How I used advice from Confucius to increase student engagement

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Rose Caruso, Professor, Seneca College, Toronto, Canada, interviewed by Caroline Miller, Managing Editor, Pearson

Student engagement is a problem most professors seem to grapple with. No matter what the discipline, often students are distracted, disinterested, or downright disengaged. In her developmental English courses at Seneca College in Ontario, Canada, Rose Caruso faced apathetic and reluctant students semester after semester. In this interview, Caruso shares her insights for motivating students, interested in improving their skills, and how she used an online learning program to benefit students. She provides great insights in the interview, and you can find more details and results in her educator study.

Q: How did you get involved teaching developmental English?

Caruso: My career at Seneca began in Continuing Education in 2008 where I taught many students whose first language was not English. I found a knack for guiding ESL students in the acquisition of knowledge and language skills that would prepare them for full-time college programs. Students would often contact or meet with me to report back how much they learned from my teaching.

I took pride in the success of these students and wanted to continue making an impact on students and nurturing the value of lifelong learning in a full-time capacity. It was my students in Continuing Education who cemented my direction to teach in the developmental English program and my love of learning and teaching that motivated me to teach at Seneca in 2005 for the School of English and Liberal Studies. I have since secured a full-time faculty position in 2013 and feel so fortunate to be living my dream.

Q: Why do you think students are reluctant to engage in developmental English? Is it the same type of disengagement professors see in other courses?

Caruso: Students often enter developmental English apathetic and reluctant to engage in the course content since it is a non-credit course for which they need to pay. The course meets for four hours a week and focuses on writing paragraphs and essays. Having students that are disengaged and unmotivated is a concern since it negatively affects teaching and learning.

Students in this course are often:

  • late or have high absenteeism, attrition
  • don’t participate in class or complete their assignments
  • have low self-esteem or confidence to be critical thinkers
  • have learning disabilities and/or accommodations for learning disabilities
  • feel resentment and frustration since they passed grade 12 English and/or received a high grade
  • unprepared to learn since they do not have the skill sets to be successful
  • bottom line—they just don’t want to be in the course since they feel it is “remedial” and that translates to being “not smart” enough to be in college English.

Q: Why do you think your students like the online learning resource, MyWritingLab?


  1. Students have reported saying how much they enjoyed playing an active role in their learning and receiving frequent personalized feedback. Before starting the online grammar program, students must complete a diagnostic assessment and individual Skills Checks in MyWritingLab. Students critically analyzed and actively became involved with their writing assignments with Pearson Tutor Services and Pearson Writer’s Automatic Writer Review feature.
  2. Students also liked the fact that the learning was personalized to create a Learning Path, or study plan, according to the results from the built-in assessment tools.
  3. Students love technology—they are visual and tactile learners. Students get excited knowing that learning is not traditional and passive, but rather creative and hands-on.
  4. They enjoy the face-to-face interaction with faculty when they don’t understand the concept. I use the lab to provide one-on-one consultation to help students with difficult grammar and writing concepts. Students feel as though someone cares about them, and they don’t have to wait for an email or meeting with a professor to answer a question they don’t know. Immediate feedback is key to motivating students. They feel important and that someone is giving them the attention they need.
  5. Students remain engaged and challenged both in and out of the classroom by the creative and dynamic learning environment that MyWritingLab offers. They are never bored or uninterested in grammar. They look forward to each class to find out what they can learn.

Q: What insights can you share to help other educators engage with students?


  1. Understand your student audience, and don’t assume that ALL students in a course are familiar with grammar or concepts of writing. Take time to ask your students what they know, what they don’t know, and what they would like to know or expect from the course. As educators we should be more open to what our students want to learn and how to learn with a variety of tools instead of slide presentations and lectures. As educators we become the best at our craft by learning from our students.
  2. Make learning fun. Students love technology, so why not use technology to enhance learning? Students are active learners rather than passive learners. They want immediate feedback and want to know the answers NOW.
  3. Provide student flexibility and the option to rewrite or re-submit online work. Redundancy and repetitiveness helps students master the concept. Students also feel that they are treated fair and you. Today’s students are driven achievers who depend on technology. At the same time, I find that they lack the learning skills to succeed in and out of the classroom—particularly their critical thinking and decision making skills. This new evolution of society, media, technology, and communication has been my catalyst to provide a more productive learning environment that is student-centered, collaborative, and self-directed.
  4. In the classroom or lab, interact with students, and be involved in the learning process. Students become more confident and active learners when you do this.
  5. It’s important to look for additional ways to grow as an instructor and to prevent teaching from getting stale. Fine-tune and update course materials with current, innovative teaching techniques, and present students the most up-to-date instructional materials or tech tools.

Q: How has the online learning resource changed how you teach?

Caruso: In my 20 years of teaching, I have learned that each generation comes to college with varying characteristics and that some of the teaching methods of just ten years ago, no longer work as well with this generation of digital learners.

I have found the best teaching style that works with digital learners is one of balance where I become a facilitator of learning within the didactic model.

The greatest teaching reward is transforming non-believers of MyWritingLab into believers. In the first week of classes when I introduce the online product, students often give me attitude since they have to spend more money on course materials that they probably have already dismissed or deemed useless. Using MyWritingLab has made me successful in the classroom since students believe and are convinced with the efficacy of the product. The pre- and post-assessments (Path Builder and Mastery Check) and Skills Checks are vital to the program since personalized Path Builder scores keep students motivated, as well as the immediate feedback they receive once exercises are submitted.

Q: What are some of the biggest changes you have seen in your students who use MyWritingLab?

Caruso: Students are more confident writers. They now understand the English jargon that prompts them to revise and edit their work. For example, if an instructor marks up a student paper and writes “comma splice”—without prior knowledge of the definition and strategies to correct it, students will not be able to make appropriate edits). MyWritingLab provides students with an animation, grammar and writing chapters to read, and online practice exercises to learn the concept. MyWritingLab gives students the tools and strategies they need to identify grammar and writing errors in order to revise and edit their own work.

Students become more critical learners as they reflect, revise, and edit their own writing.
They now enjoy learning about grammar. MyWritingLab makes learning fun since it’s interactive and topics are current.

By the end of the course, students are proud of their achievements and success in the course. I have students with teary eyes telling me that no one has ever taught English the way they I did in my course; and how the skills, knowledge, and confidence gained allows them to be successful in other courses that require good writing skills. I have received so many emails after students complete the college English course (EAC150) telling me with so much pride that they passed the course with honors As and Bs because of what they learned in my class. I take such pride knowing this and share the emails with new students in the first week of class when I introduce MyWritingLab. Their eyes light up when I show them the success they will have by the end of the semester, and they look forward to each class. I hardly have any absenteeism since students are motivated to be successful.

Although it’s difficult to find out the success rate for each student in my developmental course, I am reminded by the overwhelming number of emails after students pass the college English EAC150 course with high honors. This is testament of how MyWritingLab and Pearson Writer has helped my students become more confident writers and prepared for the real world.

Q: Is there anything else you would like to add?

Caruso: Education is and always has been a very important aspect of my life. Education is about teaching students, not subjects. It’s about engaging students in their learning and providing them with opportunities to be challenged and yet giving them a toolbox to be successful.

I like to share a quote that is attributed to Confucius and how I model my teaching in class:

“Tell me and I’ll forget,
Show me, and I may not remember.
Involve me, and I’ll understand.”

This is a useful way to remember the importance of adopting active learning and student-centered pedagogies where students gain experience and achieve all that they can. Students create a social network by working together, and they learn to better work together and accept diverse views. By working together, students become more open and tolerant of different views or opinions of others.

I understand that my students today are pluralistic and bring multiple perspectives to the classroom such as diverse backgrounds, learning styles, experiences, and aspirations. Each time I teach a course, it is essentially a new ballgame. Each semester I modify my lessons to accommodate the diversity of my students’ needs and use Pearson online tools to supplement my teaching.

The content changes over time, our students change, and our teaching must change. Therefore, I believe that teaching is at its best only when it is vital and ever changing. I continually strive to improve the effectiveness of my teaching by rethinking and revising my methods for the benefit of students in all areas, from diversity to technology. I have taken every teaching opportunity as a way of developing and experimenting with new methods of teaching and rectifying my approaches through student feedback. This way, I continue to learn and to grow: by taking risks and questioning my assumptions when I apply technology, new ideas, or methods.

Adhering to this teaching style has been incredibly rewarding!


About Rose Caruso

Rose Caruso has been teaching for more than 20 years for various school boards and in post-secondary institutions. She is presently teaching at Seneca College with the School of English and Liberal Studies for the past 15 years. Rose’s decision to pursue a career in education is due, in part, to her intrinsic desire to make a positive impact on the life of another person. She views teaching as a calling, and she feels compelled to devote considerable effort to her students and to improve her teaching. As she endeavors to improve her craft, she is guided by the belief that all people have an innate desire for learning. Her goal as an instructor is to shape the lives of students whether it is passing on knowledge or preparing their own philosophy and personal ethics toward being a lifelong learner. In return, what she finds most rewarding is when she can truly make a difference in the life of another human being. She knows that’s a powerful thing, and to her, that is what teaching is about.

Rose believes technology is an effective way to engage students to be motivated and to have fun while learning. MyWritingLab and Pearson Writer have allowed her to achieve her goals of engaging students, measuring student proficiency in grammar and mechanics, and increasing the opportunity for students’ self-assessment in their writing and revision.

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