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5 Ways to Improve Student Engagement with Co-Teaching

When business students seemed content to sit back in their seats, Dr. Michael London used co-teaching to improve student engagement and help them feel more connected to the material.

When business students seemed content to sit back in their seats, Dr. Michael London used co-teaching to improve student engagement and help them feel more connected to the material.

After a dozen years teaching at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business, Michael London, PhD, took on the challenge of teaching smaller classes in a liberal arts college. There he started using a more up-close-and-personal approach to improve student engagement.

But when he first arrived, things did not play out as he had expected.

“I had smaller classes, and I felt I had the opportunity to develop closer relationships with my students,” London recalls. “But that wasn’t happening to the extent that I thought was possible.” Though London was offering students individual help, they were reticent to come to office hours or seek mentorship.

Initially, he was perplexed by the lack of student engagement. He felt students should be “self-actualizing” in college—not just working toward a grade or having fun in extracurricular activities. He felt that if he structured the classroom experience differently, he could get students to invest themselves more deeply in their education, and more specifically in his Organizational Behavior course.

So he decided that to improve student engagement, he would have them co-teach the class and share responsibility for building and growing the classroom culture.

What is co-teaching?

Co-teaching is new to most students, so London takes time during the first day of class to introduce the apprentice concept—and the fact that each student will co-teach one session. To do this, he has started using a video created by some former students that describes the experience; this way, students can hear about it from their peers.

London describes the class in organizational behavior terms: as a “community of practice,” where the students will be not only learning but also sharing best practices with other students. They tend to be skeptical at first, but London finds that the class takes on the character of a professional community of practice over the course of the semester.

Here are his tips for how to structure each co-teaching session to improve student engagement.

1. Help the students make it personal

Students do not dive into co-teaching right away—London instructs the first few weeks of the class himself so that the students can draw upon his teaching methods and facilitation skills when creating their own presentations. He encourages them to take a personal approach, but he wants them to have the tools to succeed as well. So a few weeks before the class session, he schedules two to three half-hour office meetings with each apprentice as part of their planning. Many expect they will simply create a PowerPoint presentation and narrate it to the class, but London works to change that perception by opening their minds about what makes presentations engaging and class sessions relevant and alive.

“At first, they tend to forget about the students they’re going to be presenting to,” he says. “So I start by asking them to think about what will be meaningful for their audience and to consider the strengths and challenges of some of their peers. Then I ask for some kind of story from their own experience that relates to their topic. It could be about someone they tried to motivate, what did or didn’t work. We use that experience to anchor the content.”

2. Encourage originality in presentation styles

London asks each student to invent something to bring the material to life. For example, one student designed a “culture and climate survey” that examined the behaviors and beliefs of the class. He had the students interview each other, developed metrics to analyze the survey results, then used them as a conversation starter on how to improve things. Other sessions include role-plays, simulations, original case studies based on their own experiences, and diagnostic surveys. Sometimes the designs are outside the box; for example, one TA designed a “speed dating” exercise in a class on communication.

Students have used multiple original presentation methods, some of them quite whimsical. “A certain amount of competition develops,” London notes. “If there have just been five great sessions, you certainly don’t want to be the weak link. They try to outdo each other a little bit.”

3. Customize your level of support

Generally, students have underdeveloped teaching skills, so London partners with them during their session. “More typically, professors will delegate [classroom] time to students or groups but don’t work with them,” he explains. By co-teaching with his students, London can both reinforce the course content and coach students to lead an exciting, experientially rich session.

For London, this co-teaching means remaining somewhat in the background. “I stand with the students and interject when I have something to add,” he says. “I let them take the lead. I will also prompt them to think about facilitation and design issues during breaks in the action, and I help them to manage the class, taking as little attention as possible. I want them to have the sense that I have their back without showing them up or dominating.”

He tailors the amount of support to the individual student. “I had one student who was born in China and his English needed work—and he was painfully shy,” London recalls. “I wondered how he would get through this. I did give him more help than I normally would, but a big part of it was encouraging him to talk about his experience growing up in China. The other students had really not heard much from him prior to this, and they were riveted. He really did a great session and was able to connect to his audience.”

4. Give them a chance to participate in evaluation

To get the full effect of being in the role of “teacher,” each week’s apprentice must also grade a three- to five-page paper known as a Personal Application Assessment (PAA), which is based on readings that were assigned for that week.

London credits fellow academic David A. Kolb with the design of the PAA, which is divided into four sections:

  • A description of a concrete experience the student has had that relates to the readings
  • A reflective observation that relates what they’ve observed about their own experience
  • An abstract conceptualization, in which they apply the reading to the concrete experience
  • Active experimentation, in which the student suggests how the principles from the lesson can be applied to his or her future career

The students submit their PAAs each Monday, and they receive feedback from that week’s apprentice as well as from London. In this way, students take an interest in each other and also learn to value the feedback they get from peers.

5. Make peer evaluations especially constructive

At the end of each co-teaching session, students provide written comments on the presentation, using a structured form that London provides.

After the class, London debriefs the teaching apprentice during a private half-hour meeting. “I sit with them and they read the feedback out loud, and we talk about it,” he says. “That’s a chance for me to talk developmentally with them, about how they commanded the classroom, their work habits in working with me, and their strengths as highlighted in the feedback.”

Outcomes for student engagement and participation

London says that course evaluations have gone way up since he began this process, adding that students keep up with the work better, and class attendance has risen. On a qualitative level, part of what emerges, says London, is that students typically are much harder on themselves than he is on them. “They have high expectations of themselves,” he says. “They’re very willing to face things that didn’t work, and figure out why. It brings out a maturity in these 20- to 21-year-olds that I wasn’t getting before.”

At the same time, his students have a clear sense that London is there to support them. A senior who interviewed him for a project wrote:

“Dr. London as a professor takes pride in working alongside students and his coaching/mentorship-type relationships are tailored to each student individually so that he can help them to grow and develop as individuals…. [He] wants everyone to be successful in his classes, and he is always working to help them to swim rather than sink.”

Co-teaching can be an effective strategy for improving student engagement in the classroom. When teachers work together to plan and deliver instruction, they can create a more dynamic and interactive learning environment. Additionally, co-teaching can provide students with diverse learning experiences and perspectives, which can further enhance their engagement in the material.

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