The Right Way to Start Your Teaching

If you want to lose your audience's attention right off the bat, be it at a conference or in a classroom, here is a tip: start by outlining what you will cover. “Today I will cover these eight points …” By the time the sentence is out of your mouth, your audience has mentally checked out. They are either on their cell phones or, if they are more courteous, thinking of something else while practicing yawning with their mouths shut. Plus, nobody actually remembers that outline during the presentation—it's a waste of time.

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If you want to lose your audience's attention right off the bat, be it at a conference or in a classroom, here is a tip: start by outlining what you will cover. “Today I will cover these eight points …” By the time the sentence is out of your mouth, your audience has mentally checked out. They are either on their cell phones or, if they are more courteous, thinking of something else while practicing yawning with their mouths shut. Plus, nobody actually remembers that outline during the presentation—it's a waste of time.

One of the reasons we find TED Talks so compelling is that speakers are coached to never start with an outline of their topic. Instead, they begin by grabbing their audience's attention. Dan Pink's famous talk on motivation starts with the words “I have a confession to make. In a fit of youthful enthusiasm, I went to law school.” Now I want to know where the story is going, so you have my attention. One by Ann Zaccardy begins with the question “Do you think you're smart?” Try that opening on students someday.

Most teachers make the mistake of beginning their teaching modules with an outline of the topics they will cover. That is the worst way to start. Teaching is fundamentally about communicating, not covering content, and communication begins with getting your listeners psychologically invested in what you have to say. If you don't get them psychologically invested at the beginning, nothing you say will stick, meaning that they are not learning.

Here are three ways to open your online (or face-to-face) teaching modules that will grab your students' attention and prepare them to learn.

Why
Faculty think that the mere fact that a topic is part of the class and thus will be on the test should be sufficient to grab students' attention. Well, has experience proven that to be the case? Of course not. The glazed looks in the students' eyes during lectures and their cell phone viewing prove otherwise. External motivations such as grades don't motivate us and actually undermine performance and learning. (See Pink's talk.) We pay attention to what is inherently interesting to us, not to what someone tells us we “have to” pay attention to. Finding that motivating thing is the key to initiating learning.

One way to motivate is to start by telling the students why the topic is important to them. Remember that students are not in school for the grade but rather to prepare themselves for something they plan to do afterward. Connect with that thing.

For instance, I start a medical ethics class for future medical professions with this message.

As a medical professional, you will face situations where you must make ethical decisions, including possibly whether to allow someone to die. You cannot avoid these situations—they will find you—and you cannot avoid having to make a decision that you can defend, maybe even in court. Once in these situations, you will find yourself facing competing and contradictory requests. The patient's son might say, “He told me that he would rather die than be on life support,” while the patient's daughter says, “He made it clear in his advance directive that he would want to hold out hope for recovery, and his son was always after his money anyway.” We will talk about how you make and defend those decisions.

Now I have the students' attention because I've expressed the value of the topic in terms of something that is meaningful to them. I have given them a reason to be interested in the topic, and with this foundation students can start learning.

Question
Another powerful way to get someone's attention is to ask a question. Here is another example drawn from my medical ethics class.

You are the surgeon for a 76-year-old man who needs a kidney transplant. His daughter is the only possible donor, but the pre-op blood work shows that she is not a suitable donor because she is not his biological daughter. Would you tell the man, his wife, or his daughter?

Anyone who sees that question will start formulating answers. One student might say, “I would not say anything to the man or his family because it can only cause hurt without benefit,” whereas another might say, “I have to explain why we can't use his daughter, and he has a right to know.”

Not only are students psychologically invested in the topic, but the question also is an ideal segue into two important theoretical principles in medical ethics: minimize harm and be honest with patients. Understanding these principles and how they apply to real-life cases is the ultimate purpose of the class, and I have teased the principles out of their own responses to the question.

Faculty often start a subject on the theoretical level and then apply the theory to practice. But a more effective practice is to reverse the order by starting with an example that gets students thinking. Now the student has some context in which to understand the theory.

These questions need to be crafted so anyone can answer them on the basis of his or her own intuition and experience. Faculty often make the mistake of asking the class to recall questions about the readings in order to test whether they have done it. That is testing only their ability to remember information, their confidence that they have it right, and their willingness to look like a brownnose in front of the other students. No wonder we stand around waiting for someone to answer. Instead, ask students a question that will interest them and that they can answer through their own understanding and views.

Case study
A final way to open a teaching module is with a case study that relates to an important concept that will be covered. One of the classic organizational behavior case studies relates to the Challenger explosion. As most people know, a lone engineer at NASA recognized that the O-rings in the shuttle were suffering blow-by on takeoff and that it got worse as the takeoff temperature got lower. The Challenger was set to take off on the coldest takeoff day yet, and he tried to stop it. But a committee overruled him, and how they did so illustrates the important principle of groupthink.

A good way to open a module on groupthink is with a video describing that case (an excellent one exists for free). Once you start watching this video, you cannot help but be interested in the characters in the drama and how it plays out. This case study shows students that they will likely encounter groupthink in their future work and demonstrates why it is harmful. The teacher not only has the students' attention but also demonstrates the topic's relevance, and on this background can begin a more philosophical examination of the concept of groupthink itself.

Whether you are speaking to a face-to-face audience or online, start by grabbing your audience's attention right off the bat. Only then will what you have to say stick with them, and real learning will occur.

John Orlando writes, consults, and teaches faculty how to use technology to improve learning. He helped build and direct distance learning programs at the University of Vermont and Norwich University and has written more than 50 articles and delivered more than 60 workshops on teaching with technology. John is the associate director of the Center for Faculty Excellence at Northcentral University, serves on the Online Classroom editorial advisory board, and is a regular contributor to Online Classroom.