Book Review: Elizabeth F. Barkley, Student Engagement Techniques: A Handbook for College Faculty

By Paula J. Bishop

Student Engagement Techniques

Both theoretical and practical, Student Engagement Techniques: A Handbook for College Faculty by Elizabeth F. Barkley (Jossey-Bass, 2010) has become an important resource for me when I am looking for ways to enliven the classroom experience and draw students into the learning process. The techniques, strategies, and learning activities for promoting student engagement are the result of Barkley’s own experience and interviews she conducted with other college educators from a variety of disciplines and institutions. Barkley grounds this  anecdotal and experiential information gleaned from fellow educators in the current literature regarding student engagement and underscores specific connections between the research and her advice.

Barkley divides the book into three parts. She first presents a synergistic model of student engagement that combines motivation and active learning and takes into account other factors that affect student engagement including the sense of community, appropriate levels of challenge, and holistic learning opportunities. A set of tips and strategies to promote student engagement drawn from the literature on best-practices in the college classroom follows. These suggestions, which align with five categories based on her conceptual framework, focus on fostering motivation, promoting active learning, building community, ensuring students are appropriately challenged, and advocating holistic learning. While her tips are rather general in nature, Barkley references and briefly summarizes the relevant literature. For instance, after suggesting that one “offer options for nonlinear learning,” she notes the work of Susan El-Shamy (How to Design and Deliver Training for the New and Emerging Generations, Pfeiffer, 2004), who suggests that teachers allow learners to choose their own path toward the desired endpoint.

The final section offers fifty Student Engagement Techniques (SETs) in the areas of knowledge, skills, recall, and understanding; analysis and critical thinking; synthesis and creative thinking; problem solving; application and performance; attitudes and values; self-awareness as learners; and learning and study skills. Each SET identifies the essential characteristics of the exercise: individual vs. collaborative; activity focus (writing, reading, discussion, problem solving, analyzing, note-taking, etc.); duration of activity; and online transferability. Along with a description and step-by-step instructions, Barkley includes examples from a variety of disciplines, online implementation strategies, observations and advice, and a list of relevant literature.

Student Engagement Techniques is a teaching resource that, like John Bean’s Engaging Ideas: The Professor’s Guide to Integrating Writing, Critical Thinking, and Active Learning in the Classroom (Jossey-Bass, 2011), I find myself returning to often during my course preparation. The ideas presented are rooted in research, yet communicated in a personal and relatable tone. She understands that educators come from different backgrounds and institutions, are at different stages in our teaching careers, and have different goals. Not insignificantly for the AMS Pedagogy Study Group, Barkley is also a musicologist and the author of the textbook Crossroads: The Multicultural Roots of America’s Popular Music (Routledge, 2006). Consequently, she sprinkles the text with anecdotes and examples from music courses, something I have not seen in other pedagogical books. Barkley’s book can be read from cover to cover, or referenced like an idea book.

“Imagine a college student”

By Esther M. Morgan-Ellis, University of North Georgia

Note: This activity was mentioned by Kunio Hara during his presentation “Ways of Addressing Diversity in the Music History Classroom” at the 2018 Teaching Music History Conference. I’ve written it up here for anyone interested.

I conduct this activity with my Music History II class right before we encounter the music of Chopin. On the one hand, my purpose is narrow: I want to introduce the concept of “marked” vs. “unmarked” states before embarking on a discussion of identity in 19th-century music, with Chopin—whose music is variously marked as Polish, nostalgic, exotic, sorrowful, and sick—pitted against the unmarked German composers who control the narrative. At the same time, this activity has obvious ramifications beyond the topic at hand, and it might be applied in a variety of contexts.

Here are my verbal instructions:

Close your eyes and imagine a college student. Please picture this student in as much detail as possible.

So, what does a college student look like?

Is the student a boy or a girl? What ethnicity is the student? How old is the student? What kind of clothes? What kind of bag? Hair color? Hair style? Glasses? Etc.

I make a list of attributes on the board until a picture of a College Student emerges.

I’ve been doing this exercise for a number of years, and I am fascinated by the extreme regularity of the outcome. The student is always a boy (even though most of my students are women). The student is always about 19 (even though we have a large non-traditional population). The student is always in civvies (even when pictured by cadets in uniform). The student is always white. He wears khakis and a polo shirt, carries a backpack, has short blond hair, no beard, and no glasses.

Then we look around the room and try to find a College Student. There usually isn’t one present.

I explain that we have constructed a picture of an unmarked college student: an individual who doesn’t deviate from socially-constructed expectations in any way. We then list some of the attributes that might mark a college student. I usually find one or more students to pick on (those whom I know won’t be offended). If we have a cadet in the class, for example, I talk about how that individual’s appearance might mark them in different ways for different audiences. We might assume that the student in question is particularly patriotic, or disciplined, or fit. Whatever the case, they’re not quite. . . “normal.” They’re marked.

The class is immediately able to understand that the unmarked college student is fictitious. He, like all other students, has defining attributes—they are simply taken for granted instead of commented upon. They become invisible. But my students know that they are each fully “college students,” even if they don’t match the picture conjured up on the board. Our construct becomes absurd.

Then I use these terms to discuss 19th-century historiography and to position the composers we have been discussing and will discuss at various distances from the unmarked (German) musical ideal—but I always hope that my student take more away from the activity than two new vocabulary words.