Updated: May 29, 2022
Picture that guy you know with very little general knowledge. Everyone knows one. He keeps you absolutely baffled. How is it possible that he doesn’t know who Abraham Lincoln is? What do you mean he doesn’t know how to use the dishwasher? Did he seriously just ask you what 10 times 7 is? And yet, this guy can rattle off every single NFL player including all of their stats and all the teams they’ve ever played on. He knows a detailed history of all of the head coaches of every team. He knows the final score of each and every game this season and can list off each team’s rank and the probability that they will make the playoffs this year.
“How is that possible?,” I asked my husband not long ago, in reference to our lack of general knowledge/common sense guy. “Because he cares about football,” he replied, “he doesn’t care about that other stuff.”
BAM. He absolutely nailed it. If your students don’t care about the topic you are teaching them, they aren’t going to remember it. Maybe some of them will remember long enough to get through the test, but then their brains will drop it like it's hot. You know it’s true. How much trigonometry do you remember? I don’t even remember enough to ask you a specific trigonometry question right now for the purposes of proving my point. So how do we make them care? Here are 4 ways to make instruction meaningful for your students so that, maybe, just maybe, they will actually remember it.
Number One: Make It Authentic
Pictured above are some posters my students made in science class last year to raise awareness about endangered animals in our area. Those kids really, really cared about these animals. They put a tremendous amount of time and effort into researching why the animals were endangered and what could be done to save them. They put even more time and effort into designing and creating an eye catching poster so that others in our school and in our community would do their part to help save the animals. They were incredibly proud of what they had done and were more than happy to rattle off red wolf facts and statistics to random passersby. Why were they so invested, you might ask… because I made it real.
Any time you can take a project or assignment outside of your classroom and give it real stakes in the school or community, you are upping the ante on student interest. We didn’t just make the above posters and turn them in for a grade, maybe show them to parents later, maybe just throw them away, we made them authentic. We hung these posters around our school building to raise awareness about the animals amongst our student body. We took it even farther than that – we took the really goods ones out into the community, hanging them in coffee shops and stores, anywhere a community bulletin board was available. That red wolf poster still hangs in a coffee shop near my house. The woodpecker lines the walls of a local pizza parlor to this day.
Students are much more invested in a topic if the assignment has a real purpose and a real audience. Think about it, you wouldn’t want to write a story that only one person (your teacher) will ever read. If you’d put real time and effort into something, you’d want to get it out there. You’d want it to be worth it. Here are some other examples of making assignments authentic:
Instead of writing a story to turn in for a grade that will only be read by the teacher, let students read their stories to students in a younger grade. Make sure they know ahead of time that this is the end goal. They will be way more into the assignment because they will want to have something good when the time comes to read it to the younger students.
Learning about letter writing? Get your students some pen pals. Don’t make them write a letter to no one! You wouldn’t write a letter to no one. What’s the point? Contact a teacher in a nearby school (who teaches the same grade as you) and get a letter exchange going. Your students will love getting to know a student at another school (how exotic!) and they will become better writers in the process.
Let them create something and then actually use it. Most recently, I had my students create math board games. The game had to incorporate multiplication or division practice in some way. Then, we took a whole class period and played our games. They were so proud of what they had created and couldn’t wait to teach their classmates their game.
Let them teach the class. If a student knows going into a research project that they are going to have to teach this information to the class, you better believe they are going to become an expert on the topic. They could create a Google Slides presentation or poster to display their findings. One year, as an end of year activity, I had students choose a topic we had learned about that year and create a book about it. I told them I would let next years 4th graders read their books as a sneak peak of all the exciting things they would learn about that year.
Number Two: Make It a Competition
If the end goal of the activity you assign is to learn multiplication facts, very few of your students are going to be invested. Eight year olds just don’t really care about multiplication facts. I wish they did, but they don’t. If you can give the activity another angle, though, you may just be able to trick them into caring. Turning a learning activity into a competition is a great way to capture student interest. Make the end goal winning as opposed to learning. Don’t worry, they will still be learning, they just won’t realize it. Here are some ways to turn an assignment into a competition:
Make it a game – Math lends itself nicely to game making. It’s very easy to turn math fact practice into a card game or board game and there are a lot of good ones out there already. Don’t just hand out a worksheet to practice multiplication facts, print the equations on cards and play War (or check out my version here). Don’t just simplify fractions on boring paper, make it a board game like this one I created. In fact, I have written an entire blog post on turning math into a game. Check it out!
Make it a contest – The endangered animal poster activity described above wasn’t just authentic, it was also a contest. After students finished their posters, we gave each one a number and hung them up on the board anonymously. Then, the class voted on their favorites. The top ranked posters, or “winners” were the ones we hung up in the community, the others were hung around the school building. This can also work well with writing. Learning how to write five paragraph essays? Have an essay contest! Let the students vote on their favorite or ask another teacher to be the judge.
Play Jeopardy – Who doesn’t love Jeopardy? I’ve used this free Jeopardy game maker from Super Teacher Tools to make all kinds of games for test review. There are also a lot of pre-made Jeopardy games out there. When we play, I divide my class into teams of about 4 or 5 students. I choose a speaker from each team and then we take turns. Team 1 chooses a category and a point value and works together as a team to answer that question. Then, it’s team 2’s turn and so on. For final Jeopardy, I ask them to whisper their wager to me and I record it secretly. Then, I give each team a white board to record their final Jeopardy answer.
Play Kahoot – My students absolutely LOVE Kahoot. This free online quiz game maker is perfect for test review and gives you an idea of what students know without singling anyone out. You can make your own Kahoot or choose from tons of pre-existing quizzes. I promise this will be a big hit in your class!
There are a lot of ways to make an assignment into a competition. Consider offering some kind of prize or incentive for “winning” to really get your class interested. This type of activity also provides a great opportunity to discuss sportsmanship with your students!
Number Three: Give Them a Choice
I’m sure you know what it’s like to be given an assignment topic you have absolutely no interest in. Mine was Crispus Attucks in 5th grade. I have nothing against Mr. Attucks, I just had no idea who he was and wasn’t all that interested in finding out. I wrote the report and I probably got an okay grade on it, but to this day I know very little about Crispus Attucks. Full disclosure, I had to do a Google search to even remember his name for this post. There is an easy solution to this. When you let your students choose their own topic or activity, they will feel a sense of ownership over it. Instead of handing out a topic of your choosing, give them a selection to choose from and let them pick. Better yet, let the choose the activity too. Here are some tips for making this work:
Let them choose the topic – Instead of saying “You’re doing Crispus Attucks and that’s final,” give the student a list of important Revolutionary War figures (with a little blurb about what makes them significant) and let them choose the one that they find most interesting. Want everyone in your class to have a different topic and worried they will all choose George Washington? Let them write down their top 3 on a slip of paper. Go through their choices and assign each student someone from their top 3. I used this method when assigning animals for an animal adaptations essay assignment and was able to give everyone a different animal that was in their top 3. It may take a bit of your time but it’s worth it if means engaging a student who would otherwise throw together something useless that he obviously copied and pasted from Wikipedia without even reading (Oh please, like he actually knew and used the word dichotomy of his own accord!)
Let them choose the activity – Maybe the topic is set – the moon – for example. You can still give the students a say. Rather than assigning a specific activity like “Write an essay about the moon,” consider giving them a selection of projects to choose from. I have heard this sort of thing referred to as a “menu.” Your Moon Menu might include: Write and illustrate a story about someone visiting the moon, create a poster about the moon, use Google Slides to create a presentation about the moon, create a moon themed board game, make a brochure with information for tourists hoping to visit the moon, create a model of the moon, write a script and act out the scene of an astronaut’s first trip to the moon… the possibilities are endless.
Number Four: Keep Up With What's "Trending"
If you pay even a little bit of attention to your students, you will pick up on some things they are interested in. You will overhear conversations about the latest video game craze, the hottest new fashions, and the next catchy animated film sweeping the nation. This all seems trivial, but you can actually use these trends to your advantage at school. If you can create an assignment that incorporates something your students care about, then they will care about the assignment. Here are some ways I’ve taken advantage of what’s trending to capture the interest of my students:
Fidget Spinners – Originally introduced as a sort of tool to help students with focus issues concentrate, it immediately became apparent that fidget spinners were more of a distraction than anything. The incessant whirring of those insufferable ball bearings were enough to make any teacher pull her hair out. It wasn’t long before schools all over the nation were slapping bans on fidget spinners in the classroom. At my school, you had to bring in a legit doctors note saying you needed a fidget spinner for medical reasons… like a prescription fidget spinner. Despite this, I kept thinking there had to be a way to capitalize on this craze. Few trends since TY Beanie Babies have captured the hearts of children so quickly and so completely. That’s when I realized that a fidget spinner could be used as a timer of sorts. If you lay the spinner flat on a table and give it a good spin, it goes for a while, maybe a couple of minutes. I started using fidget spinners as timers for practicing math fact recall and it was a huge hit! The interest level for multiplication fact practice went through the roof! If your interested in the fact sheet pictured above, you can find it in my TPT store here.
Social Media – It’s no secret that social media is trending. Even if your students are too young for Instagram and Facebook, they have certainly heard of it and have parents or older siblings who use it regularly. Give them a chance to feel like they are part of the social media movement and they will jump right on board. Last year in Social Studies, I let my students choose an important person in North Carolina’s history for an Instagram project. I gave them a blank Instagram template that I created (available here). They created an Instagram page for that person, including a username, photos of important scenes from that person’s life, captions, and comments. They had a blast and came up with some really good stuff! How neat to imagine what sorts of pictures would be on the Instagram of Blackbeard or Virginia Dare. This type of assignment could also work with Facebook or Twitter. I have a Facebook template available here. Instead of a historical figure, consider using a character from book students are reading!
Popular Characters – A couple of years ago when Pokemon Go was sweeping the nation, I decided to ride Pikachu’s coattails. I made some Pokemon themed multiplication task cards and they were a huge hit. Each card featured a different Pokemon character and, in a way, students felt like solving a card was like collecting that Pokemon. It made me realize how easy it was to capture student interest using characters that they loved. Girls swooning over Elsa? Boys can’t get enough of Batman? Use them! Put them on your worksheets, your task cards, your games. Write a word problem featuring them. I guarantee you will capture some student interest. Check out Coloring Squared if you haven’t already. They have a ton of great color-by-number type worksheets that you can download and print for free. Be sure to check out all the high interest characters they have to offer like: Star Wars, Disney, Super Heroes, Harry Potter, Minecraft, Pokemon, and the list goes on! Practicing math facts has never been so fun! Tip: By student request, I white out the title at the top to make it a mystery picture!