All good communication begins with grabbing your listener’s attention, something that everyone instinctively understands. A marriage proposal does not begin with the speaker opening a PowerPoint presentation, providing an outline of topics to be covered, and a schedule with time for each topic—including time at the end for questions. It begins with something that grabs the listener’s attention, such as a diamond appearing on a dessert plate. The same holds true for professional communication. One of the reasons people love TED Talks is that they never begin with an outline of what will be covered; rather, they begin with a comment or question that grabs the audience’s interest.
Unfortunately, faculty sometimes forget this fundamental fact when they begin their lessons. They open with an outline of topics or with housekeeping items that signal to students to brace for a long and uninteresting experience. This can send students into partial shutdown mode, which teachers can often see once they start speaking. As a result, students may capture only a small percentage of what is being delivered.
Below I discuss three ways faculty can open their lessons to immediately engage students and prepare them for learning.
A question is a simple way to create interest in a topic, but it must be the right type of question. Too many faculty start with a graded quiz on the course readings. This does not prepare students for learning. Quite the contrary: it puts them on edge, and they will shut down immediately after submitting their answers.
The right type of opening question piques student interest in a topic. It is not a backward-facing test of prior learning but rather a forward-facing preparation for the learning to come. Most importantly, it should not be simple factual recall but something that any student can try to answer based on their general understanding of the topic and reasoning skills.
For instance, a physics professor opening a class on gas dynamics can ask students what would happen if someone held a balloon full of helium by a string inside a car with the windows closed and the car accelerated forward. Would it stand still, go backward, or move forward? Anyone can venture a guess based on their prior knowledge and experience. Moreover, the answer—it will go forward—is counterintuitive. Students who guess incorrectly will be curious as to why they got it wrong, or they will believe that the instructor must have gotten it wrong and want to identify the error in the instructor’s reasoning. Either way, they will be engaged in the subject.
While face-to-face instructors can simply speak the question, online instructors have the option to embed a concept cartoon at the beginning of their module. A concept cartoon presents a scenario in cartoon form with a question at the end. There are many places to find these cartoons, such as the physics-related ones created at Amherst College and those created by the Royal Society of Chemistry. An instructor can also easily create their own using simple graphic design sites such as Canva.
Another good way to open a learning module is with a mistake-detection exercise. Instead of telling students the right way to do something, it is far more engaging to present them with an example involving an embedded mistake and ask them to find it. This kind of activity appeals to our basic interest in solving puzzles.
For instance, in response to a call to generate more activity on my institution’s internal social network, I created a grammar puzzler series where I post a passage each week with a grammar error that others are asked to find, I then explain the relevant rule once someone finds the error. These postings quickly became the most popular content on the network, with many students commenting about how much they enjoy and have learned from them.
While grammar may not be the topic of a course, writing is a general skill that students should be learning in their courses, and an instructor in any subject can mentally wake up students by giving them a puzzler at the beginning of a learning module. But there are many ways that faculty can use mistake-detection examples in their courses. An economics instructor can post a passage that misuses an economics concept, a logic instructor can put up a proof that misuses a logical function, and a philosophy professor can share a passage that uses the wrong term for a concept. Students will enjoy solving these simple puzzles, which will engage their brains for the learning to come.
As an undergraduate I took a course in the philosophy of art, and the instructor started each class by asking students to shout out any upcoming “aesthetic events” in the area, such as art shows, plays, and musical performances. Not only did this get students speaking up at the beginning of class, but it also connected the course to the world outside the classroom, creating an atmosphere of a community of art explorers. This simple device fostered the sense that art should be a part of everyone’s life, which is one of the goals of art education. In fact, due to this atmosphere I found myself going to many art events that I would not have otherwise attended. Similarly, faculty in nearly any subject can ask students to share with others new discoveries or events related to class.
Another option is to open a class by discussing a historical event related to the day’s topic. Playing a short video is an excellent way to get students interested in the event. For instance, an engineering class examining aerodynamics in structural design might open with a film of the famous Tacoma Narrows Bridge collapse of 1940. I open my medical ethics module on refusal of treatment by playing a short video about Dax Cowart, a man who was seriously burned in an accident and whose request to be allowed to die was refused. These videos are engrossing and perfect ways to demonstrate the importance of the topic.
Instead of housekeeping information such as assignment due dates or an outline of the topics you will cover, start your learning modules with an attention-getter to engage your students and prepare them for learning.