Begin with a real-world problem
that students can attack and possibly solve through small group work. The solution is less important than the fact that the problem demonstrates the importance of the content or concept, that there is immediate engagement in an active learning process, and that the group work helps to reduce anxiety about “getting the right answer.” If students do solve the problem, so much the better, because you will have demonstrated that mastering the content is possible. You can devise more complex problems as time goes on.
A second way to stimulate interest is to use examples that clearly connect with students’ backgrounds. Ask students to draw on prior learning and personal experience to demonstrate the relevance of the content. Since learning is the sum of each person’s experiences, and since success in meeting a challenge is a powerful motivator, blending experience with new content helps students to organize the new content. Neuroscience research(3, 4) has reached similar conclusions. When students succeed, they want to learn more, and they realize why learning is cumulative rather than just the memorization of bits of information. Stimulation comes in part from the realization that their success resulted from effort, the application of previous learning to new material, and the construction of new meaning.
The quality of your questions can lead students to more complex thinking and thus, lead to higher levels of cognitive activity. Questions asking for opinions, observations, or recall are useful to open a discussion or topic, but a stair step process that leads to open-ended questions that pose problems or cases requiring analysis, evaluation, or the creation of new ideas or solutions can be very effective. Leading students through these taxonomic levels (5) also demonstrates metacognitive process and models a thorough approach to learning about new topics. However, you do not always have to be the source of stimulating ideas. Giving students the freedom to generate ideas through brainstorming, review of data or opinions, or reaction to cases, provides a different, but equally useful kind of stimulation. Students’ investment in their own ideas will itself provide the motivation to further discuss, analyze, or defend these ideas and prove their worth.
A less common strategy for stimulating students is to use humor. Though it takes time to develop materials and skills, the use of humor can create interest, reduce anxiety, and provide images and other connections that allow easier recall of information (6). Anecdotes, examples, games, or other techniques can all be used to good effect without fear that one’s teaching will be jeopardized. Indeed, most successful humor centers on the use of common understandings, uncommon events, or unusual twists of expected outcomes as the basis for the humor. Rarely if ever, does the use of humor mean simply trying to tell jokes, and in fact, such an approach can be dangerous. Rather, the point is finding opportunities to point out incongruity or to provide examples of various kinds of errors are rich fields for exploration. In a similar approach, many teachers introduce new topics by beginning with a contradiction, a paradox, of some kind. The contradictions they pose may be humorous because of the images they suggest or the illogic they contain.
Two final, but important strategies are to use assignments that clearly connect to course content and intended outcomes, and to clearly inform students why these connections are important to learning (7). Students often perceive out-of-class work as irrelevant or “busy work,” but when the relevance and usefulness of assignments are clear, students are more willing to do the work and they value it more. The “stimulation” comes from seeing real-life applications and from realizing that the work is useful to their learning.
In sum, the introduction of stimulating ideas does not always mean presenting the most elegant, complex, or newest content. Students are most stimulated when they can connect new materials to existing knowledge, even if the connection is humorous. Making connections demonstrate that there is something valuable and interesting within the subject matter. That realization provides its own motivation for further effort and engagement.