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Engage the Sage! Using Your Own Engagement to Help Your Students Learn

27 Apr 2020 2:53 PM | Anonymous

By Donald A. Saucier, Ph.D., Kansas State University

As teachers, we strive to create positive learning experiences for our students. We try to collect tips, tricks, and techniques to improve our teaching craft so that our students will learn more. Our goal is to promote their learning and their success, and we devote a lot of time and energy to finding ways to achieve this goal.

Engagement is the key to our students’ learning. Engagement is a complete investment in your experience, at cognitive, emotional, behavioral, and even physiological levels. Our data show that when students are engaged, they see their classes as more interesting and valuable, they look forward to class and pay better attention, they see the content as more valuable and relevant, and they even look forward to demonstrating their learning on exams and other assignments. Promoting engagement, then, should be the priority in our teaching.

In thinking about my own experiences as a student, I realized that I engaged the most, and consequently learned the best, when my teachers were also engaged in the course content and in the experience of teaching it. This led me to develop my “Trickle-Down Engagement Model” that simply states that teacher engagement impacts student engagement which, in turn, impacts student learning. Trickle-Down Engagement (TDE) is founded in positive psychology theories and research, self-determination theory, intrinsic/extrinsic motivation, optimal experience, and emotional contagion, and our data support these links between teacher engagement, student engagement, and student learning.

Many teachers have heard of the “Sage on the Stage” teaching model in which teachers stand in front of a class and lecture profoundly to their passive student audience. Some teachers have adapted the “Sage on the Side” teaching model in which teachers act as guides while their students engage in active learning, such as in a flipped classroom. We use the term “Engage the Sage” to extend beyond these teaching models to emphasize the importance of teacher engagement in whatever teaching model they employ. When “Engaging the Sage”, you focus on your engagement first. Rather than taking the students’ perspectives initially, you focus on your own. We believe, and our data show, that if you lead with engagement, then your students will follow with engagement, and, consequently, will learn more successfully. For this to work, you will need to demonstrate your engagement to your students while you are teaching. Below, I list some recommendations for doing that.

First, prepare to make your engagement, your passion, excitement, and interest in your material palpable. This will need to be authentic! The information we teach should be important to learn (or we should not be teaching it). Tell your students why it is important.  Use “cue statements” by which you share with your students your “favorite” studies, “fascinating” findings, “thoughtful” methods, etc. The concepts we teach are often the products of someone’s years of work. Genuinely acknowledge your respect for their work.

Second, make your content relevant and valuable for both yourself and your students.  Contextualize the content in common experiences. Use relevant and current examples. Explicitly frame the content to fit your objectives for the course as well as your students’ goals for taking it. It is easier to engage when the content matters.

Third, show your engagement in teaching. Genuinely thank your students for choosing to take the class, for coming to class, for their attention, and for offering their thoughts. Collaborate with them in learning the content and ask them why it matters to them. Let their engagement further inspire your engagement. Actively promote your students’ success and tell them often that you want them to succeed. This does not mean that you will not have standards and rigor in your class – instead, explain that you challenge them to promote their learning. Let your students know you love three things – your content, your students, and teaching.

Finally, treat the classroom, and the time you have with your students, as an oasis away from all the other personal and professional responsibilities and distractions you are facing. Right now, in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, I am writing this article while my spouse (also a professor) and I are trying to handle all of our teaching and research responsibilities from home, while also taking care of, and trying to keep the education going for, our 8-year-old son and 11-year-old daughter. The time that I have for my students has always been sacred to me, and I regularly have made a point to thank them for temporarily taking me away from cranky kids and grumpy reviewers. But now more than ever, I value the (now virtual) connection they provide to me as we learn together. I love that I have this opportunity to teach my students, and I lean into that.  Teaching is the best thing we do. I am engaged when I teach because I prioritize my engagement. By “Engaging the Sage”, I can optimize the teaching and learning experience both for me and my students.

For more information:

Saucier, D. A., Miller, S. S., Jones, T. L., & Martens, A. L. (under review). Trickle Down Engagement: Effects of Perceived Teacher and Student Engagement on Learning Outcomes. Manuscript available upon request from the first author.

Saucier, D. A. (2019a, September 19). “Having the time of my life”: The trickle-down model of self and student engagement. ACUE Community.

Saucier, D. A. (2019b). Bringing PEACE to the classroom. Faculty Focus: Effective Teaching Strategies, Philosophy of Teaching.

Author Bio:

Donald A. Saucier, Ph.D. (2001, University of Vermont) is a Professor of Psychological Sciences and Faculty Associate Director of the Teaching & Learning Center at Kansas State University.  His research examines expressions of prosocial and antisocial behavior, as well as teacher and student engagement.  He is a Fellow of the Societies for Personality and Social Psychology (SPSP), the Psychological Study of Social Issues (SPSSI), Experimental Social Psychology (SESP), and the Midwestern Psychological Association (MPA).  His teaching awards include the Coffman Chair for University Distinguished Teaching Scholars and Presidential Award for Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching.  He discusses teaching philosophies and practices on the “Engage the Sage” YouTube channel.

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