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Helping remote learners become interested in learning

By January 19, 2021 March 2nd, 2021 No Comments

This is the second in an eight-part series by Bryan Goodwin on applying the research and teaching techniques in Learning That Sticks (ASCD and McREL International, 2020) to remote learning. See the other posts in the series: 1 | 2 | 5 | 7 | 8 

To learn anything, our brains must pay attention to it. Hence, we really only learn what we find interesting, what makes us curious, or what seems valuable to learn.

If we skip this first phase of learning and jump right into learning (OK, everyone, open your books to page 42) we are, in effect, asking students to rack their brains to come up with their own reasons for being interested in what we’re teaching them. Yet as research shows, going online is already exhausting, so it’s even more important to make remote learning interesting.

Here are a few tips drawn from decades of research on what sparks curiosity as well as the important insight that our brains are primed to pay attention first to stimuli that trigger our emotions. As a result, we can really only pay attention to learning when we feel emotionally secure, which explains why students learn more in classrooms with teachers whom they feel support them emotionally.

  • Give students time to reflect and share. Our kids are going through a lot right now, which can make it difficult for them to jump right into learning. Giving students a few minutes each day to process their feelings and experiences—through conversations and journaling—not only shows you care about them, but can also support their well-being by helping them reconstruct traumatic experiences into structured narratives and insights about how to learn from their challenges and grow as individuals. Also, you may gain new insights that can help you offer targeted attention (or referrals for professional help) to students in need. Yes, time is precious. But a few minutes here and there to help students become more emotionally prepared to learn (as well as more focused and less distractible) will pay off in the long run.
  • Launch learning with a mini mystery. Once students feel emotionally safe, we can hook their interest. One way to do this is through “mini mysteries” that introduce students to what’s puzzling, suspenseful, unexpected, or controversial about what they’re learning. Here are some examples:
    • Science phenomena. Which direction does lightning strike? What feels cooler to the touch, metal or wood? (Would you believe they’re the same temperature?)
    • Math puzzles. How do we calculate the circumference of a circle? What comes next in the sequence 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13?
    • History’s mysteries. How did a ragtag band of colonial rebels defeat a global empire? Why did the Mayans disappear? How do biomes shape civilizations?
    • Literary suspense. What will happen to Fortunato in the vaults? What will happen to the Youngers when they come into a modest fortune?
    • Cross-curricular controversies. Should apex predators, like wolves, be re-introduced in our state? What are the benefits—and drawbacks—of a carbon tax?

You can use presentations, videos or print materials—like these free science teacher resources—to get students interested in variety of topics.

  • Look a little closer, think a little more deeply. You can also help students spark their own curiosity by encouraging them to engage in close observation. For example, as you launch a lesson on the Industrial Revolution, you might show them pre-Industrial and post-Industrial photos of the same area and ask them to identify differences and speculate on what changed. Similarly, you might ask them to observe time-lapse videos of clouds forming, plants growing, or crystals forming, and ask them to generate lists (individually or collaboratively) of possible explanations for what’s happening. Or you might ask them to read a poem or literary text closely and reflect on the writer’s meaning.

As you may have already experienced, remote learning can offer some great, new ways to hook student interest—for example, you can share videos and photos, or invite students to find objects in their own homes. Keep in mind, though, that one of the biggest drivers of curiosity is novelty—we pay attention to what’s new and different. So, be sure to mix up how you launch your online lessons.

Also, remember you don’t have to do all the work to make students curious. It’s often better to invite them to come up with their own curiosity-provoking questions. After all, curiosity lies in the eye of the beholder.

Finally, don’t feel as though you must launch every lesson with a hook—it can be sufficient to provide a unit-level hook and refer back to it regularly, inviting students to recall (and find new) things they find intriguing about a particular topic.

Bryan Goodwin is the president and CEO of McREL International. 

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About McREL.org

McREL is a non-profit, non-partisan education research and development organization that since 1966 has turned knowledge about what works in education into practical, effective guidance and training for teachers and education leaders across the U.S. and around the world.