- Instructors today must compete for students’ attention against other forces|To better keep students focused, instructors can structure their course like a bingeable TV show|This structure involves warming up the class, introducing a topic of the day, creating twists and turns, prepping a review and previewing the next class’s materials
Diantha Ellis is Associate Professor of Business in the Stafford School of Business of Abraham Baldwin Agricultural College
Why is it so easy to binge a show like The Witcher, but so hard to keep students focused throughout class? The two are roughly the same length of time, give or take a few minutes. Yet, you can sense the rising anticipation that class is almost over as your students surreptitiously (or openly) prepare to leave while the clock approaches the fifty-minute mark. What does The Witcher have that we don’t (other than Henry Cavill), you ask?
Twists, turns and constant action are the keys. Think about it. Even as someone who adores classic movies and TV, not many of yesteryear’s top shows could keep today’s audience focused. Why? Because those shows were made for a different audience with fewer competing forces for their attention.
Despite this, some professors insist on teaching the exact same way that they were taught. The classic fifty-minute lecture with a non-stop flow of information is increasingly ill-suited to the modern college classroom. However, there is hope for today’s professors. Simply structure your class like an episode of a bingeable show, and you will keep your students engaged.
Act 1: The Warm-Up
The first rule of great entertainment is to draw your audience in. In a movie or show, that might mean starting the story in the middle of the action. This can work in the classroom for a course such as History or Literature. However, in other courses, this may not be the best avenue. (Imagine the horror on your students’ faces if you started in the middle of a complex Algebra or Accounting problem. Yikes!).
Instead, start with a nice warm-up. Show interest in your students as people. Greet them warmly. Ask how their weekend went. Chat conversationally about projects they have going on in other classes, vacation plans or a new favorite show. Multitask while you are doing this – scanning the room for those in attendance and marking your record book. This should not take too much time – one to three minutes, max – and it should not be rushed or superficial.
Segue into a brief review of a previous class topic, asking targeted questions on key points that you want to be sure that they remember. It’s been my experience as a law school student and business school professor that when students expect that they will have to speak on course materials, they’ll step up and perform. However, this does not have to be a solo effort. You can let them choose teams (or consulting firms, as I like to call them) at the beginning of, or throughout, the semester. Sometimes having a team on their side can help students answer tough questions and motivate them to prepare for class.
Act 2: Highlight the Topic of the Day
One comment I receive frequently from students is how much they appreciate my efforts to organize the class in an easy-to-follow manner by highlighting a topic of the day. When the method to the madness is clear, students feel like partners in the learning process. They tend to perform better not only in class but also on their quizzes, exams and projects.
Start highlighting the topic of the day by previewing it in the class period before (more about that in Act 5). Then, on class day, transition from the review of the previous class to the topic of the day, showing the connection between the two. This is especially easy to do in a class like Economics or Law, as the topics really do interconnect. However, every field has some common threads that run throughout.
In fact, this aligns with the current movement toward showing the interconnectedness of programs in academics. Just like no class is a silo, no topic should exist in isolation. Emphasizing this will show students how the material they learn connects to their future careers and the world around them.
Act 3: The Twists and Turns of the Story
Today’s audience is much harder to keep engaged because they have so many options available. They don’t have to settle for surfing channels or sifting through DVDs for entertainment. If one show or movie is boring, it is easy to simply stop and start another.
Many of the students we are teaching today are of that mindset. If there is something about the class that is not stimulating, then they will mentally check out and look for something more entertaining or valuable to do with their time. This applies even to old-school professors who do not allow any technology in their classrooms. You can take the gadget away, but that alone will not keep students from mentally checking out. This is the reality that we compete with. So, to combat it, we must do as any successful showrunner does – keep them on the edge of their seats.
Don’t give your students time to start thinking about how bored they are. Move from one activity to another, keeping your audience glued to what is going on and wanting to keep up with the story. This can be accomplished with the following structure:
Brief Topic Overview
After highlighting the topic of the day, give a brief overview. This may be accomplished with a short PowerPoint presentation, handout, story that illustrates the finer points of the day’s lecture, or another similar technique. Don’t get bogged down here. Keep it short and to the point.
Think of it like a movie preview — don’t tell the whole story! Your audience should be engaging in your storytelling. Remember, many of these students are used to being active participants in a story — they have done it for years with interactive games.
Flip the Classroom
Put the students in the driver’s seat for a bit. Ask targeted questions about the day’s topic. Ask them for their own examples instead of sticking with your own. Congratulate them when they provide a good example and help them work toward a better one if theirs is not entirely on point.
Students must pay attention when the spotlight is on them. However, don’t be overly aggressive. Coach them toward the right answer. Let them know you care and be their partner in the learning process.
Use Planned Activities
Pre-planned activities from your textbook can be used in small groups, as individual efforts or for the entire class. I usually assign select questions from the back of a chapter ahead of time. That way students know that we will be going over those questions during the week and are prepared. Kahoot! and other games are also entertaining ways to keep students engaged.
Act 4: Review
Prepare a short review of the day’s topic. This should not take longer than a minute or two and can be in the form of a game. Keep in mind that once you get to this stage, students start to sense that class is close to over. So, work to make it worth their while to be invested.
Act 5: The Cliffhanger
The final act should be a seamless transition from Act 4. Tie something from this class period to the next class period. For example, in Business Law, pull a snippet from a real-world case (with changed names), leaving the court’s decision until the next class. Think of “Next Time on Masterpiece Theatre”-type previews.
We expect our students not to end an oral presentation with “Well, that’s all I’ve got.” So, we should follow suit. Wrap the class up neatly like a pretty holiday package. Leave them wanting more. If you do, they will be back in the next class, eager to know what happens on the next episode.
For an encore of peer-tested engagement strategies, download the Student Engagement Handbook.