Category Archives: Student Engagement

The Prepared Environment – It’s Not Just for Kids

While my kids were little, I volunteered in their Montessori school, and later on became a teacher there as well. One of Montessori’s first rules of engaging children in education is making sure the classroom is inviting and the materials the students need are readily available. This prepared environment encourages students to explore areas that interest them and learn the love of learning from an early age. Many Montessori teachers spend a large portion of their time arranging the environment to create that love and interest in learning.

Of course, here at GCC, we are not working at the elementary level or with children. The adult learner certainly has different needs than a child. But at what age does the physical environment stop being important in encouraging the love and interest in learning? I would like to argue that even as adults working with adult learners, we still are greatly affected by the space around us.

As a Geographer, I am always concerned with the spatial layout of things. We design cities with space in mind; we design airports for the best flow of traffic and comfort of passengers; we design the layout of retail stores to attract shoppers to make more purchases; we hire interior designers to make our homes inviting and useful, and we even design websites to be useful and to draw readers in. The best designed spaces are the ones that have the engagement of their users.

How we can make our classrooms more conducive to the educational process in the fifteen minutes between classes depends on what kind of tone you want set in your environment:

  • Do students need to see the board or screen? Is there anything obstructing that view? What about the side walls, is there anything they need to see there? Often desks or tables that are pushed all the way to the side walls of the room are obstructed by items on the instructor desk (like the computer monitor).
  • Do you stand behind a podium or in one place, or do you move around the room during class? Is there anything obstructing your movement in the classroom? Are you tied to the instructor PC to advance slides? Desks or tables arranged in rows tend to work best for standing in one place, and arranging them in groups provides more space for walking around.
  • Do you like students to be quiet and listening to your lectures, or do you have them interacting with each other during class? Again, the row arrangement makes for a quiet/listening class, while group arrangement allows for small group discussions and interaction.
  • Do you use handouts or other materials frequently? Is there anything that gets in the way of distributing things to students? Could there be a centrally located holding area for these materials? Is there an empty front table (because of course many students don’t sit right in front) that can be used for these materials?
  • How do you manage on test day? Are you concerned about cheating? Can table groupings work in this situation? Is there a way to separate them out enough for that day?
  • Are there permanent materials on the walls (charts, maps, etc.)? What kind of shape are they in? Are they located where students can see them?

I know, we generally only have fifteen minutes to get into a classroom, set up for the day, conference with students, etc. How possibly can we be responsible for preparing an environment, too? I usually employ the help of my students. This benefits the entire classroom environment by engaging the students in creating their space.  It also supports the idea of teamwork – we all are contributing to our class. Also, students are moving around a little before class starts – hopefully that gets the cobwebs out of their heads to get started on the right foot.

The other concern with this is that we should really be returning the classroom to its original condition when we leave. I always try to meet the person in the room after me to see what he/she wants before I rearrange and then have to move things back. Often, the person after me is open to the changes I’ve made because the flow of energy in the room works better for their classes too.

We plan and arrange space in cities, airports, retail environments, and even websites.  A classroom environment is no different – arranging the space to meet your teaching style and the students needs can make a big difference in student engagement and retention.


Coke and a Smile

I’m a bit of a Coke-Cola nut and one of my favorite ads of all time is begins with, “I’d Like to Buy the World a Coke”.   As a kid listening to that song I couldn’t think of anything nicer than to share my favorite beverage, sing, and do kind things for other people.  Yes, yes as a child you can see that I had some “coke bottle” thick, rose colored glasses, but really what would our campus look like if each of us were intentionally more kind?  If we started going above and beyond to spend our days showing kindness to each student, staff, faculty, and administrator we come into contact with, what would the possibilities be?  Would we see more smiles, more openness, and even more successes!721382f18bc997290421999a15d6cdfd

If you’ve taken time to read this post I challenge you (as I’ve challenged myself) to focus each day to be kind to those you encounter.  I’d enjoy hearing about your experiences over a Coke…on me.


BTW I like chocolate chip cookies…

Academic feedback and chocolate chip cookies…hmm…quite a story here!

I allow my RDG 091 students to form novel study groups based off their own personal interests. This has been a huge success, as many of my students coming in to my classes HATE to read.  The fact that they are provided some choice in what they read, discuss, analyze, and evaluate goes a long way for the overall buy in.

What surprises my students is I let them know that I am also reading their chosen  books…yes all 15 novels for both of my RDG 091 classes. They are asked to create a schedule over a six week time frame. I then model a lesson on what active reading is, and allow them to practice in class with a selected article. For many students they don’t understand active reading because they read something  and can’t remember what they read five minutes later.

For their first seminar meeting they bring their Active Reading Journals to class. I enjoy flowing in and out of the groups, listening to them discuss the seminar prompts. I love when they “test” me to see if I have really read the same assigned section! By the second seminar meeting it is a given:)

The students then always ask, “Are you really going to read all of our responses?” Actions speak louder than words. When they receive their graded journals back with written feedback they have their answer. It is a true pleasure to have a student come back and respond to a question I wrote on their paper, or to make a connection to one of my responses. This type of academic feedback leads to an important aspect of teaching….the connection you have with your students!

You always get one though….which leads me to, “BTW..I like chocolate chip cookies.” This was randomly written in the middle of one of my student’s responses. He laughed when he read my response. He told me “Ms. you are the first teacher to catch this. I do this every semester to see if the teachers are reading what I write.”

This student came back to me the following semester, and I take that as a compliment, and affirmation that as an educator making that connection is what matters the most!



I believe in you.

6th grade. I don’t even remember her name, but my 6th grade teacher commended me on using the correct too (two/to/too).   It was at that point I felt that what I had to say (and write) in class mattered.  It set a standard for me academically; and I didn’t want to be less than what the teacher said I was (smart!).

I wish I could remember her name and thank her for believing in me more than I did.


Who is More Nervous on Test Day — The Teacher or The Students?

You’ve created amazing and interesting lectures, outlined clear objectives, assigned appropriate reading, used technology in creative ways, conducted review sessions – you may have even told the students what will be on the test. That should be enough to ensure they will succeed on test day, right?

Much to your dismay, scores were not what you had hoped. What went wrong? Do the students just not study, do they not care? What was missing?

After my first experience with this, I started looking into what could be done to identify the needs of the students better. This is where I began learning more about using informal assessment tools.

Informal assessment is a way of determining what students are learning and where they need more guidance by interacting with them without using a “test” or “quiz” to find that result.

I began by using the 321 Summary at the end of each class. It is a simple questionnaire:

  1. Write three things you learned today.
  2. Write two questions you have.
  3. Write one thing that was helpful today.

This tool provides feedback both ways – for students to assess how I did in helping them learn the material, and for me to answer any unresolved or confusing points. It also helped me learn what teaching style I should use for certain individuals to get the most from the lecture sessions.

Asking students to reflect on the class period and ask meaningful questions about it gave them the potential for better retention of the material. It also provides them with the opportunity to practice their critical thinking skills.

I generally use Canvas to respond to their questions before the next class. If there is a common theme in the questions, I know I need to spend more time on that in the next class.

As an Adjunct Faculty member, I do not have an office or office hours, and therefore, students really don’t have the opportunity to come and see me individually without making an appointment and finding a private place to meet. It’s been a great way for students to communicate important personal or other issues they have that would normally be covered during office hours.

I have found that by communicating with the students in this fashion, they become more comfortable with me and the class earlier in the semester, and I learn more about the students that can help forge a better experience for us all.

Oh, and by the way … The first semester I used this tool, average test scores went up by 8-14 percent. Students were surprised at how “easy” the test was. While the students didn’t realize they were being “assessed,” they were able to master and retain the material more effectively.