Professor Annalise Keating calls her course ‘How to Get Away With Murder‘.
Instantly, her students sit up and take notice. Gone are all the textbook notions of “Criminal Law 101”. Clearly, they’re engaged and intrigued. It’s a combination that few gifted professors achieve with their students and the ones who do make it look like a cake-walk.
Over the course of her, well, course, Annalise — or, as her students know her, ‘Professor Keating’ — announces that whichever student is left standing and racks up the most points wins the coveted “Justice” trophy.
Obviously, the trophy is connected to students’ grades. But it stops becoming solely about the trophy and competition and begins to become about the students’ own ability to connect what they’re learning in the classroom to the world around them.
So, is there some secret to Annalise Keating’s brilliant teaching or is there a method a course writer can use to keep students engaged and eager to learn?
These seven tips are just the beginning of great ways to engage your students.
1. Connect to Their Goals
Students need the course design to be ‘about them’. Grades can be a benchmark but focusing on grades can distract from the end goal, which is to understand information well enough to be able to apply it to real-life.
Of course, there are students that will only care about their place on the grading curve.
However, if a course writer can flip the script and interrupt that expectation, they’ll find, that in itself is enough to get a student to sit up and pay attention.
Author Tina Seelig recounts her own experience in a lecture hall at Stanford University and reflects on the metric of “care”. Showing students you care about them is one way to make a connection. But it’s also important to get them to then connect this learning and information to their own goals.
‘Teaching,’ she says, ‘is about inspiration, not information.’
This sort of ‘self-directed’ perspective allows students to feel as though they are in charge of their education. While that’s always true, it’s not always felt. Besides getting to know your students and what they care about, encourage them to make their own metrics of success. What is their goal for this subject or course?
2. Small Groups for Dialogue
When universities are trying to draw in and attract prospective students, the first thing a pamphlet will state is, ‘Small, intimate classroom sizes.’
Because no one wants to get lost in a crowd and learning happens best when a professor can give focused attention to a smaller group, rather than be pulled (impossibly) in a thousand different directions.
In general, this is true for courses for academic writers as well, since part of the process of learning is feedback, especially in the case of academic course writing.
Often, for introductory credit courses, this can quite literally be true. How do you compete with that sort of attention diffusion?
The good news is, even for those with dozens of students in their academic course writing class, professors usually have GAs or TAs (graduate assistants or teaching assistants) that head-up smaller groups through the week. During the lecture is a great time to make use of these smaller groups.
This will mean that the course design will have to structure the lecture in a way that makes for more smaller group discussion periods. During this time, professors can walk around to the smaller groups and listen in while TAs do the same.
3. Take Learning Outside the Classroom
…And on to the campus. A course writer who can plan for this structure will find that this strategy meets with a lot of enthusiasm and attention from students. And nothing pulls a student’s attention back to the lecture faster than interrupting their expectations.
They may think they’re in for another 50 minutes of droning on. So why not break that preconception? For example, choose to hold a session or exercise relating to academic course writing outdoors instead.
Taking teaching outside the classroom, is ‘inherently student-centered…and interdisciplinary.’ And these teachings don’t necessarily have to be pre-planned field trips. They can be a simple exercise to encourage participation and break expectations.
4. Share Your Own Research
Some of the best learning comes when a course writer or professor deliberately plans a course design that calls on their own ongoing research. This can be either as part of the day’s lecture, or as part of the larger course structure of academic course writing.
This kind of structure can lead to a much more organic and exploratory lecture, which can lead students into being stronger academic writers. They’ll be actively reflecting on questions and engaged with the base material, while willing to go further in their conjectures.
And the learning, by the way, is happening both ways.
Something wonderful happens when professors connect their research to their current course teachings. It becomes interesting for them and they learn something or look at a concept in an entirely new way.
They may gain breakthroughs and new perspectives. They may be able to test out a hypothesis and see all the problems with it, based on the questions of students.
Structuring the course’s progression around your research questions, says educational think tank, ‘The Big Think’, makes learning meaningful. Great teachers will be the ones who learn along with their students.
5. Draw on Interdisciplinary Knowledge
In today’s world, concepts are necessarily cross-pollinated. The advances we make in the field of neuroscience, for example, have great bearing on customer experience, behavioural psychology, user experience design, software programming and AI.
Author Robert Greene sees this interdisciplinary approach as the key to ‘mastery’: of concepts and of learning. He gives, as an example, Yoki Matsuoka, who combined her restless exploration of robotics and neuroscience into an entirely new field: ‘neurobotics’.
A course writer should be aware of this. Structuring a course design intentionally, so that it encourages students to see the fundamentals inherent across all concepts in multiple disciplines will not only get students engaged, this effort will also promote a more organic and intuitive kind of learning that simple memorisation cannot substitute.
6. Use Incomplete Handouts
This is a technique proposed by research conducted by King’s College London. It goes right to the heart of their findings that say that encouraging active learning means greater retention and understanding of concepts, not to mention proper application later on.
Using incomplete handouts motivates students to listen in carefully to the lecture and stay present, rather than mentally drifting. It’s not just about motivating or rewarding class attendance, after all.
It’s also about getting students to make individualised notes that are meaningful to them.
7. Integrate Technology
The jury is in: 63% of student respondents say that integrating digital learning into their educational experience has helped them in a score of ways.
A survey, conducted by Hanover Research, of college students and their use of digital technologies to assist in learning shows that ‘Better preparation for classes’, ‘Improved studying efficiency’ and ‘More confidence in your knowledge of course material’ were just some of the positively affected areas of student learning.
While some professors find the use of personal laptops and smartphones for learning within academic settings to be a major distraction, research finds that this occurs mostly when students rely on laptops within lectures to take notes or fill handouts.
Inevitably, this situation leads to students heading online, getting distracted, speaking with their friends on messaging apps and browsing the web.
However, laptops absolutely have a place when they can be used as a learning tool in very specific contexts. A research paper conducted by Stanford University suggests the use of a ‘laptop policy’ and a “laptop-free zone”, in conjunction with technology in the classroom.
This would suggest that students can use them in small group discussions for research but, perhaps, not for note-taking. The laptop policy could set the ground rules and actually end up enhancing these periods of discussion time within the classroom.
How do we know students are really absorbing and engaging with the material professors present? Engagement shouldn’t only be limited to the narrow metrics of grades and test scores. Engagement can also be measured qualitatively, when students approach professors after class or during a break to discuss a particular indigestible concept.
These are indicators of active learning and, more than anything, show that the students cares. From an education standpoint, caring deeply about a topic or wrestling with it is often a better thing than apathy.