Journal Entry # 1
Barkley (2010) describes student engagement as the product of motivation and active learning. More precisely, she considers that motivation and active learning are “twin helices that work together synergistically” (p.24). In the chapter 4 of her book “Student Engagement Techniques”, the author proposes three classroom conditions that teachers can create in order to promote this synergy by integrating elements of both motivation and active learning and thus, promoting an increased level of student engagement.
The first condition that is described is about “creating a sense of classroom community”. According to Barkley (id.), creating a sense of learning communities addresses the motivational part of the student engagement by addressing the basic human need to be part of a social community where one feels comfortable enough to risk making mistakes.
In order to create this sense of community, the teacher has to develop collaborative activities. Thus, the active learning part of student engagement is addressed. By actively interacting with their peers, students build their own understanding of a new concept or idea.
I totally agree with Barkley on the fact that feeling comfortable helps one to learn. In fact, I know from experience that not feeling comfortable can prevent a student from learning anything since one of the populations of learners I have worked with are adult learners who don’t know how to read or write properly. The reason for this lack of essential skill is often due to the fact that they were not comfortable at all in the classroom environment at school.
I have no doubt that collaborative activities will increase active learning. However, I have some hesitations to think that collaborative activities always increase the motivation part of the student engagement, and more precisely, the part that Barkley called “expectancy”. This word refers to the student’s confidence “in her ability to perform a task successfully” (p.12). In fact, I am worried that, in some cases, collaborative activities may reduce the students’ expectations about their ability to succeed (or, more simply said: their self-confidence).
I went through the personal exercise of trying to identify what factors were involved when I have developed the feeling of belonging to a community. I came up with:
- sharing a goal,
- acknowledging what I have in common with other members of this community,
- establishing personal connections (related to the goal and not related to the goal) with certain members. Through these individual connections I develop a network that eventually spreads to the whole community.
The last point is what allows me to build trust and then, as a consequence, I feel free to communicate openly to the group.
We know very well now that the affective factors in learning are very important, probably as important as the cognitive factors. When both are used together, the learning process can be built on a firmer foundation. So providing all of the positive factors that allow students to build a learning community is a way of providing means to add affective factors to cognitive ones (“touch people’s hearts as well as their minds”, Bonk (2010)), thereby improving the learning process. After all, we often use the term supportive community. This notion of support reflects the fact that the whole group is there to help the individual. The group includes the instructor but he/she is not the only one providing support if a learning community exists.
I once had the great experience of having to work with two other students on a project. We had to give feedback to each other on our assignment before they were sent to the teacher. Our connection was very strong and was a real support during the course. It even lasted after the course was over. Another way of fostering a sense of community is peer teaching. In fact, any activity that encourages student to student interaction can play this role. Simple discussions are the best examples.
However, I mentioned that I have some hesitation about the fact that collaborative activities are always positive. As a matter of fact, Brookfield  reported an experience about himself in a learning situation where he realized that he would much rather have learned by himself without anybody witnessing his learning process. Yes, the “fear of looking stupid” as this author calls it may be the main reason for not willing to participate in a discussion, even online. It can be seen as a catch 22 since students who avoid taking part of the collaborative activities don’t get this reassuring feeling of belonging to a community; therefore, they miss the positive consequences of being part of a learning community. In addition, being part of a community involves having some responsibilities, and this means being committed in a certain way (even if only morally). One Faculty Focus talks about two kinds of students who don’t participate in discussion: the “social loafers” and the “lone wolf”. The article is focused on the latter, which refers to students who believe they would do a better job by themselves than with the whole group. “They have definite ideas about how the work should be done and quickly make judgments about the capabilities of others.” (Weimer, 2012). Well, it seems that something has to be taught to these learners; if not about the topic of the discussion, at least about what group work is about: being open to other people’s ideas and point of view. They must be taught how they could benefit from a discussion, as Nicole  reported: to challenge ideas, to develop ideas, to acquire ideas and to check ideas. Nobody can deny these benefits.
As students of the PIDP, we have learned and experienced how much being part of a community can improve our learning process. How do we pass this information to our learners?
I am going to focus here on the tutors I am training at the Literacy Center. I have already mentioned that the learners in this center have often had a bad experience at school and, for that reason, would belong to the failure-avoider or failure-accepting students groups defined by Covington (1993, in Barkley, 2010). We work with them one-to-one.
I consider asking the tutors I am training at the Literacy Center to use a blog. I have to teach them how to teach, and part of the difficulty is in finding the time to train them either individually or in groups. It is possible to try to gather them for a short training session, but this is not enough for them to integrate all that must be taught. In addition, it is very important for them to create a community of learners, since they are all regularly discovering a new technique to teach an idea, a new way to overcome a challenge, etc. while they are tutoring. My first idea was to create a Newsletter myself by gathering what I can observe or the tutors have have told me, and adding my page of “teaching”. Then I thought they should all contribute to this Newsletter and I started thinking of Google/My Drive, but then I thought that we should find a way to store this information/ these lessons so they are easy to read/access, and then came the idea of a Blog or a Wiki. As Conrad and Donaldson (2011) mention: “The depth of thought in asynchronous activities is usually greater than in synchronous activities” so I am hoping that gathering their reflection in a Blog or a Wiki will help the tutors that I am training to reflect more deeply on their new insights while they will share them with others. However, I want them first to have a sense of community so they feel motivated to participate in these activities (blog or Wiki), since they don’t teach at the same time and barely know each other. To create this sense of community, I started organizing get-togethers for volunteers. My idea is that once they feel like they are part of this community, they will start feeling comfortable enough to share their questions and experiences about teaching. My next role will be to create activities that will encourage this sharing as well as encourage the acquisition of new knowledge about teaching.
Barkley, E. F. (2010). Student Engagement Technique. A Handbook for College Faculty. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
Bonk, C. (2010, July 31). Building Community. Video retrieved from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t4gDUkEI14Q
Brookfield, S.D. (2006). The Skillful teacher. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
Weimer, M. (2014, March 12). Faculty Focus. A Lone Wolf’s Approach to Group Work . Retrieved from: