How do you get students to do something they haven’t done before?

Wall? Gallery? Inefficient note-taking system for that reading on Clauswitz?

This question came up from our own contributor, JP, the other night. He’s got a new module that involves getting students to do some actual activity in their community, applying their learning to try to get something achieved. He can write his own post about how that works in more detail, but one challenge that he asked for thoughts on was the question in the title.

It’s a pretty regular problem, especially in active learning circles: we want to get away from the same-old same-old, but our students get stuck once we’re away from the nice certainties of sitting in a lecture theatre, taking notes (or, at least, we think they’ll be).

Three main points here.

First up, flag the novelty. At every point you can – and especially before the course/module starts – be very clear about how this will not be like ‘regular’ classes.

That’s a mix of (mostly) positive messaging about how they’ll be doing new, interesting and useful stuff with you and (in the background) negative messaging about how if they don’t do, then they’ll struggle to do well/get high grades in the class.

I used to do this in the presentations of modules we ran at the end of semester for the following semester, in my pre-semester email-outs, my module handbook, my VLE, my intro class and any other point that someone asked me about the module.

Be clear about what it involves and how you’ll guide them through it all. Indeed, you might flag more implicitly by not doing same lead-ins that you might do on a more classically-run module: rather than a dry reading list, why not other media or an activity or something that shouts “we’re doing something else here”?

Secondly, scaffold. Build up to the really challenging stuff, by breaking it down into smaller elements and steps. Introduce those from the get-go, to cement the first point I just made: no sense in that shouting about difference if the first half of the module is just lectures.

You’re trying to draw students into new ground, but without leaving them feeling fully unsupported. Yes, you might want them to understand new situations and develop their resilience, but that has to be balanced against reassuring them that this is all in an environment where failure isn’t punished, but learnt from.

That means prepping all your materials in good time, and gaming (alone or with colleagues) where the pinch points might lie, so you can anticipate and reduce them.

Ideally, you want your students to discover that the transition into some great new stuff wasn’t really a problem at all.

And finally, remember that students trust you as a teacher/instructor.

If you are fully behind your learning plan and you can communicate what you’re trying to do and why, then students will go a lot further than you might think at first.

It’s why no one raises an eyebrow at a course that’s just lecture-and-seminar: it’s so unremarkable that no one questions it, so everyone just gets on with it.

This point even extends to you being clear that you’re not sure about how some part of your course will play out and you’d value students’ input: your confidence in being open to that speaks to your wider confidence about the general approach, plus it invites the students to get inside your logic as they consider how to optimise its operation.

Holding all of this together is the idea that you are doing this with the students, not to them.