Let sleeping students lie?: Using interpersonal activities to engage disengaged students

Michelle M. Merwin

Frequently students become disengaged from the material and their teachers. How can disengaged students become more engaged with the material and their professor? What do students mean when they say that they want their professors to care about them? By use of example, the author examines the importance of fostering interpersonal relationships to engage disengaged students. The author presents examples that show how interpersonal relations can be fostered in the classroom via informal writing, interpersonal demonstrations, and the use of empathy and humor. Further the importance of teacher self-exploration and the role of leadership in fostering interpersonal relationships with students is examined.


This is my first year of teaching. Recalling experiences and lessons learned is like thumbing through the pages of a yearbook. Yet behind each yearbook picture there is a story. I see disruptive students, sleeping students, unfocused, distracted students — students who are disengaged. I have the urge to scream at the sea of impassive faces, “please care about something!” Okay, I am exaggerating — only a small portion of my students behave like this, but it’s the five of 65 that haunt me. Too often, disruption feels more welcome to me than the expressions of impassivity and boredom. Yet disruption and impassivity stem from the same source: disengagement. I wonder about ways to engage the students, ways to make them care about the material as much as I do. In managing the classroom, I focus on the students and their needs. I look for answers. Three pictures convey what I see, each event bringing my perceptions into sharper focus.

There is a snapshot of an old campus sassafras tree. Because of its aged and forlorn state, the maintenance department decides that the old tree needs to be cut down. For safety’s sake, they announce the tree’s demise over campus e-mail. The cutting of the old sassafras causes quite a commotion among the faculty, especially senior members. I wonder why people are so attached to this old tree — indeed, to me, it is a bit of an eyesore. I learn that this tree is loved not for its present appearance, but for what it symbolizes. In its younger years, it had been beautiful, distinctive even. Moreover, a beloved former chancellor enjoyed the tree’s uniqueness so much that he had imprinted a silhouette of the tree on his stationery. On this sleepy campus, the battle raging via faculty e-mail is enticing. Poems are written. Views are forcefully expressed. What do the students have to say about the old sassafras tree? One student tells me: “I wish that the faculty would care that much about us.”

The next picture is of a devastating car accident. Nine of our university’s baseball players and the head coach are in a severe auto accident. A semi-truck hit the van that carried the ten men. All survive, but two face a long recuperation from critical injuries. As I watch the local news to learn about the accident, the reporters interview students, specifically asking them to talk about the coach. What do the students say? They say things like, “Coach cares more about the person than the player. He is concerned about how the person is, not only how well he performs.” “Coach always takes the time to talk to his students.” “He’s a great teacher who cares about his students.”

Clearly, caring is important to students. But what does caring mean? What do students need? I am paid to teach psychology, not to care for them. I am paid to be their teacher, not their mother.

The third picture shows me sitting at my desk reading the campus newspaper. I read the satirical column that poses questions to students and prints humorous, outrageous responses. Recently, they published student answers to the question, “How do you feel the faculty treats you as a student?” Some students respond:

“Like we are invisible.”

“Some of them are really willing to help you; then there’s my English teacher.”

“Some of the staff are sour on the world.”

“I can’t really pinpoint it, some treat you good and some treat you like crap.”

“Ouch.” I grimace. I know that when asked to, students will speak bluntly. I also recognize that it’s cool to be negative and generally, the wilder the comments, the better. Although I know dozens of professors who genuinely care about their students, the comments speak to me. After reading them, I can no longer resist asking my students what they want or need from faculty. So I ask them, “How can the faculty show students that they care?” Here are some of their responses:

Don’t blow off complaints and suggestions.

Learn our names.

Encourage instead of discourage.

Develop some type of personal relationship with us.

Avoid composing tests that look like they want us to fail.

Treat us as individuals.

Be willing to meet with students.

Send us letters of encouragement for hard work.

Be understanding.

Talk to students before and after class.

Take a personal interest in me when I don’t do well on an exam and try to help me do better.

Be available.

Just show an interest in students and be aware of their feelings.

Show an interest in our lives.

Care whether we pass or fail.

Acknowledge me when you see me outside of class.

Know little things about me — like my major, my hometown or whether I’m an athlete.

In other words, see me; see all of me. From these comments, I start remembering what it was like to feel “invisible” and not to have my opinion matter. I start asking myself questions. Can I remember what it was like to be 187 Can I remember how stressful it is to have three exams on the same day or in the same week? Can I remember what it feels like to be “just a student” – taking from society rather than contributing? Can I remember what it is like to be at the mercy of a financial aid officer? Can I remember how intimidating my professors seemed to be? Certainly my perception of what students want and need becomes more clearly focused when I use the close-up lens — empathy.

Psychoanalysts use the term “part-object” to refer to a preoccupation with a certain aspect of a person, rather than the entire person (St. Clair, 2000). Often, I see students as part-objects, highlighting specific aspects while diminishing others. I view students through a fish-eye lens, enlarging and distorting some features,. while minimizing others. I see them in specific roles — the role of “student,” the role of “learner.” Often my focus rests on how smart the student is or how well she performs on tests. In reality, what is seen is only how motivated the student is — how willing she is to prepare for exams. My students’ responses, however, indicate that they want to be seen as whole people, not part-objects.

Yet, I teach large classes each semester. The 18-year-olds I teach have the same needs they had in high school, yet are tossed into a large, often frightening environment where it is easy to get lost. For example, in one class of 65 students, I have four valedictorians. Three months ago each valedictorian stood alone at the top of her class, but now finds that she is one of many. How can I have a caring relationship with each “entire” or “whole” student when there are 195 of them? Moreover, will connecting with students curb disruptive behavior?

I propose that one explanation of disengagement is that students are experienced as part-objects. Part of the solution lies in respecting the whole person and engaging students in high-level classroom participation. In an effort to curb disengagement I strive to see students within a larger framework. I try to know them better through informal writing and personal contact. I use interpersonal demonstrations, empathy and humor to heighten participation and alleviate anonymity. Lastly, I try to better understand myself as teacher, leader, and manager.

Engaging Students Through Informal Writing

Student writing in and out of the classroom widens my view of students. I use writing as a tool to experience my students more entirely. I begin a dialogue by generating questions orally to all students. The students continue the dialogue with me in writing. When they respond to my prompts, they become visible. Writing activities more fully engage students and result in high- level participation.

While reading the local paper, I note that one of my students received a university honor. I make a point of remembering to say something to him next class period. Later, I wonder how I could note success and accomplishments about other students. I decide that the quickest and most efficient route is to ask them to tell me about their successes. I ask them to write out two activities they are involved with and two things that they are proud of. My classes are filled with amazing people — 21-year-old moms who have gone back to school, valedictorians, and a marksman on an NCAA-ranked rifle team. I am impressed with what I see. Like the effect of a polarizing filter on a camera lens, the image of my students is sharp and vivid. I look at each student differently, many with a new-found respect. It helps me to get a glimpse of their lives and to generate examples that are relevant to them.

As I teach each semester, I look for interesting questions to ask my students — questions that keep me in touch with a new generation and help me understand them. In a sense, I have become a collector of questions. Whenever I spot an interesting, engaging or stimulating question, I write it down. Here is a sampling:

What’s the toughest part of student life?

Who is the person you admire most and why?

What are you going to be doing 10 years from now?

If you could use one word to describe yourself, what would it be?

What’s your favorite song to sing in the shower?

What – in your mind – makes a person cool?

What are your favorite words of wisdom?

In addition to brief writing exercises that can be done in the classroom, students can also write journal entries or brief essays about themselves. Students can describe their experiences, their goals for my class, the year, the university, and their lives. Many subjects other than psychology are relevant to the personal, interpersonal and academic lives of students. Relating information to our lives improves learning and retention. Assigning short essays about material discussed in class connects students to the material making it meaningful and memorable. Moreover, the personal relevance of their disclosure strengthens their engagement with the topic and with me. For example, I ask students to write a short essay describing a personal “flashbulb” memory. This is a memory of an event that is vividly recalled, usually an emotionally charged event, e.g., memory for what you were doing when you heard about the shuttle “Challenger” explosion. The students are also asked to respond to specific questions about flashbulb memories. Not only does this exercise help the student connect to the material, it also fosters the interpersonal relationship between student and teacher. Their honesty and the depth of their responses strike me; there is nothing shallow in their responses. A student writes about the moment he was told that his grandfather had died. Another writes about her memory of a severe automobile accident she had been in. These students are engaged in the topic. These snapshots of individual students are not revealed via multiple-choice tests.

Communicating Engagement Through Interpersonal Demonstrations

Picture this: One student sits front and center with an expression that communicates, “You bore me, lady. Entertain me if you can.” Perhaps you are familiar with the same impassive expression. At first I find the blank gaze unnerving. I realize, though, that anything short of MTV might elicit a similarly detached expression and try not to take it personally. I wonder whether the student is even aware of how she comes across. I speak to one of my colleagues about the vacant stare and he mentions a professor who teaches the importance of”faking paying attention” — a life skill that some students lack. I use this idea while introducing the large, rather ominous chapter on the brain by demonstrating the mind-body connection. I ask the class to think sad thoughts and make note of their body posture. The entire class visibly slumps and the students readily observe the downward cast of their shoulders, head, face and eyes. Next, I ask the students to stand up, marching three steps forward while posturing and strutting as if they feel “unbeatable.” I ask whether they believe they can sustain depressing thoughts while maintaining this pose and all uniformly say “no.”

After the students sit down, I pull up a chair, sit front and center and stare blankly at them. I ask them to describe what I look like and more importantly, how receptive I appear to be. They readily acknowledge that I appear to be receptive to very little. Next, the students discuss the benefits of faking attentiveness and how attention is communicated through body language. Whether it occurs during a lengthy business meeting, in conversation with a spouse about sports or listening to an 11-year-old’s “Pokemon” speak, our attention may wane on occasion. Faking attentiveness is a useful life skill. Moreover, we are more receptive and open to the speaker when we are at least trying to pay attention. The students also discuss other ways to pique attentiveness (e.g., sitting up, taking notes) when the person or the material is not as stimulating as one would hope. This interpersonal activity engages students by increasing participation and interest. In addition, it teaches an important life skill and communicates appropriate classroom behavior through course content.

Engaging Students Through Empathy and Humor

I refer to the student who inspired this paper as the “sleeper.” The sleeper performs well enough on exams, but seems unable to maintain consciousness. It irritates me. At times it offends me. I talk to him about it after class and he seems sincere in his apology. Nonetheless, he continues to sleep. He is disengaged. Can he be drawn into the class? When lecturing on the brain, I bring in some plexi-glass mounted brain samples and pass them around for closer inspection. The students are curious about the donor. They ask what I know about the person. Is it a man or a woman? How old was the donor? How did the donor die? I reply, “this brain came from a student who slept in my class last semester.” The “sleeper” was the inspiration for my motto “vertical students can’t sleep.” Any time I had a handout, an assignment to return or demonstration that I needed help with, I asked the “sleeper” to help. He became my personal assistant for the semester. His sleeping showed me that he was physically disengaged and I physically engaged him in class activities — after all, vertical students can’t sleep.

When using humor in the classroom, I remind myself to be respectful of the student. Each student has a different level of sensitivity. What seems funny to me or even another student may not be funny to that student. Some thrive on the attention others are embarrassed and do not like being put on the spot. Still others feel picked on and disengage from the class, from me. My intent is to engage, not to denigrate. So I watch and learn and try to be sensitive to the student’s reaction.

Picture this: Streaming sunlight brightens the entire room. The sweet smell of blossoming trees drifts through open windows. Students are sporting shorts, tank tops and sandals. Spring has arrived. It is such a beautiful day that even I want to cut class. I ask the students to respond to the roll by saying, “I’m glad to be here.” We all chuckle at the humorous, sarcastic responses made by some. We are able to acknowledge the discipline it took to come to class and the students are indirectly able to voice their desire to be elsewhere. Some days I ask that they just say “good morning.” What surprises me most is how good it feels to hear 65 people tell me “good morning” — one right after the other. Hearing it and saying it both feel good.

Exploring Interpersonal Relations With Students Through Self-exploration

Five minutes before class starts, I rush to make the final changes on my lecture. In a hurry I unplug the computer, grab my teaching tools, rush down the hall, plug the computer in, click on the icon and begin to lecture. Often my harried experiences parallel those of my students. In fact, each semester there is a point where the whole campus feels like it’s going to burst wide open. I have never experienced such collective tension like this before. The students are on edge. I see it in their faces. I hear it in their voices. It is a mixture of anxiety, fatigue, stress and frustration. As I walk into a lecture hall the communal stress is almost palpable. I recognize that my mood, tone and word choice impact this “collective edge.” I am reminded by the “collective edge” that how I feel and behave when I present is often as important as what I present. Being attuned to the classroom atmosphere is an important teaching tool. Being attuned to myself heightens this awareness. I recognize that I need 15 minutes of quiet and calm before I head down the hallway. I need to collect myself first, then my belongings, before I stroll to class. The tone for my class is set even before I walk into the lecture hall. Setting the tone begins with me.

Parker Palmer’s (1998) book “The Courage to Teach” heightens my desire to understand teaching from an interpersonal perspective. Some days instead of “bad hair days” I have “bad teaching days” — fortunately I rarely experience both on the same day. I aim to be consistent, but recognize that some days are better than others. Journal writing helps me explore and track which activities do and do not work. Writing about class activities helps me understand why some succeed while others fail and what to do differently in future classes. Moreover, journal writing helps me generate and develop ideas to incorporate in future classes.

As my mother and I sit on the front porch, we talk about teaching. We joke about how difficult it can be to get faculty to agree upon any single topic. She remarks, “I think I know why it’s so hard – teachers are leaders.” This single statement changes the way I see my role in teaching. Indeed, in my journal I often write about leadership issues: increasing motivation and learning, improving assessment and performance, persuading hundreds of individuals to do things my way, developing and fostering an optimal learning environment. Leading people takes effort — conscious effort. Writing and thinking about teaching develops my leadership abilities; writing and thinking about leadership enhances my teaching.

As I turn the last page of the yearbook, the final picture is one of a still and quiet campus. The cafeteria is closed and vacant. The parking lots are empty. A lone, empty-handed student strolls the sidewalks — no books, no backpack, not even a pencil. For me, thumbing through a year of experiences has accomplished what most yearbooks do — highlighting significant events, observing growth and change, respecting the past — all the while keeping one eye on the future. This yearbook reminds me what matters most — people.


Palmer, P. J. (1998). The courage to teach, San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers.

St. Clair, M. (2000). Object relations and self psychology: An introduction (3rd ed.). Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.

Author Note

University of Tennessee at Martin Development and Research Grant Fund provided financial support for this article.

A version of this article was presented at the Fourteenth Annual Conference on Undergraduate Teaching of Psychology, Ellenville, NY.

Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Michelle Merwin, Department of Psychology, University of Tennessee at Martin, Martin, TN 38238. Electronic mail may be sent to mmerwin@utm.edu.


University of Tennessee at Martin

COPYRIGHT 2002 Project Innovation (Alabama)

COPYRIGHT 2002 Gale Group

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