Last class of the day, students’ eyes glazed over, hands mindlessly writing notes, sneaking glances at a phone under the table… perhaps this scene is familiar to you? Students often report feeling bored and uninterested in class content, even when the topic is (at least in the teacher’s opinion) important. How do we as teachers help our students develop, maintain, and grow interest in the content?
When I first started teaching, I quickly found that my lessons often failed to ignite student interest. I realized that I was, in a way, trying to help students cross a river of boredom, but I was building the bridge from only one side, the content. What was the other side of the bridge that I was missing?
What Is Interest?
The interest I wanted my students to develop has a rich history in educational psychology research on learning and motivation. Interest is a psychological construct that involves emotional engagement, personal value, and some amount of topic knowledge. Interest can be viewed along a continuum, from situational interest triggered by novel features of the environment to well-developed individual interest, characterized by personal choice to seek out related information.
Learners at each phase of the interest-development process have a different set of needs to fulfill to be able to progress to deeper stages. There are strategies that can help educators guide learners to begin to develop interest in any content area.
In my initial attempts at engaging student interest, I relied on standard techniques such as providing student choice, making “real world” connections, using games and puzzles, and structuring activities to provide an optimal level of difficulty. These strategies were all focused on the content and structure of class, building that single side of the bridge that failed to help my students get to the interest I desired.
Eventually I found that my content focus was overlooking the emotional needs of my students. I needed to help my students develop a sense of belonging and connection. This student–teacher connection enhances general student engagement in school, improves education outcomes, and, when used strategically, can provide another tool for teachers to support student interest development—to begin to construct the other side of that bridge.
According to my own research on interest in online learning, students who felt more connected to their teachers reported a concurrent increase in interest in the content presented. When teachers took the time to share personal stories, made space for interpersonal interaction, and showed empathy for the learning process, those simple human gestures worked in harmony with the cognitive side of learning to generate deeper interest and increase engagement.
4 Ways to Connect Course Content to Students’ Needs
1. Setting up clear expectations in the course structure: Emotional safety is a key element of effective instruction and the cornerstone of the type of student-teacher connection that helps generate interest. Teachers who set clear guidelines and expectations help create a predictable environment where students can know what they are expected to do and feel confident that they will be supported and evaluated fairly. This sense of safety and certainty is essential for interest development because once triggered by good content, interest grows through personal exploration.
Students need a sense of safety to be able to engage in the risk-taking exploration involved in interest development. Uncertainty generates anxiety and decreases learning, while safety and support enhance students’ ability to engage with content and explore. Students in my research study shared that a well-organized lesson or teacher website was one of the most important components for allowing them to remain interested, once their interest was triggered by classroom content.
2. Showing enthusiasm and humor: Once students feel safe in a well-structured class, teachers can trigger interest not only with relevant content, but also by demonstrating their own passion for the content. Interest is contagious—making space for your personal favorite pieces of content helps students see how they can begin to connect to the curriculum (and to you) as well.
Students like humor, and humor in the service of learning can be doubly effective at helping a class remain engaging. Using humor appropriately in the classroom can take many forms, such as offering riddles as icebreakers, making mildly self-deprecating comments (check out the Pratfall Effect), or sharing sometimes groan-worthy humor related to content. My personal favorite: Why should you always teach physics class on top of a cliff? That’s where students have the most potential!
3. Sharing and respecting personhood: Teacher training reminds us about the importance of getting to know our students, but interest research shows that it is important to let our students know us and see the human side of teachers as well. Sharing your own interests and struggles, within the developmentally and professionally appropriate boundaries, helps students connect to you as an individual.
Conversely, making space for students to share about their lives, and making appropriate accommodations to the fact that they have more than just school going on, help students connect with you and, concurrently, with your content. Even simple things that are personal, yet professionally presented, can help students connect. For example, one student I spoke with mentioned how the dog images that their instructor posted on the class learning management system (LMS) helped them feel more connected to their instructor as a person and, thus, interested in the topic of the class.
4. Inviting communication: Teachers are constantly sharing information with students, but two-way communication is one of the keys to connecting to students in a way that develops interest. Posting messages and reminders and inviting student replies via an LMS can be one way to communicate with individual students and connect new content to students’ existing interests.
The students in my study shared that simply knowing the instructor was open to communication as indicated by a statement on the syllabus or a “contact the teacher” link on the LMS helped them feel connected. This invitation for open communication helped students feel connected to their instructor, the course, and the content.
Connection and content work hand in hand to develop student interest. Providing a quality curriculum that incorporates student choice, real-world examples, and appropriate pedagogy is one side, essential but not sufficient. Cultivating authentic, communicative, and positive relationships is the other, less well known, factor in student interest development. When both are used, we bridge the boredom gap and help students spend class time in the middle of the river of interest, and that is where the learning occurs.