One of the most challenging tasks for a teacher or lecturer is to keep students engaged during class while remaining on schedule to cover all the required work before the end of the term. While it is safe to say that boredom is one of a teacher’s top enemies, it is not always clear what teachers can do to ensure that they keep engagement levels high, especially since we know that learning only happens when students are engaged. After all, jokes or funny videos about the lesson topic can only retain students’ attention for a little while when there is real work to be done.
Luckily, all is not lost. Here are a couple of brain-friendly tips and tricks to assist teachers in keeping engagement levels high – and minimise boredom – without compromising on quality teaching.
Rethinking lesson flow
Humans are comfortable with routine because it is a very powerful organising tool – especially in professions like teaching. By arranging lessons according to a fixed template, we ensure that we cover the required curriculum even while managing very large classes. However, as much as routine is a convenient organising tool, predictability is not known for its attention-grabbing qualities. The solution is not to abandon routine altogether, but to use brain-friendly tools such as priming, low-stakes quizzes, contextualisation, exit tickets and homework comments within the existing classroom structure to keep lessons interesting.
Planning attention-grabbing moments
It’s not always easy to find a funny video or meme about the lesson topic, but it is a great way to grab students’ attention at the beginning of a lesson. It’s also a very effective tool to create a brief break in the middle of a lesson and revert students’ attention back to the lesson topic. This can also be combined quite effectively, especially for younger students, with some brief stretching exercises.
When explaining how we learn, people often use the metaphor of the brain as “a prediction machine” in reference to the brain’s ability/need to solve puzzles and problems. Therefore, one great way of engaging students early on in the lesson – perhaps on a topic you know they typically find boring – is to present them with some kind of puzzle or visual clue that they have to solve. This can even happen at the end of a lesson on the previous day. This method uses the brain’s innate need to solve a problem as a way to grab students’ attention – even if the topic itself may not interest them much.
Another variation of this is to do a low-stakes assessment before the lesson, with the answers to the questions forming part of the lesson itself. Research has shown that this is a great way of helping students engage with the material and improving their ability to recall it later.
Group quizzes work well in combination with individual quizzes or even homework. For instance, if students were given a homework assignment that required them to complete a set of exercises, a great way of breaking up the next lesson is to have a short group quiz about a couple of the exercises (perhaps the most difficult ones). Students can then debate and argue their answers in groups within a fixed timeframe. Where time allows, a debate between groups on differing answers can also be an extremely effective way of grabbing attention.
One of the most prevalent criticisms of school work is that it has so little to do with “real life” or lacks relevance. Apart from the fact that this characterisation fails to understand the role of foundational knowledge in critical and creative thinking, it is true that students will likely pay more attention to work if they understand its relevance to them. Where teachers have presented the same material for a number of years and therefore became comfortable with their “routine”, one way of retaining attention would be to find some examples of relevance. This is, of course, easier to accomplish for some topics than others, but the reward of having entertained and fulfilled students in class is worth the extra effort of finding relevant examples.
Typically, the dedicated homework section of a lesson is not the most exciting – especially if it does not include worked examples and if the focus is solely on providing feedback on the “right answers”. However, a great way of improving metacognition and getting students more engaged in their homework and the homework section of a lesson is to have students write comments about their homework – especially if they have to master a new topic – and share this in class. The basic idea is that students first do the homework, and then in a separate exercise write comments about what they have done and what the rationale behind what they have done is. This kind of exercise works better with older students but is a great way of getting students to think about what they are doing. When these comments are then shared in class (in a non-threatening environment) it not only leads to better engagement but also assists students with their metacognition.
For more brain-friendly tips, you can read this article on how to re-imagine the curriculum by making use of Learning Paths.
Dr. J (Lieb) Liebenberg is a Research Fellow at the Department of Informatics at the University of Pretoria and has been the CEO of ITSI since 2006. He has been involved in learning research and development since 2006 and has delivered academic papers on e-learning as well as published on the subject in peer-reviewed journals.
His first mobile learning project was MobiMath which provided Grade 10–12 Mathematics learners with videos and assessments on mobile phones.
As Project Director for the University of Pretoria’s Health Information Systems, Data Capturing Training for the National Department of Health, he was also responsible for the introduction and use of mobiles for post-training support to more than 2500 learners throughout South Africa.
Since 2010, Dr. Liebenberg has been involved in the conceptualisation and development of the ITSI Solution which allows teachers and schools to optimise teaching and learning for the 21st-century. The solution is used by more than 220 schools and thousands of teachers and learners from both the private and public sectors.
He is passionate about connecting technology and the learning brain, making learning visible and removing fragmentation from the classroom in an effort to prepare students for the challenges of the 21st-century.
He is a member of the International Association for Mobile Learning and regularly participates in conferences internationally and locally.