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4 Strategies to Engage College Students All Semester

by  Sara Wilensky     Jun 1, 2022
wilenskyblog_classroom_exercises

I find the first day of class as exciting as a professor as I did as a student. I have the students’ attention (most, anyway) and they are open-minded and ready to learn a new subject. It does not take long, however, for the excitement to wane, the laptops to proliferate, and the empty stares to return. In order to keep the “first day of class” excitement throughout the semester, I try to incorporate various types of exercises and group activities in class.

When discussing class exercises with fellow professors, I am often met with resistance because professors feel they have to sacrifice too much time they need to spend on conveying content. To this, I have a few responses. One, if you are conveying content in a way that students are not absorbing, it does not really matter how much time you spend on it. 

Two, while content often changes, skills are something students can take with them in future courses and employment experiences. Three, you can use exercises to explain content. While it may take more time than simply lecturing, I find the payoff in improved retention of information and skill-building is more than worth it. 

When considering whether and what type of class exercise to include, the first step is to decide the purpose of the exercise.  Common purposes include: gaining students’ attention at the beginning of class, incorporating a change of pace during class, explaining content, using critical analysis skills, and improving writing skills.

1.) Set the Mood/Attention Grabbers

As students often arrive from a prior class or a work commitment, their focus is likely to be on other issues. Attention Grabber exercises help them become present at the beginning of class and reorient their focus to your lecture/discussion topic during class. There are various ways to incorporate Attention Grabber exercises.

  • Introduce a quick oral or written discussion question that everyone can answer.

    • Example: When covering health insurance, I ask the class for any personal experiences they have had using health insurance. I use their stories to start talking about the details we will cover in class (deductibles, coverage limits, etc.).

  • Provide the class with a theme or overarching question and have them respond in writing. Use their responses to stimulate class discussion.

    • Example: When covering policymaking, I have them read an article about a 50 state survey regarding health care views and write down one surprising fact from the article. We discuss why they find a particular fact surprising and use those points to provide context for the policymaking discussion.

  • Give students an ungraded quiz, with or without answers.

    • Example: When discussing the uninsured, I provide students with a paper copy of a quiz published by the Kaiser Family Foundation I do not provide the answers but we go over the questions and answers as they come up during the lecture/discussion portion of the class.

2.) Explain Content

Exercises can be used along with or in place of lecturing as a way to convey content to students.

  • Example: In my first class of the semester, I start by having students guess the size of the federal budget (they usually have no idea) and the areas that the federal government funds. The students break into small groups and make an educated guess about how the federal government spends its money and then they research together to find the actual answer.   The discussion that follows focuses on what they are surprised about in the federal budget, differences between state and federal spending, and how they conduct their research.
  • Example: When discussing the Affordable Care Act (ACA), the students break into small groups and make a short presentation on a specific area of the ACA (e.g., the individual mandate, Essential Health Benefits, state exchanges). As they make their presentation, I jump in with questions, comments, and clarifications to make sure all of the information I want conveying is covered.

3.) Critical Analysis

I find my students’ greatest struggle is understanding viewpoints that are not their own. To improve this skill, I often incorporate stakeholder exercises. These exercises can be designed in multiple ways.

  • All in-class exercises. I provide a fact pattern and a list of stakeholders to the class. I divide the class into groups and have them research their stakeholders in class.  They must identify 1) the tools available to their stakeholder to make policy changes, 2) the key message their stakeholder would like to convey, and 3) whether the stakeholder has taken any action on the issue at hand. Each group presents its findings for class discussion.
    • As an example, I provided my students with a background regarding the large price increase for Epi-pens produced by Mylan pharmaceuticals. The stakeholder list included: Mylan, ranking members of the House Oversight Committee, ranking members of the Senate Judiciary committee, advocacy groups such as the Asthma and Allergy Foundation and AllergyKids Foundation, Pharma, and a presidential candidate.
  • Take-home/in-class exercise. I provide background information on a topic in class. I split the class into groups and assign stakeholders. Their homework assignment is to individually research their stakeholder’s position on the issue.  At the beginning of the next class I give the groups time to consult about their research and develop a group 2-minute elevator speech that includes 1) the group’s policy position/proposal and 2) key evidence and arguments to support their position/proposal. One member per group presents the group’s elevator speech and the class discusses the strengths and weaknesses of the speech.
    • Example: I provided my class with general background about ACA state exchanges and gave them the policy question of how to improve the exchanges. I split them into stakeholder groups, such as insurance companies, states, consumers, providers, non-user taxpayers, and presidential candidates

4.) Writing Skills

Learning to write well, formally, clearly, and concisely are skills that are useful in all disciplines.  Revision is the key to improving writing.  As professionals, we would never submit a first draft of any kind of document, yet we design our assignments to encourage such behavior.  While the highly motivated student may finish an assignment well before the due date and ask friends to review a document, many students write up until the due date (no matter how much lead time we give them) and then hand in their assignment.  Most professors grade and comment on an assignment and return it, hoping students will apply their comments to the next assignment (which may or may not have similar requirements).

In order to provide clear opportunities to improve writing, I prefer to use short written assignments with revisions.  The revisions force students to think about their professors’ comments and apply them to the next draft.

While a variety of short assignments may work well, I like to use editorials. Most students are familiar with the editorial format, they are designed to be short pieces, (usually 500-700 words), students are forced to focus on key points and identify the most persuasive arguments, and they cover various points of view. I find it useful to explain exactly what is expected in an editorial.  There are many resources available online, but I like a short video produced by the New York Times.  

For example, I have had my students write an editorial about whether states should expand Medicaid under the ACA. Students are then given a role – write in support of Medicaid expansion or against Medicaid expansion.  Professors can provide students with general background on the ACA, Medicaid, and Medicaid expansion in class or have students do research on their own. Here are a few ways this assignment can play out:

  • Variation 1: Students write a short editorial. The professor comments on the first draft but does not grade it. The student revises the editorial for a final grade.
  • Variation 2: Professors grade both drafts of the editorial.
  • Variation 3:  Professors may allow students to keep revising the editorial until it is an A paper.
  • Variation 4: Students exchange editorials with a few classmates and provide a peer review of each other’s submissions.  Professors should identify specific questions for students to address in the peer review. For example, for an editorial, peer review questions could include:
    • Is there a catchy and informative title?
    • Is there a strong introduction?
    • Is the author’s position clear at the beginning of the editorial?
    • Does the author use evidence and persuasive arguments to support his or her position?
    • Does the author address counterarguments?
    • Is the writing clear and concise?

After receiving peer comments, students have additional time to revise the editorial before handing it in to the professor for a grade

While there are many more exercises and group activities that could be included here, I hope you found these useful. Go forth and stop lecturing. Avoid teaching to the backs of laptops and enjoy being engaged with your students throughout the semester.


Sara Wilensky, JD, PhD, (co-author ofEssentials of Health Policy and Law, Third Edition)
 
Sara Wilensky is Special Services Faculty for Undergraduate Education in the Department of Health Policy and Management at the Milken Institute School of Public Health at the George Washington University. She is also the Director of the Undergraduate Program in Public Health.  As both a teacher and a researcher, Dr. Wilensky concentrates on the financing, access and health care needs of the medically underserved, including low-income and uninsured individuals, farmworkers and patients with HIV and AIDS. She is the co-author of Essentials of Health Policy and Law from the Jones & Bartlett Learning Essential Public Health series.

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4 Strategies to Engage College Students All Semester

by  Sara Wilensky     Jun 1, 2022
wilenskyblog_classroom_exercises

I find the first day of class as exciting as a professor as I did as a student. I have the students’ attention (most, anyway) and they are open-minded and ready to learn a new subject. It does not take long, however, for the excitement to wane, the laptops to proliferate, and the empty stares to return. In order to keep the “first day of class” excitement throughout the semester, I try to incorporate various types of exercises and group activities in class.

When discussing class exercises with fellow professors, I am often met with resistance because professors feel they have to sacrifice too much time they need to spend on conveying content. To this, I have a few responses. One, if you are conveying content in a way that students are not absorbing, it does not really matter how much time you spend on it. 

Two, while content often changes, skills are something students can take with them in future courses and employment experiences. Three, you can use exercises to explain content. While it may take more time than simply lecturing, I find the payoff in improved retention of information and skill-building is more than worth it. 

When considering whether and what type of class exercise to include, the first step is to decide the purpose of the exercise.  Common purposes include: gaining students’ attention at the beginning of class, incorporating a change of pace during class, explaining content, using critical analysis skills, and improving writing skills.

1.) Set the Mood/Attention Grabbers

As students often arrive from a prior class or a work commitment, their focus is likely to be on other issues. Attention Grabber exercises help them become present at the beginning of class and reorient their focus to your lecture/discussion topic during class. There are various ways to incorporate Attention Grabber exercises.

  • Introduce a quick oral or written discussion question that everyone can answer.

    • Example: When covering health insurance, I ask the class for any personal experiences they have had using health insurance. I use their stories to start talking about the details we will cover in class (deductibles, coverage limits, etc.).

  • Provide the class with a theme or overarching question and have them respond in writing. Use their responses to stimulate class discussion.

    • Example: When covering policymaking, I have them read an article about a 50 state survey regarding health care views and write down one surprising fact from the article. We discuss why they find a particular fact surprising and use those points to provide context for the policymaking discussion.

  • Give students an ungraded quiz, with or without answers.

    • Example: When discussing the uninsured, I provide students with a paper copy of a quiz published by the Kaiser Family Foundation I do not provide the answers but we go over the questions and answers as they come up during the lecture/discussion portion of the class.

2.) Explain Content

Exercises can be used along with or in place of lecturing as a way to convey content to students.

  • Example: In my first class of the semester, I start by having students guess the size of the federal budget (they usually have no idea) and the areas that the federal government funds. The students break into small groups and make an educated guess about how the federal government spends its money and then they research together to find the actual answer.   The discussion that follows focuses on what they are surprised about in the federal budget, differences between state and federal spending, and how they conduct their research.
  • Example: When discussing the Affordable Care Act (ACA), the students break into small groups and make a short presentation on a specific area of the ACA (e.g., the individual mandate, Essential Health Benefits, state exchanges). As they make their presentation, I jump in with questions, comments, and clarifications to make sure all of the information I want conveying is covered.

3.) Critical Analysis

I find my students’ greatest struggle is understanding viewpoints that are not their own. To improve this skill, I often incorporate stakeholder exercises. These exercises can be designed in multiple ways.

  • All in-class exercises. I provide a fact pattern and a list of stakeholders to the class. I divide the class into groups and have them research their stakeholders in class.  They must identify 1) the tools available to their stakeholder to make policy changes, 2) the key message their stakeholder would like to convey, and 3) whether the stakeholder has taken any action on the issue at hand. Each group presents its findings for class discussion.
    • As an example, I provided my students with a background regarding the large price increase for Epi-pens produced by Mylan pharmaceuticals. The stakeholder list included: Mylan, ranking members of the House Oversight Committee, ranking members of the Senate Judiciary committee, advocacy groups such as the Asthma and Allergy Foundation and AllergyKids Foundation, Pharma, and a presidential candidate.
  • Take-home/in-class exercise. I provide background information on a topic in class. I split the class into groups and assign stakeholders. Their homework assignment is to individually research their stakeholder’s position on the issue.  At the beginning of the next class I give the groups time to consult about their research and develop a group 2-minute elevator speech that includes 1) the group’s policy position/proposal and 2) key evidence and arguments to support their position/proposal. One member per group presents the group’s elevator speech and the class discusses the strengths and weaknesses of the speech.
    • Example: I provided my class with general background about ACA state exchanges and gave them the policy question of how to improve the exchanges. I split them into stakeholder groups, such as insurance companies, states, consumers, providers, non-user taxpayers, and presidential candidates

4.) Writing Skills

Learning to write well, formally, clearly, and concisely are skills that are useful in all disciplines.  Revision is the key to improving writing.  As professionals, we would never submit a first draft of any kind of document, yet we design our assignments to encourage such behavior.  While the highly motivated student may finish an assignment well before the due date and ask friends to review a document, many students write up until the due date (no matter how much lead time we give them) and then hand in their assignment.  Most professors grade and comment on an assignment and return it, hoping students will apply their comments to the next assignment (which may or may not have similar requirements).

In order to provide clear opportunities to improve writing, I prefer to use short written assignments with revisions.  The revisions force students to think about their professors’ comments and apply them to the next draft.

While a variety of short assignments may work well, I like to use editorials. Most students are familiar with the editorial format, they are designed to be short pieces, (usually 500-700 words), students are forced to focus on key points and identify the most persuasive arguments, and they cover various points of view. I find it useful to explain exactly what is expected in an editorial.  There are many resources available online, but I like a short video produced by the New York Times.  

For example, I have had my students write an editorial about whether states should expand Medicaid under the ACA. Students are then given a role – write in support of Medicaid expansion or against Medicaid expansion.  Professors can provide students with general background on the ACA, Medicaid, and Medicaid expansion in class or have students do research on their own. Here are a few ways this assignment can play out:

  • Variation 1: Students write a short editorial. The professor comments on the first draft but does not grade it. The student revises the editorial for a final grade.
  • Variation 2: Professors grade both drafts of the editorial.
  • Variation 3:  Professors may allow students to keep revising the editorial until it is an A paper.
  • Variation 4: Students exchange editorials with a few classmates and provide a peer review of each other’s submissions.  Professors should identify specific questions for students to address in the peer review. For example, for an editorial, peer review questions could include:
    • Is there a catchy and informative title?
    • Is there a strong introduction?
    • Is the author’s position clear at the beginning of the editorial?
    • Does the author use evidence and persuasive arguments to support his or her position?
    • Does the author address counterarguments?
    • Is the writing clear and concise?

After receiving peer comments, students have additional time to revise the editorial before handing it in to the professor for a grade

While there are many more exercises and group activities that could be included here, I hope you found these useful. Go forth and stop lecturing. Avoid teaching to the backs of laptops and enjoy being engaged with your students throughout the semester.


Sara Wilensky, JD, PhD, (co-author ofEssentials of Health Policy and Law, Third Edition)
 
Sara Wilensky is Special Services Faculty for Undergraduate Education in the Department of Health Policy and Management at the Milken Institute School of Public Health at the George Washington University. She is also the Director of the Undergraduate Program in Public Health.  As both a teacher and a researcher, Dr. Wilensky concentrates on the financing, access and health care needs of the medically underserved, including low-income and uninsured individuals, farmworkers and patients with HIV and AIDS. She is the co-author of Essentials of Health Policy and Law from the Jones & Bartlett Learning Essential Public Health series.

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