Debate About Student Engagement Fires Up Undergraduate Colloquium

by Monica Friedlander

Those who attended the first half of L&S's Spring Colloquium on "Engaging the Disengaged" must have felt like the entire educational establishment is merely shuffling chairs on the deck of the Titanic. Mark Bauerlein, a professor of English at Emory University, sounded the alarm last month about student alienation in a culture dominated by web communications, video games, television and wireless devices. Using statistics, he pointed to an alarming drop in student interest in the traditional liberal arts curriculum and concluded that little if anything can be done to reverse this disturbing trend.

Not so, according a panel of very obviously-engaged professors whose discussion lit up the second half of the Colloquium on April 19. Three of them—Marty Covington of Psychology, Deborah Nolan of Statistics and Bert Dreyfus of Philosophy—are winners of the campus' Distinguished Teacher Award. Saul Perlmutter is a renowned astrophysicist now in his first year of teaching.

Professor Marty Covington"I disagree with the speaker of two weeks ago," said Professor Dreyfus. "It's not obvious that competing pressures and interests account for student alienation. Perhaps the traditional values in the liberal arts just aren't relevant to them anymore. It's our job to make sure that what they learn is relevant to their lives and rewarding, so they can be engrossed in it."

In a passionate rebuttal to Bauerlein's talk, the panelists lifted the blame for this apparent disengagement off students' shoulders and put it squarely at the feet of teachers and the educational establishment for not doing enough to tap into students' natural curiosity and love of learning. But theirs was not a blame game, but an uplifting message of hope and a call to rethink traditional teaching practices. Given the right learning environment, the speakers said, students can and indeed do become engaged in the classroom and beyond.

"Many students are highly motivated, but motivated by wrong reasons," said Covington, whom Dean Robert Holub introduced as the campus' foremost expert in motivation. What often drives students, Covington said, is anxiety and fear of failure, which result in a "dislocation of the love of learning."

Professor Deborah Nolan"Many of our students are fear-threatened," he said. "The test of worth they place on themselves is that one is only as worthy as one's ability to achieve in a competitive situation, and to fail is evidence of incompetence. The kind of reasons that drive this formula are negative, destructive to people. They include such things as struggling to succeed not for success but for fear of failure. It’s a negative strategy even if it has the gloss of success."

Covington's was one of two recurring themes during the Colloquium: the need to unshackle students from this fear of failure and to make classroom material relevant, particularly given the hi-tech environment in which students operate. If technology is to blame for distracting students in the 21st Century, the panelists argued, then teachers should turn around and use the power of technology to recapture students' imagination.

"Technology changed the way we conduct every day activities, so the way we teach should change as well," said Deborah Nolan. "I would advocate that we need to embrace technology and figure out ways to engage students through their interest in technology."

Nolan discussed a new class she developed a year and a half ago that does just that, either by using technology in a classroom setting – such as electronic forums for discussion – or else by availing herself of technological topics that captivate students’ interest.

"Statistics does not exist in a vacuum," she said. "It's an applied science." And apply it she does, to topics such as the use of statistical methods to detect the difference between spam and regular mail, or to determine how Google ranks its pages. "Students are thrilled," she said. "These are things they care about."

Not all panelists agreed on which technologies are most effective in a classroom setting. While some embrace podcasting, for instance, Dreyfus was skeptical. "Why are we podcasting?" he asked, noting that a third of his students fail to come to his podcasted class and deprive him of their curiosity and challenging discussion. "I wish we were podcasting [these courses] for everyone in the world except for our own students."

Dreyfus took a philosophical look at the larger context of learning and its relevancy to this generation of students. In response to a remark by Bauerlein two weeks previously that "students would rather meet and talk in chat rooms than read romantic poetry," Dreyfus quipped, "I can well believe it!" The audience responded with a roar of laughter.

"I think it’s a missed opportunity," Dryefus explained. "Students who meet in chat rooms on web fall in love with each other. And others don't believe in romantic love. If they experience love, then romantic poetry should give them a way of understanding and expressing that experience. And if they don't, then help them understand what they're rejecting, what people believed in once and why we shouldn't believe in it any more. If we can't do that, no wonder we can't compete with computer games."

Professor Bert DreyfusTo make philosophical concepts more digestible, Dreyfus brings movies to class. "I showed them Hiroshima Mon Amour when we talk about Kierkegaard. It shows the phenomena of love and what Kierkegaard calls infinite resignation. They can see it and feel it."

Dreyfus also called on instructors to take advantage of television instead of berating it. "We know they watch three hours of TV a day," he said. "So assign good TV, such as The West Wing. I'd like to be in a class like that!"

But even the most engaged teachers can only do so much, some of the panelists argued, given the existing learning environment driven largely by grade considerations. In particular, Covington differentiated true learning from academic performance.

"Disengagement has to do with disaffection among undergraduates with real learning – industrial strength, heavy duty learning, in which students not only absorb information but go on to internalize it and create meaning for their own use. We must distinguish this kind of learning from academic performance. Performance without this kind of internalizing is very thin and brittle. It’s misremembered, if remembered at all."

Covington's ongoing research into the negative forces that affect student learning spans more than 30 years and involves thousands of students. The results of his efforts are being compiled into a proposal for change entitled "Is there life after grades?" Covington's answer is "an emphatic yes;" but in order to overcome the odds, he said, we must uncover "the hidden agenda" responsible for this disengagement. In addition to fear of failure and anxiety, this "witches' brew" includes misunderstandings about the roles of students and teachers in the classroom and – worst of all – grade rationing. "Students struggle to psyche out test, instead of learning material," he said.

Professor Saul PerlmutterNolan in turn stressed the need for revisiting traditional pedagogical values that serve to make the learning environment safer for young people. Such simple actions as addressing students by name, making sure professors meet with each student, and encouraging class participation are as important as the material being taught.

"If we create an environment in which students feel safe to participate and lose their fear of failure, they become engaged," she said. "Involving students changes the role of students and teachers and creates an engaged classroom environment."

Astrophysicist and musician Saul Perlmutter, who heads the international Supernova Cosmology Project based at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, offered the "view from the novice." Perlmutter believes students and teachers must sometimes experiment together and risk making mistakes in order to successfully engage each other in the classroom. Case in point: his Discovery Course on Physics and Music. "We reach out to students who would never come to a physics class," he said. "We try different things and tell students it’s an experimental class."

Some of the innovative methods he uses include seat assignments to facilitate frequent 90-second, small-group discussion sessions in which students choose a spokesperson to report back so that nobody is put on the spot; and using remote control "clickers": channel-selector-like devices students use to respond to questions so that everyone can instantly see how the class breaks down on various issues.

"I told them, 'Be with us throughout the experimental process,'" Perlmutter said, and the results are impressive. Students come to class, he said, participate actively, and 95 percent of them turned in the survey at the end.

Undergraduate student Julia GitisThe discussion had a powerful impact on the students in the audience, a few of whom stepped up to the microphone at the end and pleaded for professors to see the students' side of the disengagement debate. The most emotional appeal came from Julia Gitis, an undergraduate majoring in cognitive science and interdisciplinary studies and director of DE-Cal (Democratic Education at Cal).

"A lot of what was said got me all riled up," Gitis said in an obviously shaky voice. "These apathetic and passive students of which you speak —I don't know any. I'm at a campus where students are working really hard, study really hard, have a lot of career goals, and are passionate about learning. We stayed up with students till three in the morning yesterday talking about physics and Nobel laureates and what they did to deserve that. You have students competing for student government, trying to make a difference. I'm very proud to go to a school where all the students I come in contact with are very passionate and very driven."

Covington agreed that "this is an exciting, vibrant campus," but put Gitis' comments in perspective.

"In Sproul Plaza, students do what compels them," he said. "But there are places where that doesn't happen. There are institutional climates that appear to suppress that kind of enthusiasm."

Nevertheless, Covington put a positive spin at the conclusion of the long Colloquium debate. By focusing on what doesn't work in the classroom, he said, we may be looking in wrong place for success. The real impact teaching has on students may be evident outside the class – in their work, on the Internet, in their activities, and later in their careers. "By only evaluating things in the classroom," Covington said, "we miss an important piece of puzzle. Students graduate and make us proud."

You can view webcasts of both Mark Bauerlein's initial presentation and the panel discussion here.

The L & S colloquia, which take place once or twice each semester, provide opportunities to learn about and discuss the overarching issues affecting undergraduate education at U C Berkeley. For more information on upcoming or past programs, contact Alix Schwartz at or (510) 642-8378.

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| Updated: Apr 25, 2007