Students aren’t coming to class, but simply putting courses online isn’t the answer. We need to give students a reason to come to class.

As a student, I remember the outdated practicals that I went to three times a week. Each taught a fundamental concept in physics, chemistry, or biology, but I can’t recall any of the lessons I was supposed to learn. That’s because each time I attended a three hour practical, my goal was to complete the recipe found in my lab manual as quickly as possible so I could return to enjoying my life outside of class.

This is what learning was to me for the majority of my undergraduate degree. This is likely how numerous students felt before me, and it’s how I see that students feel today.

I hear researchers discuss the general malaise that students exhibit and the fact that class sizes are shrinking. We lament the fact that students aren’t grasping the concepts we’re teaching and that students look bored. “I paid attention and loved those classes!” we state, “Why can’t students see what’s so interesting in what we do?”

But can we blame them? Although our education system has barely changed, the world around us has experienced technological marvels in every way imagined. I was bored in practicals and the internet was only a gleam in Al Gore’s eye. Now, our students experience a hurricane of information and entertainment as they carry powerful computers in their pockets. How can we expect them to pay attention in a classroom where the biggest technological innovation in the last two decades is PowerPoint.

What changed my world

I experienced a change in my attitude and perspective in my third year of university when I signed up for a course on animal behaviour. I found the material fascinating and I couldn’t believe that people had jobs designing experiments to dissect the behaviour we discussed in class.

Everything changed for me in that moment; but when I look back, I couldn’t have predicted it. Even in my third year, I never contemplated the possibility of being a university lecturer. The way I see it, I was in the right place at the right time, and had the right lecturer that taught me the right material, and most importantly, I was open to it.

What universities are missing are those moments. With all the focus on metrics and technology, and all the concern about graduating students and preparing them for an uncertain future, we’re forgetting to teach them the most important thing: the awe and wonder of the world around us.

What we need to do is increase the likelihood that students are in the right place at the right time. This is difficult, but not impossible and I think we can start by making three major changes.

1. Get students back into the class

University attendance is dismal, and the response from universities is to put everything online so busy students have easier access to information. But we all know that students aren’t using online material because we can see the webpage visits don’t equal the number of students missing.

No matter how busy their lives are, our students find time for the things they love. What we need to do is make coming to our classes one of those things. We can start giving our students a reason to come back to class by changing how we teach.

Our lectures often focus on building a foundation of knowledge so that we can build a stronger understanding of concepts. As a result, we spend several lectures on some of the most boring aspects of our field of study, and by this time, we’ve lost most of our students. But we’re not building houses or apartments, so there’s no reason to focus on a foundation. What we are building is a sense of wonder, the ability to see the current problems within the field of study, and a desire to want to know more.

As good science outreach demonstrates, you can explain complex topics using analogies so focusing on foundations is unnecessary early on. Once students are drawn into the topic, then we can delve into the minutia to allow them to improve their understanding. We already love our subjects, what we need to show them is why we love them as much as we do.

2. Shorten Practicals

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Practicals in the sciences are largely a waste of time. If something can’t be taught in an hour, are two more really going to help? We’re mentally exhausting our students by teaching them a single concept in a three hour practical. Wouldn’t it be better if we provided students with a teaser and left them wanting more? Then they’d have a reason to come to the next class!

Practicals should be straightforward with a twist that forces students to make mistakes, and then provides them with immediate feedback to test hypotheses and work out the problems. Practicals should work perfectly every time.

This is where technology comes in. Augmented reality, for example, is a perfect mix of real-time simulation where students are handling and interacting with “real” animals. In a recent survey, after students at LaTrobe used Reservoir Crabs to learn about experimental design, 22 of 23 students preferred the augmented reality crabs for ethical reasons, ease of use, and because they could concentrate on experimental design. More than 75% of students preferred this augmented reality practical to a traditional one.

3. Start engaging students

Engage students in the way they, not you, are most comfortable with. This is the toughest change to make because it requires us to put in more effort and learn about how they interact. Ask students which apps they’re using, how they prefer to communicate, and how you can make their life easier. Usually that results in making your life easier because it simplifies interactions.

Students are moving away from email, and we should start doing so as well. I’ve had a lot of success interacting with my class through Slack this year. It’s cut down on my email time dramatically, and when I answer one student, all of the students see the response. There’s no need for them to go to forums, it just appears on their phone. If there is a last minute change, I know the students will see it as it sends push notifications. Additionally, if I need to message one student specifically, I can do that privately as well.

It’s time to change, or we’ll start being irrelevant

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Our students are disinterested with our current education system as their lives are more exciting than any class or practical at a university. Students won’t come to class if the information we’re providing is easily searchable online by using the computer in their pocket.

The changes I’ve outlined above are just some of the changes that I’m trying make through Arludo. Arludo is one grand experiment to see if we can make education more interactive and interesting, and whether this leads to students that are more engaged and willing to put in effort. At the same time, it’s an experiment to help lecturers improve their teaching by providing them with an opportunity to understand how their students are thinking.

I’ll keep updating this blog with data as the experiment continues. Stay tuned!