Student Compliance and Buy-In to a Class

This post began with a lunch-time conversation with Cristina Trujillo, a veteran teacher at Aragon High School who was once in a Stanford University class I team taught with Lee Swenson, a high school social studies teacher nearly 20 years ago. I have stayed in touch with Lee, Cristina, and others in her Curriculum & Instruction class over the years even gathering former students for a mini-reunion a few months ago.

Last month, I visited Cristina’s ninth grade world history class and those of four other social studies colleagues. The follow-up lunch conversation she and I were having was about what I saw in the five social studies classes and particularly what I observed in her class.

Over the decades, I have had many such conversations with teachers after visiting their classes. I avoid making global evaluations of the lesson (e.g., “Great lesson!” “You are a fine teacher,” “Students were disengaged with the content and gave you a hard time”). Instead, I ask teachers what they wanted to accomplish in their lesson then I report back to them what I saw avoiding loaded words whenever possible.

So I asked Cristina, over our salads, what she wanted from her lesson on the Industrial Revolution about worker militancy involving a political cartoon that she and the class analyzed. She told me. I then reported my observations one of which was about  a group of 10 students (there were 27 in the class) who had participated a great deal in the guided discussion that Cristina had led .

That intense voluntary participation of the students led me to recount my recent experiences sitting in a dozen classes in two urban high schools, largely minority and poor, in Cleveland and Washington, D.C.  I talked at length about students’ behavioral compliance that was obvious to me but showing little academic interest in the subjects of late 19th-century European imperialism and the Civil Rights movement in American history. In only one classroom did I see students ignore the teacher’s direction and become  unruly. In four of those dozen lessons, however, I did see a handful of students participate–meaning that they answered teacher questions with vigor and seeming interest. In all of the classes, no more than half of the students, and in many others even less, turned in worksheets at the end of the period or homework that the teacher had assigned (see here, here and here).

I  compared my experiences in those history classrooms with what I saw in Cristina’s class and the lessons I observed of her Aragon High School* colleagues where I noted different degrees of student engagement with the content and overall behavioral compliance.

We then segued to her class and the clutch of high-participation students who seemingly had bought into the class. Cristina and I then began to discuss what compliance meant behaviorally and academically and the difference between compliance and student buy-in. Neither of us were familiar with the psychological literature on student engagement and behavioral compliance (or non-compliance). We were two teachers trying to make sense of what both of us have experienced in teaching students for decades.

Here is what we came up with from our experiences teaching history in different schools at different times. There are two kinds of students: ones who minimally follow the behavioral rules and complete academic work; and those students who go beyond minimal compliance and buy-into–demonstrate engagement–in the academic content with varying degrees of enthusiasm (we excluded a third type of student who disengaged completely from the class).

*Most students minimally comply with classroom rules and do enough academic work–most teacher use point systems for homework, quizzes, daily participation, extra credit, etc.–to gain passing or what they consider satisfactory grades.

*A small to large fraction of students in every class have bought-in to the academic content and daily lessons . They participate often in discussions, ask substantive questions, disagree with the teacher, and explore puzzling issues before or after class.

*We agreed that the reasons for buy-in varied among those students. Some bought into the class because they were primarily after the “A” grade. Others were genuinely captured by the intellectual content of the questions, discussions, and assignments. And a few were inspired by the teacher, who she or he was, and the enthusiasm for the subject-matter that both student and teacher shared.

*Of course, we said to one another, that there were also mixes of buy-in and compliant behavior depending on the lesson content, how the teacher was on a particular day, and events over which neither students or teacher had control.

As Cristina and I wound down our two-hour lunch–she had finished her teaching early in the afternoon–we ended up talking about what she and I had to do to create the conditions in which student buy-in could occur. We agreed that early in the school year, the teacher had to create within each class, a feeling of community anchored in trust. Such trust-building took time but was an essential condition for any degree of student commitment to the class. Such engagement shows up in students asking questions, taking risks in their answers and actions, and seeking more access to the teacher.

After lunch while I was walking to my car, I again–for the zillionth time–realized how dependent teachers are on their students for both compliance and buy-in, neither of which in this day and age are automatic.


* In 2012, Aragon High School had 1500 students in grades 9-12. Fifty-six percent of the students were minority (Latino, Asian, Filipino, Native Hawaiian/South Sea islander, and African American). Nearly one-third were white and the rest were multiracial. Just over 15 percent were “socioeconomically disadvantaged’ and a similar percentage were English Language Learners.

On California Standards Tests, except for math, Aragon students exceeded by sizable margins district and state scores. Ninety-five percent of the students graduated.


Filed under how teachers teach

23 responses to “Student Compliance and Buy-In to a Class

  1. I think this is a fairly accurate description of three different student “types” and I recognize them from my own experience. And while I won’t pretend to have observed nearly as many classrooms as you, Larry, I’ve observed well above the average, having spent several years training student teachers and observing/critiquing their practices, but also (of course) having attended years of school myself (with more than my share of dull teachers), and finally, watching the experiences of my three kids in school, one of whom has now graduated. And while it is never “cool” to criticize teachers – indeed, one is branded a right-winger if you don’t unreservedly support teachers – one also has to say, I think, that in order to make sense of student engagement, it is alarming that only a small fraction of the engaged students (nevermind the tiny percentage of ALL students) could be categorised as being inspired by the teacher. You write that teachers are dependent on their students for their compliance and buy-in. Well, that’s true, and I’ve certainly taught the same way with two separate groups of students only to find that 1 group is seemingly more engaged than the other. The student mix does count for something. On the other hand, it is an open secret that a teacher’s knowledge, skill & enthusiasm in bringing a subject alive is crucial to student engagement. I would like to see – if you are inclined – a discussion on the reasons for so much uninspiring teaching. We might include the usual suspects (e.g., teacher training programs, school leadership, a test-driven climate, poverty, student mobility, etc.). Having this conversation does not mean that we scapegoat teachers. But if the issue before us is student engagement, I think it is completely fair to ask about the role of the teacher in this equation.

    • larrycuban

      Thanks for the comments, Michael.These are fair points, in my opinion, that you raise about the teacher’s responsibilities for “inspiring” students. My hunch is that so little occurs–I agree with your observation–for the very reasons you offer: the outer environment for public school teaching has become increasingly toxic, the school workplace has become increasingly regulated,teacher preparation institutions too much out-of-touch with these conditions, etc. etc. These are powerful influences on teachers daily lessons, in my opinion. Insofar, as engaged teaching and the different groups of students who simply comply, buy-in, or become inspired, I have no measure that is reliable to characterize how much or how little engaged teaching occurs. Surely, the teacher is part of the equation, as you say, because teachers are dependent on students as surely as doctors are dependent upon patients, therapists on clients. But other factors–the chemistry of relationships among students,teacher expertise, and many others come into play making general statements about the teacher’s part nearly impossible to defend. What do you think?

      • All of this is true, as it concerns non-ideal conditions in which teachers work – and these of course are not uniquely American problems. Further, the factors that you also name, Larry, which change the chemistry of any particular class, certainly have an impact on teacher effectiveness and student engagement. But now to touch upon another open secret, certainly to those who have watched year after year the folks who are drawn to the teaching profession, and that is this. While there are marvelous and resourceful and dynamic teachers in every cohort, in every school, and in every teacher training program, the painful fact remains that far too many uninspiring individuals – who, perhaps, are more compliant with the non-ideal conditions, finding it easier to yield to them – are drawn to teaching in the first place. Without minimizing any of the critique about schools, their inequitable structures, and the copious challenges that teachers face, it seems to me that we cannot deny this as being a significant part of the problem as it concerns lack of student engagement. This is not a “teacher slamming” moment so much as a lament. I think that even if we were to improve – by whatever means – the conditions in which teachers teach, and optimize classrooms, we would still find far too many lackluster teachers and consequently far too little student engagement. How can this be changed? I honestly don’t know because there is always a demand for teachers, and students spend a lot of money getting their training, and hence there is a lot of pressure to simply give out licenses provided all the boxes can be ticked and all formal qualifications are met.

      • larrycuban

        Thanks for the follow-up comment, Michael. You say: “I think that even if we were to improve – by whatever means – the conditions in which teachers teach, and optimize classrooms, we would still find far too many lackluster teachers and consequently far too little student engagement. How can this be changed?” I believe that you hold teachers to a higher bar than lawyers, doctors, engineers, etc. your comments about “lackluster” teachers is not about ineffectiveness or mediocrity but insufficiently inspiring to gain student engagement. My research and direct experience with doctors, for example, show that many doctors have low levels of communication skills, offer little empathy, and have restricted listening capacity yet they are competent, make diagnoses, and know what they are doing in recommending treatments. My point is that in every profession I know,”lackluster” is commonplace–the bell-shaped curve, so to speak.It is teachers with expertise in subject matter, classroom moxie, and communication skills that are needed in every classroom. Whether they inspire students is a dividend, not a requirement.

  2. EB

    Even in well-to-do districts (which this one is, based on the % of students who are economically disadvantaged, which most places means receive free or reduced price lunch), there is also a divide between classes that are required for graduation and those that are optional. Some level of student choice tends to lead to better engagement, in my experience.
    I’d also add that I agree that creating a sense of community/trust early on is crucial. Sometimes that’s not too difficult, but other times it’s a real challenge. I’d enjoy hearing from Larry and readers what they’ve done to encourage that community/trust.

    • larrycuban

      Thanks, Jane, for the comments and question. Teachers have different ways of building trust and a sense of community once they give both high priority at the beginning of the semester. It does take mindfulness and design to do so but because designs and implementation vary a great deal among teachers I have no blueprint for you. I,too, would like to hear from readers.

      • EB

        My own methods vary considerably depending on the age of the students. With adults, a very brief introductory conversation that shares some personal observations on the topic we’re addressing and that includes some humor is often enough. Adults will often then take responsibility for maintaining that atmosphere of trust. On the other hand, with very young children (which I’ve also taught), it takes an ongoing effort because school; itself is a new and sometimes baffling environment for primary aged kids. There has to be some attention to specific words or actions designed to make students feel comfortable, every day, at the beginning of the year. And also, a careful avoidance of vocal or behavioral signals that might convey an attitude of coldness or impatience with these little ones.

      • larrycuban

        Thanks for your comment, Jane, on developing trust in different age settings.

  3. Louise Kowitch Campbell

    Hi Larry,
    Always a pleasure to read your blogs. One of my students told me in a very vigorous tone that at the high school level, “buy in ” comes when you like the people you work with. It was one of those “duh” moments that your famous nephew understands: the best collaborative efforts of teams are largely by design – nor only the game plan and management, but of the players. This student was in a group that under-performed as a team because by 10 th grade, they had a lot of emotional history (think: Israel/Palestine or Pakistan/india). If, however, a group that was emotionally compatible had to work together, there was a LOT of buy in. And if I, as the teacher, designed the assessment well, there was a chance of buy-in. On the other hand, no teacher design can overcome toxic relationships for a team effort. And unlike professional sports, educators can’t trade their players (apologies to sports and medical analogies). Would you agree?

    • larrycuban

      Hi, Louise. Always a pleasure to read your comments. Your remarks get at the issue of teacher design in getting students’ buy in but the limits to those designs as well when it come to student dynamics, the history of students being together over time, and the importance of factors (compatibility) that teachers have little control over. So I do agree with your point. Thanks for taking the time to comment.

  4. I agree, Larry, that I hold teachers to a higher standard, and that may be unfair. But while teachers can be competent yet uninspiring (like lawyers, doctors, etc.), only teachers spend thousands of hours with children and are in such a position to have so much (or so little) influence. Doctors and lawyers, conversely, can be uninspiring, but still provide you with solid medical or legal advice. (That doesn’t mean they always will, of course.) And, one is rarely with a doctor or lawyer for very long! But to reiterate, mine is a lament, and the problem of low student engagement – and its relation to uninspiring teachers – probably has no cure. Sigh.

    • larrycuban

      Thanks for raising the issue of teachers inspiring students, Michael. The back-and-forth with you, I found helpful in my thinking.

  5. Bayard Williams

    I do think building a sense of trust and community is vital. I get along well with my hard-scabble students for an old, middle class, white guy because I like them and empathize with them. The trust that that engenders gets me some buy-in. I always taught very traditionally (teacher centered) but because I am energetic and engaged, that has gotten me some buy-in. But I want and need more. I introduced interactive notebooks this year, which has helped relieve some of the monotony of reading and taking notes. My next step is to get them into groups where I can get some dialogue going among them, building more trust and intimacy among all of us. I’d like to get them talking to each other. That would really show buy-in. But I’ve never really done that before, and I am scared to death to give up control. But what the hell, what have I got to lose? Most of my so-called control is an illusion anyway.

    • larrycuban

      You are right, Bayard, on the illusion of control when we are dependent upon students to comply, do the work,and maybe, just maybe enjoy what happens in class. Good luck on those changes you anticipate making.

  6. JMK

    Great stuff, as always. However, the group that you agreed to exclude–the ones who disengage completely–are a big part of my math class world. In contrast, kids who just go through the motions are practically non-existent in my math classroom. I have some kids who just go through the motions in history, but here again, the ones who check out and pick “summer school” as an option are a bigger problem.

    I suspect this is a demographic issue. Aragon has a lot of kids who are academically prepared to engage with the classwork at the level the teacher wants to offer it. So the issue is will they engage, or just go through the motions?

    In my school(s), I have relatively few kids who are prepared to engage with the material at the level the state expects me to teach it. And while I do have some kids who would rather just go through the motions, my classes are very hard to do that with (I’m told). Kids who just think they can do the worksheets, follow the procedures, and understand the test without engaging with the material learn that it’s tougher than they think. So it’s more likely those students are struggling a bit in my class because they have little experience in engaging.

    But the much bigger issue is that teaching the class at the expected level would cause most of a class to check out and give up and thus sit unengaged. What I’ve learned is that I need to drop the skill needed down to their level. Even though I’ve “dumbed down” the content, I’ve increased the mental activity in the room because the kids are ready to try.

    A year or so ago, I wrote about this method of getting engagement by discussing a really important article by Darryl Jong, one that hasn’t gotten nearly enough attention. Jong is a math professor at Harvey Mudd, and he went back for a year to teach math at a Title I high school–algebra and geometry math, not Calculus. My post restates the essential part of his work (although all of it’s worth a read), and Jong responds to my post in the comments. Worth a read, I think.

    This involves curriculum development. Because all of us teachers must build our own curriculum based on our student ability.

    • larrycuban

      Thanks for further clarifications about student engagement and compliance, Michele. You make important distinctions about kids’ skill levels and starting where they are as you prod them along. The demographic differences, as you point out, explain some of the differences also. Thanks for the reminder about Darryl Yong. I ran his description of teaching in a high school two years ago. Well worth re-reading.

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  8. Mike G

    I found the back and forth exchange in the comments between you (Larry) and Michael M quite provocative. Might be worth pulling it out as its own blog post. I think it goes somehow to the core of our educational debate.

    Are teachers essentially to be like “personal trainers” in that they should precisely expect many clients who, like your compliant-but-not-that-interested student, will try to wriggle out of exercise? And that to become a personal trainer is to sign up for a job where you try to “flip” as many of us exercise laggards (I am one) as you can?

    Or is the teacher job more akin to the doctor, who most typically will explain to you that you should exercise more, but does not expect to hound you, to really drive that behavior change?

    In the handful of charters that are high-performing, I think teachers knowing sign up for the “personal trainer” gig — and that explains the 75 hour week. The school is up front about it. The teacher knows what he/she is choosing. 55 hours of being a regular teacher and 20 additional hours of “trying to flip reluctant students.” Then after 4 years or so, they go on to something else. The implied cost of this amount of labor at scale would be huge.

    • larrycuban

      Thanks for the suggestion, Mike, and making the exchange between Michael Merry and me a post. I like the idea especially including your comment on teachers as “doctors” or “personal trainers.” Nice.

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