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RIT Ready: Moving Forward Into Fall
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Blog » Student Engagement and the Problem of Expertise

Rebecca Johnson and Jeremiah Parry-Hill—Expertise is a double-edged sword. Teachers can forget how long it takes to become an expert. Learners often can’t see that they’re novices.(Kruger and Dunning 1999) Experts can’t remember what it’s like to be a novice. Novices don’t believe they need help. How can the skillful teacher navigate this pair of ill-fated misconceptions?

You Are Not Your Students

One way to begin to identify those areas of unconscious expertise is to remember that as an instructor, you are not your students. Students are here to take classes, graduate, and then leave and get a job somewhere else. By contrast, you liked school and your discipline so much that you’re still in class every day. Consequently, the way students approach the material in your discipline will be grounded in a different set of motivations.

It’s worth remembering, too, that your expertise extends beyond your specific discipline to knowing how to navigate within academia. Some of that knowledge can be critical for student success, but which knowledge is needed, when, and how is it best taught? How do you remember what your academic life was like before you were an expert?

In a recent presentation for faculty new to RIT, we asked them to think back to their own undergraduate careers, particularly about bad experiences in classes outside of their discipline. Their summary of those experiences follows.

  1. Their instructors weren’t inspiring.
  2. Instructors didn’t seem to care that they weren’t inspiring.
  3. Learning objectives weren’t apparent or disclosed to students.
  4. Students didn’t know what was expected of them.
  5. The course felt too easy, or too “watered down.”
  6. When instructors provided feedback, it was unhelpful.
  7. Large-enrollment classes were allowed to be their worst possible versions.
  8. Instructors used disciplinary vocabulary as though students already knew it.
  9. Shy students were allowed to withdraw from class interaction.
  10. Instructors didn’t know how to keep students from monopolizing discussion.

How do you avoid the very behaviors that marked your own frustrating experiences as a student? Knowing a little about student motivation can help.

Student Motivation

It’s tempting to think that trendy techniques or new technology will save us. Students won’t be engaged solely by the use of new teaching strategies or tools. The formula for student engagement is simple: if they perceive that the course content has value to them (that the course is likely to help them reach their goals) and if they believe that success is possible in the course, they are more likely to devote more of their attention and time to the course.

How can we establish that the course has value? In How Learning Works: Seven Research-Based Principles for Smart Teaching (Ambrose et al. 2010), Susan Ambrose and her coauthors advise that we

  • Connect the material to students’ interests
  • Provide authentic, real-world tasks
  • Show relevance to students’ current academic lives and demonstrate the relevance of higher-level skills to students’ future professional lives
  • Show your own passion and enthusiasm for the discipline

They also provide suggestions for how we can help students believe that they can be successful.

  • Be fair.
  • Articulate your expectations.
  • Provide early success opportunities.
  • Identify an appropriate level of challenge and then create assignments that meet it.
  • Ensure alignment of learning objectives, assessments, and course activities.
  • Describe effective study strategies.
  • Provide rubrics, both before the assessment and at the time of assessment
  • Provide targeted feedback.
  • Help students properly conceive of their reasons for success and failure; i.e. “I’m just not good with numbers” is not an option.

For more information on student motivation, consult the website of the Eberly Center for Teaching Excellence and Educational Innovation at Carnegie Mellon University, which was the home institution of Ambrose, et al, when How Learning Works was published.

Set up a consultation with an instructional designer here at RIT to discuss how to apply these principles to your own course:


Ambrose, Susan A., Michael W. Bridges, Michele DiPietro, Marsha C. Lovett, Marie K. Norman, and Richard E. Mayer. 2010. How Learning Works: Seven Research-Based Principles for Smart Teaching. 1 edition. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Kruger, J., and D. Dunning. 1999. “Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties in Recognizing One’s Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-Assessments.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 77 (6): 1121–34.

This link takes RIT faculty and staff to an electronic version of How Learning Works licensed by the RIT Libraries. Login with RIT username and password is required:



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