If it’s interesting, they’ll listen


Which high school subject is most interesting to students?

  • Economics
  • Pre-calculus
  • Physics
  • English
  • History

The answer: None of the above.

No subject is inherently the most interesting; what students find interesting depends on how we teach the material.

I was reminded of this twice in the past week, thanks to my AP Psych students.

First, I read their semester experiment posters. One of my groups this year tested “boring” v. “engaging” instruction by teaching a brief lesson on the Bay of Pigs to two junior/senior English classes.

In one class, they used “enunciation, energy and movement”; in the other they read the information slowly off of their phones.

They found that not only were students in the monotone class less likely to remember the material — scoring an average of 4/10 on the quiz compared to almost 7/10 for the better class — many were unwilling to engage at all.

“The class with the good presentation took us seriously and showed us more respect,” the students concluded. “The other class didn’t even care.”

Sound familiar?

Second, I watched several hours worth of students’ video presentations on various psych disorders, like schizophrenia and generalized anxiety disorder. Almost every group did a solid job researching the symptoms, history, epidemiology, etiology and treatment of their assigned disorder, but some of the videos were so monotonous that I found myself checking email and doing shoulder exercises to distract myself. It was just too hard to sit still and listen.

Some groups, though, managed to put together swift, concise and really engaging videos, with a storyline and vivid examples to illustrate the symptoms of their assigned disorder. They were clearly enjoying themselves, and as a result, so did I.

I’m sure the students watching them noticed the difference.

Any subject can be fascinating, if it’s presented the right way — with choice details, a human interest story, a bit of suspense, and some activity on the learner’s part. Any subject can also be boring, if we strip it of life, as we too often do in our haste to “get through everything.”

I know every subject on the list above can be interesting (even if econ is my favorite). Unfortunately, our students will label them all “boring” if they have one bad experience. If we want our students to stay engaged, we can’t afford to let that happen.