Like so many other professors, I’ve noticed that student engagement is lower now than it was even five years ago. Students are skipping class, skipping assignments, and getting AI to do their reading and writing for them in ever-increasing numbers. When I sign in to my institution’s learning management system, I can see that even my honors students are not logging in to my course, which means (since, for budgetary reasons, we are not supposed to print out our syllabi) that they aren’t able to access the syllabus either. In fact, through the LMS, I can see that roughly half the students who did log in to our course still didn’t go to the syllabus page or open the PDF. Of course, the quality of class discussions last semester seemed less intellectual than usual, and with facts like these in evidence, I don’t think that’s just my negative perception; students can’t intellectually engage when they not only haven’t done the reading but don’t even know—or care—what it is.
Discussions on how to increase engagement tend to focus on two basic methods. One is the old standby: Making learning fun! (And maybe buying pizza and donuts for the class—usually on the day that course evaluations are due.) The other method is to deploy various earnest, sincere, often toilsome “best practices,” one of which, increasingly, is to be “aware” of student mental health challenges—which, in practice, often means not requiring attendance.
As a professor, I have found all these approaches to be insufficiently effective when it comes to engendering intellectual discussion; as a therapist, I find that these practices are also unlikely to support students’ mental health—and certainly unhelpful for professors’ mental health, which also matters. The first step, in any case, is not to “motivate” students. It is to establish a strong, consistent frame.
What is the frame? In therapy, no matter how much we empathize with depressed, anxious, sometimes suicidal clients, we maintain a strong frame by setting certain rules and expectations and abiding by them. To do otherwise models poor boundaries and saps our own strength and mental health, leaving us less able to help others. It also enables people, which may feel kind but ultimately does no one any favors. We have to model and even require consistency and courage.
We model and require consistency in showing up. When clients don’t show up without prior notice, they still have to pay (literally), both because our time is valuable and to motivate them to show up even when they don’t want to. As a rule, we expect them to be on time, in part to build their resilience.
We model and require courage by expecting clients to speak up and encouraging them to voice ideas that might feel half-baked or express feelings that feel taboo. Unless a client is suicidal, we do not for the most part engage with them outside the therapy hour. We certainly don’t buy them food or presents! We are not their friends, and we don’t need to be. Instead, we build a relationship by showing them that we have the courage to stick to our guns and the emotional regulation skills to do so calmly and nicely. This in turn helps build resilience and self-efficacy in clients as they themselves gain courage. Some clients like to use their smartphones during sessions, especially virtual sessions. This is not helpful, so as therapists we speak up about it and educate clients on how distractions provide only a seeming reprieve from the painful necessity of facing uncongenial topics.
While therapy and teaching are different in many ways, I believe these same principles hold true in the classroom. Therefore, I learn all my students’ names by writing them out by hand over and over. I require attendance. Sure, they can miss once in a while, but after that they have to “pay” (metaphorically speaking, this time). I require participation. I call on students. It is okay for them to be anxious about it. In fact, it’s good: this anxiety occurs in a controlled and low-stakes environment where students can learn for themselves how to better handle stress.
Most controversially, I have instituted a no-tech policy (unless students have a disability resource services accommodation, in which case I’m happy to work with them). I require my students to get a physical copy of the book. Sometimes this requires them to be resourceful, and I help them with that. (Not a single one of my 106 students this semester had ever heard of interlibrary loan, for example. Now they have). For the sake of fairness, I do not use tech in the classroom either. It’s just us and some books.
I don’t wear a bow tie, and I shudder at the phrase “Western civilization.” None of this is meant to be mean or punitive or conservative, although students do often experience it that way because it has not been the norm for these past few years (and really, frankly, even longer). I’ll be honest: since I have become firm in establishing and maintaining these boundaries, I have received a lot of pushback. I believe that’s OK. Education is a two-part invention, a counterpoint in which students as well as teachers must play their parts or no music will be made.
So far, despite the pushback, my students have been having some of the most intellectually engaged conversations that I’ve seen in years. Discussions have been blessedly free of ringtones, texting, laptops open to homework for other classes or shopping websites, and students raising their hands only to then read AI-generated points off their laptop screens as “participation” (yes, this really happens). Instead, imagine a room full of students who have actually done the reading, brought copies of it with them, and are animatedly discussing the concepts while citing chapter and verse. It’s a beautiful sight.
The bottom line is this: motivation and engagement require trust, and trust is built through courage and consistency. It sounds too old-fashioned to be kind, too simple to be true, and yet somehow also far too hard to put into practice. But I’m seeing the effectiveness of a strong frame in my classrooms, and my clinical practice leads me to believe it can work in nearly any classroom.
Anna Peak, PhD, is an associate professor of instruction in the Intellectual Heritage Program at Temple University. She is also a practicing therapist and certified Ayurvedic nutritionist. She is on the editorial board of Interdisciplinary Literary Studies.