How to Turn Boring Lessons Into Engaging Content

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When I was in 3rd grade, my teacher taught our class cursive writing by letting us smooth globs of our dad’s shaving cream all over our desks and then practice writing the letters in it with our fingers. If we messed up it was okay – we just smoothed it over and started again. We were enjoying it so much that it took us awhile to notice other teachers and students peeking in the doorway to see what we were doing that sounded so fun.

That was several decades ago and I still remember how quickly we all learned to write in cursive, as well as how much fun we all had that day with an otherwise boring topic. Plus the classroom smelled like a “dad hug” for several days after, and we delighted the janitor with how clean our desks were!

Obviously there are still great teachers like that out there – we hear from them every day on our blog and on social media. But times have definitely changed with the advent of virtual classrooms, blended learning, and advanced digital tools. How do you engage students when they aren’t in the same room with you? The blog below shares five great tips to keep in mind when creating engaging content.

This post originally ran on the Global Personalized Academic Blog.

John Logan

“Anyone who tries to make a distinction between education and entertainment doesn’t know the first thing about either.”

—Marshall McLuhan

Mr. Mowry swiftly pulled away the pillow case with all the flair of a Las Vegas magician. The crowd of teens gasped in unison at the sight of the oversized glass jar. We had waited all semester for this promised treat and now there it was—a real human brain, suspended in yellowish liquid, right before our eyes.

Great teachers know how to engage students in the classroom and Mr. Mowry had all the tools—interesting props, body movement, skillful use of the whiteboard, a change in speaking volume or tone of voice at just the right moment. He drew us in with emotional stories and humorous examples that made the content come alive.

Unfortunately, when you take away a few of these go-to tools, even great teachers like Mr. Mowry struggle to turn those classroom lessons into engaging online experiences.
Here are five tips to try the next time you want to create engaging content.

1. Compete for attention.

Before you can overcome a student’s ability to learn you have to overcome their willingness to listen. As the Heath Brothers so eloquently put it in Made to Stick, “The first problem of communication is getting people’s attention.”
Please don’t assume students are waiting for your message. As educators we often forget what it was like to be a student, struggling to stay awake in an uncomfortable desk, distracted by the incessant tapping of the fidgeting boy to our right and the sweet smell of the beautiful girl to our left.
Engaging content
The challenge for digital content is even tougher. If you think students get distracted easily in a classroom, imagine putting them in front of a computer. Suddenly you’re competing with the entire world wide web. Would they rather read your lesson or surf social media? Would they rather watch your video or the latest YouTube fail compilation? Would they rather learn how to solve for X or learn how to beat the next level in Call of Duty?
It’s an uphill battle for those student brains, and you have to be willing to fight for it.

2. Start with students, not standards.

The biggest mistake teachers make when building online lessons is starting with standards. “Here is what I want to teach.” I get it. That methodology makes sense in a teacher’s mind, but it’s a long road to fun from a list of bureaucratic benchmarks. Let’s face it, from a student perspective (and this is the only one that matters here) standards are boring. Why would you start with boring?
If you want to compete for attention and create engaging content you’ll need to start with students, not standards. Start with something students are already interested in. Once you have them leaning forward, it’s much easier to weave in the learning. Great teachers do this in the classroom and it’s even more important online.
When you sit down to write an online lesson, think like a comedian—write the punchline first. That doesn’t mean you should try to be funny, it means you should think creatively about how to make your educational concepts relevant to the student world. Once you have an interesting, entertaining, or memorable connection, then build the lesson or assessment content around it.
But how will you know what students are interested in?

3. Be an anthropologist.

Want to engage students? Study them. Figure out what they are into, their likes and dislikes. Follow the latest trends in music, movies, games, fashion, humor, celebrities and sports. And please don’t assume you know them because you have children of your own or you’ve been teaching this age group for 20 years.
Students are changing all the time. Every class is different. Pop culture is moving at a crazy rate of speed and it’s not easy to keep your finger on the pulse. It takes effort, research and conversation with kids to understand the popular trends in technology, entertainment and social media.
Engaging content
Students don’t expect you to be cool. In fact, if you start referencing the latest meme or music track you may instantly make it uncool. But speaking even a little of their language will go a long way toward engagement.
Of course what is cool to some may be old news to others, so your next challenge is getting to know all your students so you can personalize the learning. Sorry, nobody said this was easy.

4. Weave in the learning.

Once you understand what students are interested in and you have grabbed their attention, it’s time to weave in the learning. This means interlacing the instruction with engaging content to create the fabric of a great lesson. If you craft it properly, the students won’t even realize they are mastering those boring standards.
However, if you stack the instruction between unrelated sections of fun, you’ll end up with what the serious gaming world calls “chocolate covered broccoli”. This term is used to refer to games that give players a fun task, followed by traditional teaching—for instance, asking students to solve traditional math problems in order to earn ammunition to shoot aliens. While your student might take a bite of the broccoli the first time, she’ll quickly figure out it’s the same old green veggie (or long-division problem) adults have been pushing for years.
To keep students engaged in online learning you’ll need to actually make the learning and problem solving engaging, not just stack it between funny cat videos. So get creative and ask students to solve problems relevant to their real world.

5. Test drive it.

In the classroom teachers have the benefit of feedback. When students are excited the teacher can see it and keep heading down that path. When students become disinterested good teachers know instantly and change directions. So how do we create online curriculum that keeps students engaged?
In the near future, every online learning platform will gather student feedback and adjust the lesson delivery to meet individual student needs, but unfortunately it will still be a few years before most students have access to this level of automated personalization. In the meantime teachers and curriculum writers can gather feedback ahead of time. This means testing.
Once your lesson or assessment is created, put it in front of students and watch their reaction just like you would in a classroom. If they look excited, you are probably on the right track. If they look like a drowsy, apathetic teen, you have some work to do.
Notice I didn’t say, “Ask them if they like it.” In my experience with casual testing, this almost always leads to false positives. Students generally want to please their teacher and probably won’t tell you that your baby is ugly (at least not to your face).
engaging content
If you are creating content to be sold or shared beyond a single classroom, you’ll want to invest time and money in a more formal level of feedback. There are lots of online market research tools you can use to survey students. Create quick surveys with Survey Monkey, gather feelings with Temper or test usability with Loop11.
No matter how you collect the feedback, it’s important you are talking to the right audience and you actually listen to their opinions. Great content creators are hungry to learn from student feedback and willing to improve their instruction. If you want to turn the boring lesson into engaging online content, put the ego aside and test drive it.
Mr. Mowry would have gotten a thumbs up from me on his Biology lesson. Hopefully with a few of these techniques you can bring that same level of engagement magic to your next online lesson.
For more on GPA and online learning, check out:


John Logan is Chief Creative Officer at Global Personalized Academics. Follow John on Twitter, @JohnLoganGPA.

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