We’ve all had that teacher–the one who speaks in a monotone voice and reads aloud from the textbook. And we’ve all had the opportunity to not be that teacher. We’ve even had our moments, recognising that flash of interest in our students’ eyes, smiling as the bell rings because the energy is so high and no one wants the period to end. How do we extend these moments? How do we create an environment that keeps students stimulated and craving more? How do we have more fun?
One study of student boredom suggested that almost 60% of students find at least half their lectures boring, with about 30% claiming to find most or all of their lectures boring.
“Although a range of factors may contribute to these findings, they do prompt the question of what it is about the learning experience that might be deemed ‘boring,'” says Dr Sandi Mann, a senior lecturer in occupational psychology at the University of Central Lancashire.
Mann and her colleagues found that students adopt a variety of strategies to cope with boring lectures. The most popular are daydreaming (75%), doodling (66%), chatting to friends (50%), sending texts (45%), and passing notes to friends (38%). Over a quarter of students leave the lecture at the mid-session break.
“This ‘class cutting’ is potentially the most serious consequence, since previous research has shown a link between attendance and grades.”
One of the simplest and most effective ways to prevent boredom is to have fun yourself. If you are having a good time, chances are your students are too.
In a 2002 paper called The Ripple Effect: Emotional Contagion and its Influence on Group Behavior, Yale University researcher Sigal G. Barsade separated 94 business students into small groups, each with the same hypothetical task of allocating employee bonuses. Barsade secretly planted one student in each group to act out a different emotion: enthusiasm, hostility, serenity, or depression. When the infiltrator was enthusiastic, he smiled often, looked intently into people’s eyes, and spoke rapidly. When he feigned depression, he spoke slowly, avoided eye contact, and slouched in his seat.
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Barsade measured participants’ moods before and after the exercise and found that students who caught the actor’s positive emotions were perceived by others and by themselves as more competent and cooperative. The positive groups also believed they were more collegial than those in the bad-mood groups. But when Barsade asked the students what influenced their performance, they attributed it to their skills. “People don’t realise they are being influenced by others’ emotions,” she says.
Mimicry is a basic biological mechanism that may confer an evolutionary advantage, says Peter Totterdell, PhD, senior research fellow at the University of Sheffield in England. “It helps you understand what another person is feeling and thinking–even when she’s trying to hide it.”
And research shows that if you can put your students in a good mood, they will learn more too.
“Brain research suggests that fun is not just beneficial to learning but, by many reports, required for authentic learning and long-term memory,” writes Sean Slade for The Answer Sheet. Neurologist and educator Judy Willis’s book “Research-Based Strategies to Ignite Student Learning: Insights from a Neurologist and Classroom Teacher” (ASCD, 2006) is one of many that have highlighted the learning benefits of fun:
“The truth is that when the joy and comfort are scrubbed from the classroom and replaced with homogeneity, and when spontaneity is replaced with conformity, students’ brains are distanced from effective information processing and long-term memory storage.”
“The highest-level executive thinking, making of connections, and “aha” moments are more likely to occur in an atmosphere of “exuberant discovery,” where students of all ages retain that kindergarten enthusiasm of embracing each day with the joy of learning.”
So fun actually seems to promote learning by increasing dopamine, endorphins, and oxygen in the brain. The question is, how can we make teaching more enjoyable for ourselves in order to make learning fun for students?
How to Have More Fun Teaching
1. Discover new things together.
It’s much more fun for both parties when students and teachers learn new things together. Your job is, of course, to educate, but why can’t that process include the joy of shared discovery? Make a point each day of letting down your authoritative guard, humbling yourself, and enjoying the lifelong journey together–even if it’s just for a few mintues.
2. Incorporate mystery into your lessons.
Learning is the most fun when it’s surprising. Don’t just disseminate information; cloak it in mystery. Highlight the weird, the unusual, the unique. Ask questions. Start with a curious detail that can only be addressed by diving into the background of the subject and thoroughly exploring it. Pose a mystery at the beginning of the course and let your students work towards solving it throughout the term.
3. Be goofy; show you care.
Let loose; laugh; make fun of yourself. Don’t worry about sacrificing your authority. In fact, the latest research says authority stems from showing you care about your students, and making them laugh and feel good is one way to do that.
4. Participate in projects.
I had a creative writing professor at uni who would bring his own material to class for the students to workshop. It was great fun for all of us, and enjoyable for him as well. Stepping down to our level and actually participating in an activity he assigned himself made us all more engaged in the task because he was willing to be a part of it.
5. Avoid “going through the motions.”
If you feel yourself slipping into a rut, spending the same hours exactly the same way each day, stop and reassess your teaching process. It’s so easy to let it all become automatic, especially after twenty-plus years in the field, and to use the same lessons and techniques year after year with different students. But if it’s not fun for you, it won’t be fun for your students either. Make an effort to be fresh, try new things, take risks, make mistakes, enjoy the moment.
6. Flip your lessons.
Flipping your lessons will help you avoid boring in-class activities. If students watch lectures or correct their own homework the night before, you can spend the course period focusing on deeper learning. Everyone will appreciate the chance to reflect on, instead of repeat, the material.
7. Review–but don’t repeat–material.
It’s important for learning and memory to review new material regularly and to integrate it into the bigger picture shaped by old material. Spend an hour or two each week reviewing material from the past few weeks, but always position it within old material so that students see how it all fits together. Simply repeating new information represents a missed learning opportunity.
8. Share your passions.
Show students how you have fun. Passion is contagious. If you’re having a good time, chances are your students will too.
9. Laugh at your students’ jokes.
The best teachers I’ve ever had got a genuine kick out of their students. It’s one of the best ways to ensure teachers and students have fun: enjoy one another.
10. Replace lectures with conversations.
Why should teaching be so passive? Forget the sage on the stage and engage your students in a casual conversation like you would a good friend. This doesn’t necessarily mean asking more questions, but it does require a stylistic shift whereby you and your students are actively exchanging ideas–not just responding to them.
11. Put on a performance.
In his books and workshops, Doug Lemov talks about what pace to move around the room, what language to use when praising a student, how to adjust the angle of your head to let students know you’re looking at them. Teaching, he says, is “a performance profession.” You don’t have to be theatrical (though that might help), but you do have to be self-aware.
12. Enjoy yourself.
People with high confidence–people we respect and listen to–tend to have one important trait in common: they enjoy themselves. Quite literally. You’ll have a significantly better time teaching if you work on nurturing your personal relationship with yourself. Your students will have a better time, too.
13. Make yourself available.
Don’t go to the teacher’s lounge during lunch; stay in your room and invite students to eat lunch with you. Keep your doors open after the bell rings at the end of the day. Make yourself available online for part of the evening. Hold one-on-one and group office hours. Invite students to your home for workshops or end-of-course celebrations.
14. Try being a student again.
Take a seat in the audience and let your students teach you for the day. Spend a week doing your own assignments. Let students grade you on projects or presentations.
15. Don’t take yourself–or your subject–too seriously.
One complaint I hear from students is that teachers don’t sympathise with the fact that their course isn’t the only course students are taking. Students have to balance assignments and material from several courses at once (you had to do the same thing not so long ago). This doesn’t mean loosening your rules or being lenient on late work; it means acknowledging that students have interests and priorities that might not line up with yours. Try to be understanding, and even express interest in other courses students are taking. Think of it as an opportunity to strengthen students’ grasp of your subject by relating it to other disciplines.