniques. The first thing he likes to do in his classroom is to “take the temperature” of the room up-front. “You can sense the energy in the room when you walk in,” he said. “I ask how people are feeling. If we do this at the beginning of the class, we can work out any issues and move along.”

Similarly, Kimberly Jordan, lecturer in the Department of Management and the director of the Strategic Leadership Certificate in the College of Business, likes to start her classes by asking her students “Does anyone have good news to share?” She also sometimes uses Poll Everywhere to ask “What are you grateful for?” which gathers the responses into a word cloud that students can immediately see. Jordan doesn’t see herself as particularly outgoing, so these tools have been helpful and work for her to increase her students’ participation. “As I’ve become more comfortable and learned the research behind it, it’s pushed me even more,” she added.

Meek teaches an entire class each semester that connects positivity to business outcomes, and she also finds value in starting class off with something uplifting. She typically has students share good news, identify what they are grateful for, engage in goal-setting, and visualize their future. “It’s critical for students to learn ways to increase their positivity since those with a positive mindset are more successful in nearly every aspect of their life,” said Meek. “Their chances of sustaining a positive mindset throughout their career increase if they begin in college.”

Additionally, Pueschel encourages his students to have open, honest conversations, either in front of the class or one-on-one with him. “We seldom see our students outside of the academic setting, so we don’t know what each other’s lives are like. Until we have these conversations, there’s no way to gauge that.”

Students take Pueschel up on his offer to talk to him, approaching him about anything from concepts in his course to entrepreneurial ideas to personal stress factors. “I’m happy to talk to students about anything on their mind, but I also note that when it comes to personal advice, I’m not a therapist,” said Pueschel. “I tell them, ‘I’m here to be a resource and to help you find the resources you need, not to give you advice,’ which is a very important distinction.”

Open and honest conversations go both ways in Pueschel’s teaching. If he is having what he calls a “low-energy day,” he is authentic with his students about it. “There are days where I say, ‘I’ve tried really hard and it’s just a low-energy day for me, so if I’m not as enthusiastic as usual, please excuse me,’” he said. He did note, however, the energy of his students can increase his own energy levels. “Sometimes, teaching takes all the energy I have, but when the lecture is over, I can see that my efforts have not been wasted.” Pueschel’s students openly comment on the positive impact his increased energy has on the classroom, both personally to him as well as in their instructor evaluations.

Image of Jordan's Poll Everywhere report showing her students' responses
Jordan’s Poll Everywhere report shows her students’ responses and engagement rates during one of her classes.

First Steps for Interested Faculty

For faculty who want to make themselves more available to students, Pueschel emphasizes that they should consider what is available to them in terms of their time and resources. “We all have the ability to be positive resources for our students, but we also have to manage our own professional and personal lives,” he said.

For other instructors that may be feeling subpar or are having a low-energy day, Pueschel said the first and most important thing is to recognize it—to make sure we are honest with ourselves. It is also important that faculty take the time to relax and recharge. “There are only 24 hours in the day and we only have so much energy, so prioritize where that energy is going,” he said. “There are times when we can conserve our energy (whether reading emails or not speaking to people face-to-face), but we owe it to our students to engage in a way that makes them excited about what they’re learning. We need to do whatever we need to do to get there.”

In addition to addressing the needs of his class, Pueschel says if instructors are not enthusiastic about what they give to the classroom, there is a chance that students are not going to be as enthusiastic about their learning experience. “When you’re energetic about what you’re talking about, and if you can switch things up in different ways, then you can increase positivity from the students’ side of things,” said Pueschel. “If students feel as if they’re being heard, are cared for, and are getting the information they need to be successful, then they will feel they are getting value from their educational experience. And that’s the main reason we’re here as faculty.”

“It’s important for faculty to practice positivity to students and other faculty,” said Meek. “I intentionally do things every day to increase my positivity and happiness; I practice optimistic thinking, exercise, meditate, pray, increase flow experiences, write in my gratitude journal, invest in social connections, savor life’s joys, practice acts of kindness, and visualize positive outcomes.”

“When it comes to positivity, I think the biggest thing is that we all have a choice,” said Pueschel. “We have a choice in how we see things, how we respond to things and accept things, and it’s up to us how we want to move forward from situations. We can absolutely increase our positivity; it’s a mindset. If we can get our students to increase their positive mindset, there is no limit to what they might be able to achieve as Bobcats!” 

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