When Teaching Millennials, Learning Process and Interactivity Count a Lot

Originally published at www.nais.org.

Before the first day of school, I open up to my journalism and history students via my online class page by writing to them. “I am here to help you succeed, and as much as I hope you look forward to learning from me, I’m equally excited to learn from you,” I say. I use this intro to signal to them that while I am their teacher, I’m not the only source of knowledge — and at times, not even the best. Accordingly, I include a pledge to students that…

  1. I will always return their work within a reasonable amount of time.
  2. I will always provide extra help, and they are encouraged to visit me in the Writing Center.
  3. I will always do my best to make the learning relevant and engaging.
  4. I will always be fair in what I assign and how I assess it. In that respect, they will be allowed and encouraged to revise assignments for partial or full credit.

I’ve found that my millennial students respond well to this approach in the classroom. A study published in the June 2014 issue of the National Communication Association’s journal, Communication Education, confirms what I know from experience. Researchers have found that “two types of confirming behaviors are most likely to produce positive emotional responses: demonstrating interest in the student learning process and following an interactive teaching style. In response to those teacher behaviors, students’ interest in a subject tends to increase, with their perceptions of emotional support. Those positive perceptions lead students to expand their thought processes, while improving their ability to stay focused and learn the course material.”

I didn’t always employ these positive behaviors. I remember growing frustrated when students didn’t show sufficient interest or progress while I was a first-year teacher. Looking back, I realize I didn’t offer students thoughtful feedback, nor did I figure out how they wanted to learn the material. Only when I began to consider myself as more of a coach, and less of a teacher-authoritarian, did I notice drastic improvement in my students’ performance.

Now, even before I meet students face to face, they begin to understand that I’m vested, emotionally and intellectually, in their success. If I don’t hold up my pledge, they have more of an excuse to do the same. It pushes me to work that much harder to keep my pledge through the year.

This year, I went a step further by posting a short “Mr. Cutler Introduction” video.

I expressed to my future students how much I care about their success, and how excited I am to work with them, especially as someone returning to teach at his alma mater. On opening day, many students thanked me for my sincerity. They said that even before they met me, I helped get them excited about taking one or more of my courses.

To keep students engaged — and because grades don’t provide the complete picture of an individual’s strengths and weaknesses — several times during the school year, I write in-depth comments to each student. This practice demonstrates to students that I know them on a deeper, more meaningful level, and that I care about their success. My first paragraph is a synopsis of what the class has been doing recently and what students will be learning in the coming weeks. Afterward, I write a paragraph about each of my 60–75 students, offering insight into how each has progressed and what each could do to improve.

“Sally continues to be a quiet but welcome addition to American History class,” I wrote of one former student. “Around the discussion table she has made many impressive remarks, especially upon referring to the text. At the same time, I encourage Sally to become more confident in her abilities. I sense that while she sometimes wants to make additional comments, she hesitates to do so. From what Sally does contribute, again, something I wish she would do much more, she clearly engages with material on a meaningful level. Accordingly, Sally should know that I value the views she holds and the questions she asks — and I am certain her classmates do as well.”

After reading her narrative, Sally (name changed) redoubled her efforts to succeed. She didn’t want to let herself down, but to a certain degree, she didn’t want to let me down. “It’s obvious how much effort you put into making the learning relevant, and you give us every opportunity to succeed,” she told me. “I will strive to work as hard as you do.”

Sally, once a struggling student, noticed and appreciated my enthusiasm about teaching her history and journalism — and that I do whatever I can to instill in my students a similar love of learning and discovery. As long as I see a clear passion for improvement, I don’t penalize failure harshly.

Moreover, as often as I can, I allow students to propose their own topics. Too often, students are overly dependent on adults for guidance and direction. At home and during class, my students explore online resources to inform their understanding. As challenging as it is sometimes, I refrain from offering immediate answers and solutions. If students can use the Internet to figure something out for themselves, they do. That gives them agency over their learning, and a greater sense of validation.

To that end, I teach and encourage students to blog and share their work online. I fondly remember supporting Preston Michelson, one of my former journalism students who graduated in 2013, launch his personal website. Today, he is a news and sports journalist at Northwestern University and has transformed that site into an attractive marketing tool. I want students to receive validation and feedback not only from me, but also from anyone with an interest in their content and an Internet connection. That sharing, along with the possibility of mass feedback, drives my students to produce better content.

I had sharing in mind again last year when my European history students learned about the millions of lives lost in the Belgian Congo under King Leopold II at the turn of the 20th century. After we discussed similar atrocities in more recent history — and a long list of horrors that still haunt our world today — most students wanted to make a difference.

To do that, they created websites to raise awareness of crimes against humanity. One site, Children of Sudan, features not just a brief history of the humanitarian crisis in Sudan’s western Darfur region, but also resolves to work “to end the atrocities and human rights abuses in Sudan and bring peace to the Sudanese people.” Site visitors are then directed to charities, including Save the Children and Oxfam America.

By researching and voicing how to stop violence in Darfur, Uganda, Syria, and Venezuela, students took ownership of the learning — all while harnessing essential 21st-century communications skills. It took most students about one week to create their sites, but I granted them significant time in class to stay on target. In my eight years of teaching, I have never seen students as passionate about perfecting not only their work, but also helping others be successful. Students offered each other ample feedback on my various criteria, from website design, ease of navigation, and quality of content. They told me that the opportunity to pursue a topic of genuine interest to them and to help make a difference in the world motivated them to produce their best work.

I’m following a similar approach at my current school, Brimmer and May School (Massachusetts), where I teach journalism and advise The Gator, the school’s online student news site. I ensure that students gain hands-on experience in a variety of 21st century communication skills, including writing, interviewing, data gathering, synthesizing, marketing, and editing.

It’s no wonder, then, that in just a few months, my students have been able to launch The Gator, featuring written content, podcasts, videos, and newsroom broadcasts. By and large, they know I care about them, they enjoy having their voices heard, and they are motivated to succeed.

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David Cutler

David Cutler

A high school history and journalism teacher from Massachusetts.