Making education more motivational

Niels Baas, module coordinator Communication Science, and Lisa Gommer, educationalist and, as a lecturer, involved in several modules at the Faculty of Engineering Technology, both visited a TEM Carrousel on student engagement. This resulted in an interesting interview about their experiences in education – about motivating students, commitment and group formation.

In line with practice
Niels starts off enthusiastically. "I try to make my discipline as engaging as I can by including as many practical examples as possible and by showing videos in class." This approach was very successful in the first module, as the subject was closely related to his own field of research and because of this he could utilise his own network to find a guest lecturer. In this module, students made a campaign plan concerning sexuality. At the start of the module, a staff member from the municipal health service held a passionate speech about her work for an hour and a half. “The students loved it, and asked an increasing number of questions. It did not take long for the lecture to turn into a Q and A." Lisa used guest lecturers a few times as well. "Without gearing towards it, these two men appeared to be opposites. In the type of work they did, but also in the type of students they used to be. It was good for the students to see that.”

Granny, hunter, bear
A second way in which students were actively involved in Niels' module, was stimulating the students to form groups. This is why Niels started the first meeting with a round of speed dating, to form project groups. "However, I got the feeling that they had to come out of their shells first, so I let them play an alternative rock-paper-scissors game. In this version, the players (i.e. students) were grannies, hunters or bears. Students who were eliminated from the game, cheered the students who were still playing on. This was also useful for learning each other's names. This might sound childish, but it is very important to make students feel at ease. Especially if you’re planning to do something like speed dating next.” Niels admits that he found the experiment quite exciting, and that he started with a safer assignment: standing in alphabetical order. The following speed dates were rather trial-and-error. But it appeared to be a success. Students participated enthusiastically, as the formation of their project groups depended on it. They had to think about which role they would be most likely to fill within the group and they would have to find the right people to complete their groups. A set of criteria were given beforehand to, for instance, make sure that German students were integrated as well as possible and spread out over the different groups. After each round, a gong sounded after which students could look for a new peer. This, of course, leads to some chaos, so Niels' advice would be -especially in larger groups- to sit at a long table and to rotate. "It is valuable to come back to the different roles within the groups at the end of the project and to let students evaluate them. Had they filled the role they had anticipated they would have, or did it turn out differently? And how did the group do?”

During the TOM Carrousel, Niels noted that he was in the students' WhatsApp group. "That was a happy coincidence. I noticed they had a WhatsApp group and I asked to join." A great experience, according to Niels, as he could see what occupied the students and where they encountered difficulties. Screenshots and pictures of lecture slides and books were eagerly shared with fellow students and they asked each other questions. Niels occasionally answered these questions. And he asked students to share noteworthy communications with each other. "They notice communication all around them and they have interesting discussions."

Choice of subject
Lisa: "I recognise a number of important principles concerning motivating students in these ideas. It is immensely motivating to recognise the value, the purpose. You can realise that by making sure your lectures are in line with day-to-day practice. A second important principle is giving students autonomy, freedom of choice." Niels nods enthusiastically. "We also offer them that choice. We do this by coming up with a broad theme for a module. The subjects for the campaign plan that students opted for ranged from STD prevention to sexting” (sharing sexually explicit photos or videos on social media). Lisa: "This freedom of choice is motivating; students feel a sense of ownership. And it is very educational: what can be accomplished in the given time and what can not?" In her experience, students enjoy modules even more if they can actually create something. "However, you shouldn't do this in every module, as it is not always suited to what you are trying to teach students. Enlisting the help of a real client is also a good tip." Niels recognises this. In his module, students could present their plan to a sexologist, with whom they had a consultancy meeting. "I recommend the option for a review, as well as concluding the module in the Classroom of the Future, because of the large tablet tables."

Setting your own deliverables
Niels notes that they are searching for the right balance between freedom and supervision. "When we first offered the module, we were overdoing it with an assignment each week. The responsibility for planning should primarily lie with the students, especially as they are left to their own devices in the second module." Lisa: "I would like to take this freedom of choice a step further. In Aalborg, they let students come up with their own projects. Sketch out a general problem and let students develop their own specific assignments. This way, students can provide different deliverables, but the trajectory towards it is the same: for instance from identifying the needs of the target group, to a design, to construction and testing.” Niels wonders out loud if that would make assessing a lot more difficult, but Lisa says this is not really a problem. “You can, for instance, assess whether the deliverable meets the needs of the chosen target group.”

Enquiry-based education
Niels remarks that Communication Studies is heading in this direction. The module Going Viral is an example of one of these new modules, in which students tackle the question: how do I go viral? Within this module, they are offered enquiry-based education. "We give them the tools to 'go viral'. We will not teach all theories, but only the theories they will require as well as theories they put forward or request." Niels explains that the project will lie at the core. The learning line will remain, but will be applied more extensively in the project. “We do not want the lecturer to supply everything. He will be walking around the classroom and he will be available for questions while the students work. This increased student participation provides lecturers with a greater flexibility, it even demands it of them." Lisa recognises an approach such as this. "In the math learning line, a portion is offered 'flipped'." In a 'flipped classroom' students study information at home, where they would previously have been offered this information during a lecture. As a result, there is much room for discussion and questions during educational meetings. "This turned out to be more difficult than we had anticipated. Students had prepared, but in a group of over 100 people, they were hesitant to ask questions." Niels nods in agreement. "That will be our biggest challenge."