Guest Contributor Bridgett McGowen-Hawkins, Senior Consultant, Cengage Learning TeamUP Faculty Programs.

Allow me to let you in on a secret that I wish someone had shared with me during my freshman year at the front of the classroom and behind the lectern: Students are not automatically captive audiences.


Yes, it’s the heart-breaking truth.

A student will not show up every Tuesday and Thursday to room 104 in Anderson Hall at 11 a.m. simply because a printout from an academic advisor indicates he should. It’s going to take a bit more.

Persistence does not just happen, and in all honesty, depending upon the relationships and cultures instructors establish in their classrooms, students will do a number of things—act up or act right, tune in or zone out, stop by or drop out.

Consider these four tips for connecting with students in a way that makes them want to return to class time and time again and persist to graduation day; you’ll find it takes a lot less whip-cracking than you may have initially thought!

1. WWYD?: Article after article encourages instructors to connect course concepts to the real world for students or to have the students identify how they might use the course concept in their future careers. The former can become tedious for the instructor and the latter, boring or pointless to the student. Instead, for as many topics as possible, consider how you would use or have used the concept in your personal, academic, or professional life. For example, were you able to forge a great relationship with a client because you learned about personality types in your psychology class and connected with him because of his interest in the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, or did you experience the embarrassment of having someone correct your grammar while you delivered a speech at a conference? These examples will resonate with students.

A word of caution: Guard against having a personal, real-life example for every piece of content—unless you’re just that amazing!—because to do so may appear inauthentic to students. When you reveal what you would do or have done with the course content, then it gives students a perspective that this isn’t just some class they have to take, but they might just learn something they can really take and use, it might just be worth attending!

2. Examine expert expectations: While the instructor is likely considered an expert in her field and can be quite insistent–consciously or otherwise–on students learning all there is to know (and then some!), for instructors to act in a manner that students should become experts, too, is rather unfair. A student ultimately takes dozens of classes in the course of earning an undergraduate degree; to expect them to become authorities on each class may be unrealistic and, in some instances, downright overwhelming, causing a fight or flight response in students. (Remember… act up or act right, tune in or zone out, stop by or drop out.)

This is not to suggest instructors should lower expectations. Instead, encourage students to make sense of themselves, the course content, and the world around them; fully understand and be able to perform consequential tasks and procedures; and know how to meaningfully express themselves to others while using the language of respective disciplines. Instructors will be experts; they have degrees in a discipline and have had weeks, months, years, and sometimes decades to devote to that one course and/or discipline. Students, on the other hand, find themselves enrolled in more than one, more than two, and oftentimes more than three courses in one term without years to devote to any one course. What will matter to students is how much they actually learn, not how much instructors can cover.

3. Test before test day: Find out what they know prior to the end-of-chapter tests or mid-term exams. Before they put pen to blue book or pencil to Scantron, conduct non-graded formative assessments or use classroom assessment techniques (CATs) to gauge how much students already know about a topic or how well students understand what you cover in class each day. CATs can be used at the start, in the middle, and at the end of a class session, and when you constantly check for student understanding and make adjustments in your teaching or encourage students to make adjustments to their studying based on how they respond to the formative assessments, then it shows students you’re just as interested in what they learn as you are in how effectively they learn. (Psst! And increasing the use of formative assessments in the classroom might increase students’ expert quotient!)

4. Learn what they want to learn: Students learn little from following directions, but much more from making decisions. Allow them to take ownership of their education and feel empowered by finding out from them what they want to learn or what topics are of greatest importance to them in the course. Involve them in conversations about their education, so they do not see school as something happening to them and out of their control, but rather they see school as something they’re driving and managing.

Our students are new on the job. While they may have been schoolboys and schoolgirls for several years starting with their days of kindergarten, being college students is a new journey for them. If you genuinely want to make the journey one they want to complete—one where they feel supported, stay on the path, and persist—then you show students that you expect them to succeed and then you create conditions in which they actually can. Do not lower the bar or water down anything; still push them, but let them know that as you push, you’re pulling for them, too.

Bridgett McGowen-Hawkins is a Senior Consultant with Cengage Learning’s TeamUP Faculty Programs and teaches for the Associate’s Program at the University of Phoenix. See some of Bridgett’s other projects at

Do you have any suggestions for helping learners become more persistent in their course of study? Do you have a “success story” you’d like to share with us? Post a comment below.