Become a Teaching Rockstar: Simple Techniques to Motivate and Engage Students

childs_gladysGladys Childs
Teas Wesleyan University

At the Lilly Conference in Austin in January 2016, I presented strategies on how to increase student motivation and engagement in required courses that are perceived to be very difficult (G. Childs Lilly Conference on Teaching and Learning presentation, January 7, 2016).   This presentation was based on an attempt to solve my own difficulties with teaching required courses that most students were not interested in taking.  Focusing specifically on my Logic class, I embarked on a quest to change my pedagogy and enrich the milieu of my classroom to enhance student engagement.  Below is a list of things I found to be of extreme importance in the classroom.

  1. What are you passionate about? Although we are not always passionate about everything we teach, we have to take what we are passionate about and transfer that to our classroom (Burgess, 2012). I am passionate about letting students know that I care for and love them.  I want them to learn the material, but I also truly want them to develop as whole and healthy human beings.  Whether we spend our class time discussing categorical syllogisms or truth tables, I begin each of my classes with a thought for the day.  It might be a quote, a personal story, a bible verse, or stuff I wish someone had told me when I was their age. Regardless of the origin of the thought of the day, it is always communicating the message “I care and I want the best for you in your life.”
  1. Deal with elephants in the room. Let me be blunt, most students hate Logic.  Whether this is from failing another professor’s Logic course or imagined problems based on hearsay, it needs to be confronted.  Instead of ignoring this fact, I deal with it head on during the first class (Bradt, 2013).  I tell my students, “While you may not love Logic and your friends may have told you how hard this is, it will be okay and we are going to get through this together.”  For years with my online classes, I had at least a couple of students every semester who would complain about having to do the class by themselves.  This ended when I included, in the course orientation, a section discussing how the students had chosen to be in an online class instead of a live class.  Therefore, they had chosen to do this class by themselves and should not complain about feeling alone because this is what they chose.  I also pointed out to them that there would be numerous emails, videos, and voice messages from myself to them and all they need to do was respond when I asked them to contact me with any questions or help they might need.
  1. I am awesome! Although I have received flak from some professors about this, I stand by it 100%. I won’t apologize for it.  I tell my students on the first day of class that I am awesome and they are going to love being in one of my classes.  I give them a list of reasons why I am awesome: teaching awards, IDEA survey results, other professors only letting their students take Logic from me, and so forth.  There are usually a couple of students who reinforce this point by saying, “My friend told me I had to take Logic from you!” or “My professor said your Logic class is the only one I was allowed to take.”

Truth and meaning are fluid and can be influenced (Rumfitt, 2014; Chen 2009). Think back to your childhood.  What was said to you, whether good or bad, that still affects you to this day?  We all know this to be true.  Therefore, on the first day, I tell them I am awesome and for the first week or so thereafter.  However, that leads me to the next point.

  1. You have to do awesome things in the classroom. At the last teaching conference I spoke at, a professor said that I was just into cheap tricks.  Again, I am not going to apologize.  In many ways, teaching is like acting.  You are performing in front of an audience. You are trying to illicit emotional responses, buy in, and changed ways of thinking (Bain, 2004; Burgess, 2012).  That said, if you tell your students you are awesome, then you have to be awesome.  What that looks like for you, I don’t know.  You have to discover that for yourself through trial and error.  For me, immediately after I tell them I am awesome, I perform a magic trick.  I then tie this trick into a meaningful point for how I want the students to respond to questions I ask during the semester.  The goal being for them to understand that if they respect my time, I will respect theirs.  I also make a point to learn all of their names by the next class period and then I call on each and every one of them by name.

Moreover, I come into the classroom every time full of energy and smiles.  I play happy upbeat music before class starts to set the tone (Burgess, 2012), we have the thought for the day, at times I pass out chocolates and candy, once during the semester I might bring breakfast or lunch (my classes are 20 students or less) and so forth.  I never ever walk into the classroom with any problems I might be experiencing…even if I feel horrible or stressed out that day. I walk into each class session like this is the happiest day of my life and I am so glad I get to spend it with them.  When I first started doing all of this it felt a bit awkward, but the more I did it the more I believed it was true.  The more I believed the more I saw my student’s perceptions change. I then noticed how our positive energy fed off of each other.  Now, I automatically love walking into my classes each and every day and you should too.

  1. Always ask: How you can transform this lesson? I am constantly looking for the best way to communicate difficult material in an understandable way.  How can I incorporate hands-on lessons? Are there personal stories I can share that illustrate why the information we are learning is important? Do we need to sit down for this information to be conveyed or can the students do an activity and get up and move around?  For example, my students always struggled with three circle Venn Diagrams.  I knew there had to be a better way to teach this concept and I finally came up with pipe cleaners.  Each student gets three different colored pipe cleaners, which they make into circles and then manipulate and move to understand how the categorical syllogisms fit within the circles.

In closing, we have to be intentional in creating environments that engage students.  It will not happen by itself.  As an educator, I am continually going to conferences and reading books to improve my discipline, but also to improve my ability to teach and reach out to students in meaningful ways.  I admit that not everything I have tried has always worked.  That said, over time I have been able to find a groove that fits my personality and teaching style.  Although it continues to take a lot of effort, there is nothing better than when I have a Logic class tell me at the end of the semester that they are going to miss our time together and that my class has been one of their favorites.

Resources

Bain, K. (2004). What the Best College Teachers Do. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Bradt, G. (Aug. 7, 2013).  How Leaders Can Address The Elephant(s) In The Room.  Retreived from:                   http://www.forbes.com/sites/georgebradt/2013/08/07/how-leaders-can-address-the-elephants-in-the-room/#68607b4e176d

Burgess, D. (2012). Teach Like a Pirate. San Diego: CA. Dave Burgess Consulting, Inc.

Chen, K. (2009). Cognition, Language, Symbol, and Meaning Making: A Comparative

Study of the Epistemic Stances of Whitehead and the Book of Changes. Asian Philosophy, 19 (3), 285-300.

Rumfitt, I. (2014). I-Truth and Meaning. Aristotelian Society Supplementary Volume, 88(1), 21-55.

Leave a reply