Mixing Things Up
10 Tips to Make Your Classes More Engaging for Students
It’s a tough time to be a teacher. COVID has meant that schools and universities have closed and reopened countless times, leaving teachers oscillating between online learning and socially-distanced classes onsite, often with little support to facilitate the constant migration between the two. And yet, as a cohort they have responded remarkably, working tirelessly, innovatively, and determinedly to ensure that education has – mostly – been able to continue.
With vaccine rollouts now gathering pace, returning to classrooms and lecture halls will soon be a reality – indeed, in some places it already is. And with the return, will come the old challenges, most notably, when giving a lecture or holding a seminar, how best to keep students engaged? It will no longer be possible to achieve ‘class control’ through muting somebody’s Zoom account; more traditional means will, again, be needed. With that in mind, here are INOMICS’ top 10 tips to keep students present and attentive when you're teaching.
1. Ask questions and seek your student's opinions
One of the best ways to engage your students is to directly solicit their opinions on the learning material at hand. When students are compelled to consider their own views and package them either into a written or verbal response (possibly in front of others), they inevitably handle the materials far more critically. It’s an excellent way of focusing students’ minds and instilling in them a healthy scepticism that’s essential to all good study.
Be wary, though, some students can be shy when it comes to contributing to class discussions. To counter this, try and create an atmosphere in which questioning is encouraged and students feel comfortable offering an opinion, even if they're unsure. It goes without saying, responses like ‘that’s completely wrong’ or ‘how could you think that’ should be avoided at all costs. But you knew that already.
2. Assess the level of knowledge in the room and tailor your teaching accordingly
Your class will quickly get bored if your lecture material is either too basic or too advanced for them to follow. Mitigate this by ascertaining the class’ general level of ability, and adjusting the complexity of your teaching accordingly. For instance, this could be done by getting your students to do an introductory test before your first class. Tip: make it enjoyable.
3. Get students to present work themselves
It's said that one of the best ways to understand something is to teach it, and you can use this to help your students learn. Ask each student to prepare a short presentation on each topic you plan to teach, and use this as an introduction to your classes throughout the semester. Like number 1 on this list, the success of this ploy will rely on a suitably friendly and accepting atmosphere – so remember to make this a priority.
4. Use multimedia like video or audio clips
Having worked through the pandemic this should no longer cause any issues, as many of you reading this will now be masters in mixing up an online lesson. Still, when back in the classroom, don’t forget to keep it multimedia. Dropping a short video or audio clip into your presentations can help freshen the heavily text-based format of most lectures, and will help those students who are more visual or auditory-based learners, or those who had simply grown accustomed to student life during the pandemic!
5. Encourage group discussion
It's important for your students to take an active role in their learning – and having them passively listen while you talk is not the best way to achieve this. Consider breaking up your lectures by having a segment in which the class splits into small groups of 3-6 and discusses the topic amongst themselves. After 10/5 minutes of discussion each group should then be required to report back the most interesting points their conversation threw up, hopefully then facilitating further class discussion.
6. Change up the format of your classes
As countless studies have proven, it's difficult for any of us to concentrate for longer than an hour (many actually suggest the limit is closer to 45 minutes), so try breaking your classes into bite-size chunks. For example, if you have an hour to teach, why not give an introduction to the topic for 15 minutes, then give students 10 minutes to re-read the class material, follow this with a 20 minute discussion in small groups, and finally finish off with a 15 minute class discussion at the end. Changing format frequently will help to keep students engaged.
7. Set up a debate
In any field, there will be theories, models, or concepts which are contentious. Try splitting your class in half and asking them to present each side of an issue in a debate. Even if students don't agree with the side that they've been asked to represent, this is a great way for them to practice argumentation and critical thinking skills, as well as learning the material at hand.
8. Allow breaks or changes of setting in longer classes
It's a rare student who is capable of concentrating for the full length of a three hour lecture. Be realistic about the needs of your students (and of yourself as a teacher!) and allow short 5-10 minute breaks every hour or so, so people can stretch their legs, use the bathroom, and get a (possibly much needed) cup of coffee.
9. Provide notes or worksheets so students don't have to write everything down
Some lecturers are pleased to see students constantly scribbling notes during class, as they believe it demonstrates that they are concentrating. However, others argue that when students are merely copying down everything they are hearing, they're not really engaging critically with the material. Consider providing pre-written notes or copies of your slides to the students at the start of the lecture, so they are more free to question, comment, and think about the material you're teaching, while you’re teaching.
10. Make use of technology
Don’t forget all that you’ve learned during the pandemic! Continue to make use of the terrific technological tools that help make your teaching more engaging. For instance, your institution may have an electronic content management system like Moodle or Blackboard where you can share materials and set up discussions for your class. Or you could experiment using an app like Socrative to create instant polls for use during class. Either way, always try and stay abreast of ways technology could be brought into the classroom to liven things up. Your students will respond with their engagement.
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