The Most Engaging Class

Dexter Perkins, Univeristy of North Dakota
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published Feb 14, 2010

Earth and Mind is excited to have its first guest post. Dr. Dexter Perkins teaches geology, environmental issues, mineralogy, and ore deposits courses in the Geology Department at the University of North Dakota. Well known for his interest in teaching, Dexter is an active participant in the On the Cutting Edge program and has published extensively on the Teach the Earth websites.

According to Brain Rules (Medina 2009) students don't pay attention to boring things. They don't learn, Medina says, things that don't interest them. While this is not surprising, it got me thinking about what I could do to get students more interested in the content of my introductory geology class. One possibility, of course, is to find ways to make it all very interesting. But, I have tried this before and, despite my best efforts, don't seem to be able to do this as well as I would like. There are always some students who find what we do to be yawn-inducing, and there are always some topics that just do not seem to excite students no matter what I do.

So, I decided to survey the students and find out what they find most exciting. What if I only teach the things that students find most exciting? Wouldn't that contribute more to their education than trying to get them to learn boring things? Wouldn't it help them become better learners and thinkers – which I tell them is the most important thing?

Of course, students won't get exposed to the full breadth of a typical introductory geology class if we don't cover the less interesting material. But most of my students don't need all that information – most only take geology to fulfill a general education requirement and will never take another geology class. And, the students who are going to be geology majors? My argument to myself was that they would figure it all out when they needed to anyway.

Unsure of where I was going with this, I surveyed the students. I gave them a list of topics that we focused on during the semester and asked them to rate topics on a scale of 1 to 5 according to how interesting and engaging they found the topic. After they finished that, I asked them to rate the topics according to whether they thought the topic was an important part of the class. The chart below gives average responses from 70 students.
Figure 1. Topics are ordered from those that students found most interesting and engaging on the left, to least interesting and engaging on the right. Blue bars show average interest/engagement. Red bars show students assessment of the importance of each topic.

As the chart here shows, a most interesting geology class would focus on volcanoes, earthquakes, plate tectonics, energy resources, climate change and geomorphology. We spent quite a bit of time talking about metacognition, learning and thinking during the semester and the students seem to like that too. At the other end of the scale, the things that were least popular included topics related to mineralogy and petrology – my fields of specialization.

The level of importance assigned to a topic is quite uniform. The things they found most interesting were rated slightly higher in importance, in general, but the range of responses was not great. Apparently, lack of interest did not mean that students did not recognize that something was important, which surprised me a bit. They listed energy resources and climate change as the most important topics – which are probably the two that I would have chosen, too.

As cute and attractive as it may be, I don't really think that I will toss out a traditional geology curriculum the next time I teach introductory geology. But I do think there are some changes I can make in response to student interest. I can change the emphasis in some parts of the semester, and I can make sure that as much as possible I relate everything to the things that students find interesting. I did not ask them specifically, but I think that one reason they like earthquakes and volcanoes is because they find disasters and death to be interesting. I can certainly talk about disaster such as floods in other parts of the class. And throughout the semester I can always try to have a hook – something that will engage students – for every class.

Beyond the adjustments mentioned above, however, I am not sure what else I can and should do. I would welcome any suggestions that anyone has.

The Most Engaging Class --Discussion  

Hi Dex,
Very interesting and engaging post. I was surprised that students ranked the topic of your own specialization low on the "interesting/engaging" scale. I have always thought that I taught better and more interestingly on topics that I know more about.


Share edittextuser=75 post_id=6406 initial_post_id=0 thread_id=1942

Thanks for the post, Dexter. I think your instinct to relate things back to things that students find interesting is a good one - I relate every subject strongly to plate tectonics, using that as a framework for the whole course, and that has seemed to help keep students both interested and connected to the ideas, too.


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Thanks for this fascinating post. Congratulations on your award! I have not taught an introductory class like this one in a while but my recollection is that is exactly how our students saw things. What I gather from this is that it is difficult for students to really appreciate the extremel sluggish processes (metamorphism) or things they cannot see (earth's interior). They certainly get excited about all things spectacular and visual -- volcanoes and earthquakes, even in this flat peninsula. They are curious about climate change, sea level rise, and melting glaciers and so they rate them accordingly. For "unseen" things I used to use videos (glaciers, and/or models for demonstration. Did you use such tools in classes?


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Very interesting indeed! Following up on Gautam's question--do you present different topics in significantly different ways? Are some more hands-on than others, or do some (e.g., disasters) involve more engagement with technology, popular media, or current events? ...Steve


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This post was edited by Sean Cornell on Feb, 2010
I wonder if your intro class has separate lab and lecture components?

In the last three years, I have found just about the same thing... that is students drift off and lose interest very quickly when the "ticking time bomb's of geology" are not the topic of discussion. I have noticed that I seem to be able to hold their attention for between 20-30 minutes on any topic before they zone out.

Since arriving at Shippensburg, I have changed my teaching strategy and think that interest levels in the "traditional" geology topics are improving. This is, in part, because I have had to transition from the old or traditional model of separate lab and lecture to an integrated model that is used here at Shippensburg University. I used to think that it was unfortunate that we didn't have separate labs for our intro classes. Instead our lab time is incorporated into our lectures (only possible because class sizes are capped at 36 students). At first, I would lecture 2 days a week and then work on lab on the third, but realized this didn't motivate the students. So now I fully incorporate active learning so that I routinely lecture in 20 to 30 minute blocks and I intersperse tactile activation activities that engage students and keep their interest. I don't seem to be able to cover as much content as I used to, but the students seem to understand more of what I teach. Compared to when I started, students report that I am "more effective" as an instructor, and I think it is simply because I have been able to engage them on a daily basis more. Average scores on similar assessments are improving overall.

Some strategies that I use to solve the lack of interest, (knowing that our students feel that they need to be stimulated constantly), are simple.

First, I require all students to complete two "Geology in the News" assignments electronically. These are posted on the discussion board of our electronic learning platform (currently BlackBoard). These news assignments ask students to identify a natural resource issue and a hazard issue each semester and ask that they relate the topic to class. I read their postings and bring their topic up for a quick 3-5 minute discussion during class when it is most relevant. Students are called upon to answer questions and this generates a good deal of discussion.

Second, as much as possible, and although it might be perceived as distracting to some, I try to have rock/mineral trays or maps, etc. out all the time, even when they are not the main topic of discussion that day.
I have found that students will often pick up a rock or mineral sample instead of drifting off. Personally, I would rather them be at least looking at the rocks/minerals rather than staring off into neverland.

In addition, having the rock/mineral samples out helps you relate those to other topics. For instance when discussing natural resources (an interesting topic to students), I ask students to pull out the metallic minerals and discuss those. If I am talking about oil or gas, we pull out the black shale samples and discuss sources of hydrocarbons, we pull out the coquinas and porous sandstones to discuss reservoir rocks, etc. In this way, the students really see the rock/mineral samples as just as critical as the things that they find interesting.

Lastly, at the beginning of each semester, I ask all students to provide a brief background on places that they have lived and/or visited. I compile these lists and try as much as possible to incorporate discussion/lessons that speak to those localities as these seem to be the hook that interest students because it relates to their personal experiences.

Obviously doing all of this requires some amount of time and energy, but getting into a routine helps and the process becomes easier and less time consuming with time. It came become cumbersome in the semesters when I teach three sections of intro (108 students), but it is rewarding to be able to engage the students and get them to ask questions more frequently.

I would be curious to see if anyone else works with this same model and whether they have similar observations?


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I'm interested to look at this in another geographic location, to see if there is a "familiar sites" aspect to student interest. The "goes boom" and "in the news" topics play well in FL also, but at least judging how students vote with their feet among our intro offerings, I'd expect that water and marine-related topics might play better in FL (where I am) than in SD.


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One of my graduate students addressed the topic of relevance of topics in introductory geology using news media. The results were published last September in the Journal of College Science Teaching (Cervato, Ridky and Jach, 2009, News media databases for content selection and relevance in introductory geoscience courses. Journal of College Science Teaching, 38(7), 34-37). We looked at Iowa vs the nation and didn't find any significant difference in what the news covered. Based on this information, I modified my introductory geology class based on what is important for the students and use 'hooks' like Dexter for the rest. To answer Jeff's question, even my Midwestern students are fascinated by volcanoes and earthquakes - and Dexter's hunch is correct: it is because of their destructive power. I asked them.


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Dexter - a great post, you have also sparked an interesting discussion. I also wonder if the "death and destruction" geoscience stuff is interesting because they understand it and have an emotional connection to it without any prior knowledge. Once additional expertise is developed, however, other aspects of instruction may seem important/relevant. The problem with focusing on the death and destruction is that students may be so focused on the "seductive details" that they do not look beyond them to begin thinking about the importance of their newly acquired information about minerals.

Although I am pro "hook" (also called "catch" in the interest literature) there needs to be an effort to "hold" them and develop more sophisticated expertise based understanding of why content is important and relevant.


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Good points from all of you. I am especially intrigued by Gautem's notion involving things that can be seen and things that cannot be seen. I had not thought of it that way. But, I too try to make things visual with animations, models, etc. I do this for just about all topics. And, fyi, I almost never lecture for more than 15-20 minutes. Classes always involve hands-on group work of some sort -- or lecture tutorials such as those created by Karen Kortz (or me). So it is not my boring didactic teaching that causes them to lose interest.

Following up on Jen's last paragraph -- I wonder if it might be useful for someone to compile a list of "catches" (mia culpa) that they have been found especially effective in intro courses?


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