For Your Classroom

How to Get Your Students Invested in Your Next Unit

Let’s face it: sometimes we have to teach things that are downright boring, even for us. We know it’s relevant information that students need. But that doesn’t make it any less painful when you see the look of disappointment or frustration in their eyes when you announce the unit topic.

Try incorporating some of these easy ideas to help students be more interested and invested in your next unit of study.

Give choice. There are so many ways to accomplish this. (Whatever way you choose, keep it simple. This method can quickly create more work for you than it’s worth.) 

Here are some examples of ways to incorporate student choice: 

  • For a list of problems or questions, allow students to either complete all the odds or all the evens.
  • Use a choice menu or list of ideas for students to choose an assignment or writing prompt from.
  • Allow students to come up with their own assignment to show what they know (it must be approved by you first).
  • Give a choice of what to study: consider what the learning goals are for the unit, and if there are multiple paths to arrive at those goals, allow students to choose their path, even it it’s just between 2 or 3 options. Provide options that can all have the same assessment or same type of assessment.

Ask about opinion or personal experience. Human beings, especially teenagers, are most comfortable and excited talking about one thing: themselves. 

I once had my students take the Myers-Briggs personality test when we had extra time in class, because I felt it would help me get to know them better, and help them get to know themselves. I was surprised to see students who were usually lethargic engaged in taking the quiz, and excitedly studying the results. They were interested because it was about them. 

When you can, make a unit of study about them, or at least connect their opinions to the unit. For example, when I taught The Scarlet Letter, I first handed out a survey to the students asking questions such as, Do you think people should be publicly shamed for wrongdoing? What would be the best way to deal with infidelity in a marriage?, etc. They were intrigued by the questions and invested in sharing their opinions. 

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Sometimes it’s valuable to ask open-ended questions and make it clear that there is no right or wrong answer — you’re only seeking the students’ personal thoughts and opinions. Teenagers aren’t often asked to contribute in this way; doing so makes them feel important, and will often switch their brains to “on,” and they’ll be ready for whatever learning naturally follows.

Use a silly means to a serious end. If the topic you’re needing to cover is dry, get students engaged by allowing them to practice the skill or show what they know in a light-hearted or humorous way. 

For example, teaching middle schoolers how to write a formal outline can be painful. But when the practice outline you do together on the board is about their favorite restaurants, they perk up a little. And when you let them write their own outline about a topic of their choice, you’ll enjoy grading assignments about unicorns, hedgehogs, and ninjas, and they won’t hate outlining so much after all.

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