Part 1. Engage your Student

Hello, everyone! I’m excited to write my second blog post of the year and I hope you make good use of it. This will be the first part of a trilogy, so stay tuned for more in the coming weeks.

Not sure I have mentioned this enough and, if I’m getting annoying, it’s just to show how excited I am! I’m a student of MSc Psychology of Education at the University of Bristol and I’m taking a unit called Cognitive Neuroscience and Classroom Practice whose main objective is to reflect on what the Science of Learning can inform us about learning and make us think of ways to implement strategies based on this science in the classroom to impact students’ learning. In our previous classes, we discussed how three elements need to be taken into account when planning a lesson:

Engage

You can find more about this framework developed by my professor Paul Howard-Jones and collaborators on this link

The cycle above probably makes sense to you, especially if you’re a teacher. First, we need engagement to make sure students are actively involved in the task. Secondly, we need to build the knowledge we want them to acquire and that has to do with practice and memory. Finally, we want to make sure that knowledge stays in our students’ long-term memory and that it can be accessed at will in the future. This requires rehearsal, application, and sleep.

Today we’ll focus on ENGAGE. The two first definitions for ENGAGE on Google are:

1. to occupy or attract (someone's interest or attention).
2. to participate or become involved in.

Both definitions mention ideas like ATTRACT, INTEREST, ATTENTION, PARTICIPATION, and INVOLVEMENT. However simple these words might seem, one might ask: how can we make sure students are actively involved and truly paying attention to what they are supposed to learn? I, for one, can tell you that many times I thought my students were engaged because they were looking at me and nodding or asking questions. On the other hand, I’ve also felt many times that students who never asked questions were not really engaged. Nevertheless, I was surprised to find out later in the course that sometimes those who didn’t seem engaged got the best grades and those who did had lower grades. Of course, they could’ve studied hard outside the classroom or even have learned the content I was teaching before, but my point here is: it’s not simple to assess engagement and we might be fooled. Nonetheless, the more engaged, the more likely to learn.

Luckily, we have an effective weapon (not so secret, I’m afraid) that I’ll share with you in a moment. Look at the two situations below and think which one would be more engaging. Consider a basic level for adults:

1. Students come to class to learn food vocabulary. This lesson is all about fruits and vegetable. The teacher uses a poster on the wall to present the items (e.g. apple, banana, pineapple, strawberry, melon, carrot, tomato, lettuce, onion, kale). Students look at the poster and fill in the gaps in a sheet of paper or their book with these words, which are next to their respective pictures. As soon as they finish, they check in pairs and do a word puzzle individually with the same words. The teacher corrects and plays a video of a man shopping at a local fruit market. Students need to watch and write down the prices of every item they have learned. They practice a dialogue in pairs to reinforce the vocabulary.

2. Same scenario, same vocabulary. This time, the teacher uses realia in the classroom and places some of the fruits and vegetables in different baskets around the classroom. The back of the classroom has three desks with stickers with the names of these words. The teacher says that the students need to look at the poster for no longer than 1 minute, go to the baskets in groups, find the fruits and vegetables designated to their group and place them on the sticker on the desk. They will be timed and the first group to finish will be rewarded. Then, after removing the stickers, the groups will have to go to the other tables and label every item using post-its. Finally, the teacher changes groups and ask them to pretend they’re shopping for fruits and vegetables. They’ll receive fake money and a price tag for each item. They must work together both as shoppers and salespersons and buy whatever they can with the money that was given to them.

OK, OK, OK! I confess these are two extreme examples and it’s certainly easy to spot which one is probably more engaging. But why is that? Well, some very important elements were included in situation 2 and they fall under the term we learned in class: APPROACH RESPONSE. The first one was NOVELTY. When the students arrived in the classroom, they probably had no idea they’d have to stand up and walk around looking for fruits and vegetables in baskets. This made them CURIOUS and CURIOSITY increases ENGAGEMENT. Then there was COMPETITION. Using games where something is at stake, points, winning, anything, is quite engaging. Finally, there was a REWARD and CHOICE. When students know they will get a reward if they win, their reward center in the brain releases dopamine in an interesting way: 1) first because of the expectation; 2) secondly because of the reward itself. When we offer rewards every class, students get a dopamine spike just for the expectation, not for the reward itself as they already knew they’d get something. When they don’t know if the class will have a reward, they get the dopamine spike only for the reward itself. And CHOICE in itself is also rewarding because it boosts our sense of autonomy.

I realize it might be difficult to use ideas like situation 2 in every class. However, if we learn the principles of ENGAGE and apply to our lesson planning, we’ll be using the not-so-secret weapon I mentioned and chances are that everyone will be more engaged. To summarize what you should think about when you want to ENGAGE the learner, and add some more tips, here’s a checklist you can ask yourself before every class:

1- Is the learning environment welcoming to mistakes?  Have I told my students that all of them have what it takes to learn what I’m going to teach? (BRAIN PLASTICITY, ANXIETY and FEARFULNESS REDUCTION)

2 – Will my students be curious about the content? (APPROACH RESPONSE)

3 – Will my students be given choice in the tasks? (APPROACH RESPONSE)

4 – Will I praise their effort and accomplishments? (APPROACH RESPONSE)

5 – Will they get a reward? (APPROACH RESPONSE)

Now, perhaps the most interesting news about this: PRAISE and TOKENS work as REWARDS. There’s research showing that you don’t need to offer your students something that might cost you a lot of money or that might be difficult to get. Their reward system response to PRAISE and let’s say a pen or a sticker will be quite similar.

This short-term reward strategy, which releases dopamine, the neurotransmitter of motivation, works wonders to make sure ENGAGEMENT is happening in your lesson.

If you need ideas for games, check out my blog posts here, here, here, and here.

You can also take a look at this lesson plan I created based on some of the ideas discussed here

A reward you might consider giving yourself is joining my National Geographic Learning Webinar. Check out this link

REFERENCES

Howard-Jones, P. A., & Jay, T. (2016). Reward, learning and games. Current Opinion in Behavioral Sciences, 10, 65-72. doi:https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cobeha.2016.04.015

Nieuwenhuis, S., Heslenfeld, D. J., von Geusau, N. J. A., Mars, R. B., Holroyd, C. B., & Yeung, N. (2005). Activity in human reward-sensitive brain areas is strongly context dependent. Neuroimage, 25(4), 1302-1309.

6 Replies to “Part 1. Engage your Student”

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