Popcorn: Piquing Curiosity & Spurring Action

I recently observed a colleague’s teaching.  The class met at 4:30. By that time I already taught a couple of sessions, attended a meeting, held office hours, and normally would have been heading home. By the time I got to class, I was worn out.

Do you ever consider: How many classes have your students sat through before yours? Are they tired? Did they work before class? Are they leaving for work right after? Do they have kids, spouses, and/or bills distracting them? Are they hungry? With all the possible distractions and concerns students bring into our classes, we need to be intentional about setting the stage and designing opportunities to hook, draw in and direct their focus to learning.

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I like to think of the hook as the “popcorn effect.” It’s a throwback to my college days. Microwave ovens weren’t ubiquitous (my age is showing here) thus, many of us owned a popcorn popper. Here’s the scene. I’m working diligently at my desk, or reading on my bed, when the first small wafts of popcorny goodness tickle my nose. Sniff. SNIFF. INHALE. Once you smell freshly popped corn, you’ve got to have some! The smell of popcorn lured me and my floormates to find the source, grab a handful, and then pop our own. The smell initiates a chain reaction, moving us from passive (sniffing) to action (making more).

How can we leverage the popcorn effect in teaching?

  • Shock-n-Awe: One strategy  I like to use is the startling example.  In economics,  the Production Possibilities Frontier (PPF) model is represented by guns (military spending) and butter (consumer goods).  [Insert yawn here.] But, when I mention Colorado’s PPF can be represented by “pot” and Twinkies, students gasp, laugh and begin devising their own examples to share with a neighbor.
  • Current Events: Fraud, weird science articles, celebrity foolishness, and interesting discipline-based stories are excellent lead-ins to learning. At first the teacher can provide the articles; later, ask students to find examples to share and discuss.
  • Photos: A picture really is worth a 1,000 words. Serious, thoughtful, or funny images can be a pleasant surprise or offbeat way to introduce a new topic, pull students in at the start of class, or a provide a quick mental break during the session.
  • Stories: Narrative is one of my favorite instructional strategies. Regular readers of this blog have probably noticed how I integrate personal experiences in my writing and teaching. Strange, funny, stories from real life are a powerful way to connect with students. Personal accounts can be the hook, or teachers can leverage students’ interests and experiences to connect with content through reflective writing.
  • Cases: Incomplete information is a key aspect of case study learning. The itch to fill the gap through speculation and formulation of possible explanations or courses of action leverages the power of curiosity and interest to learn. Case discussions promote engagement while students construct their understanding of the underlying principles, concepts, and processes.
  • Humor: Silly jokes, puns, and comics lighten the mood, providing a valuable reminder that learning doesn’t always have to be serious business.

Capturing students’ attention is the first step. Holding it requires sustained interest. One way to maintain interest is through shared ownership and control. A straightforward place to to start is with conversations about

  • Participation, attendance, mobile device & other course policies
  • Deadlines
  • Course weights
  • Course norm statements (Tanner, 2013)
  • Course expectations/syllabus activity

Sharing some control with students fosters buy-in of the learning process. Shared decision-making promotes student ownership and responsibility for learning. It’s no longer just about the teacher teaching. Generally, students are pleasantly surprised (to put it mildly) when asked and allowed to establish norms and expectations for the class. Please read Learner-Centered Syllabi  for additional strategies and suggestions.

REFERENCE: Tanner, K.D. 2013. Structure Matters: Twenty-One Teaching Strategies to Promote Student Engagement and Equity, CBE-Life Sciences Education, 12: 322-331.


About Lolita Paff

Educator. Wife. Mother. Amateur chef. Wine lover.

Posted on July 27, 2017, in Learning, Students, Teaching. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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