For all students, learning anything new is like landing on an alien planet. They step from their comfort zones into an unfamiliar world full of hidden dangers and do their best to keep their fear in check. Suddenly, new terms are coming at them with rapid-fire precision. They stumble and lose their balance over the details of a new concept. Everything gets blurry and distorted as darkness closes in, and they descend into confusion. They hunch, protecting their vulnerable insides from the onslaught, and bolt back into their comfort zones. When you ask them if they are following the lesson, they cross their arms over their chests, roll their eyes in feigned boredom, and voice a semi-hostile, “Yeah, I get it!” when in fact, they are completely baffled and distressed.
Researchers tell us that confusion can be good for students when it is used at the correct times and in the right ways. However, too much confusion at the beginning of lessons or when taking the first step into new content often triggers fear, and fear makes it almost impossible to learn.
Whether we’re planning a lecture, a class activity, a discussion, or a demonstration, a skilled instructional designer would tell us to identify the easiest possible entry-point to content and use methods that keep students relaxed while they learn anything new.
ARE STUDENTS BAFFLED AND DISTRESSED? Chances are, if your student’s faces look like this, and they seem semi-hostile or defensive, your entry-point for content is too steep.
Start with Something They Already Know
The most accessible entry point to new content is something we already know. When we learn something new, we compare the new information to previously known information. This process gives us clues about the attitude we should adopt toward the new thing, how the new thing is likely to behave, why the new thing might be significant, and where we should store the new thing in memory.
For example, once we know how one doorknob works, we can figure out how to open lots of doors, even if they have funky doorknobs or confusing designs. Your brain takes what it knows about a doorknob and applies this knowledge to every doorknob it encounters.
Technically this is called a schema. A schema is a cognitive framework that helps us interpret information and organize effective behavior. In other words, a schema is a mental shortcut that draws on our brain’s pattern recognition ability. Our brains say, “This new thing is like that old thing that I already know. It works similarly and will respond similarly.”
Notice that I compared learning anything new to landing on a new planet and walking into an unknown environment to introduce this topic. Humans are imaginative. You were instantly imagining the experience and could visualize the fear caused by the new learning. As a result, you personalized what it means to feel confused, and you probably remembered a time you felt confused while learning. When we personalize content, we have a sense of knowing it internally, which builds our confidence. We feel safe stepping into the unknown world of something new.
MENTAL SHORTCUTS: A schema is a cognitive framework that helps us interpret information and organize effective behavior. Our brains say, “This new thing is like that old thing that I already know. It works in a similar manner and will respond in a similar way.”
A term, definition, and Image
The second easiest entry point to new content is a term, its basic definition, and an image of the term, or an image that conveys the meaning of the term.
A term is a word that has an exact meaning. Researchers say that adult students can learn up to 22 terms during a 3-hour lesson when teachers use effective instructional methods. On the other hand, if teachers do not use effective strategies to teach terminology, students can pick up eight words during a lesson if they listen carefully and try to learn.
Make a list of all the new words and semi-new words students will learn during a lesson. Then, create PowerPoint flashcards with the term on one slide and the definition of the term on the next slide.
Before you jump into the lesson, work through the flashcards as a group. Have students practice the pronunciation of each word three or four times, and then you read the definition (don’t ask students to read the definition in front of other students as this may place students with reading challenges on the spot). If you’re using Massage Mastery digital textbooks, students can review the appropriate terminology flip cards and audio pronunciations using earbuds and their phones. You can use this time to prepare for the rest of the lesson.
Create a PowerPoint slide with the term, the definition, and an image of the term or an image that conveys the term’s meaning. Then, during your lecture, when you arrive at a term, show the PowerPoint slide. Ask students to repeat the pronunciation if it is challenging and define the term again before proceeding. Now, use the same image for that term any time you encounter the term in a lecture until you feel confident that students know the word well.
Be clear about the terms students should review for lessons and include terminology on quizzes and exams. As part of review classes, ask students to try and explain terms in their own words. Spend some part of every lesson working on terminology.
As you get ready for your classes next week, review your syllabus and lesson plans. Think about your entry points to content. Remember, the easiest entry point to new content is something we already know. The second easiest entry point to new content is a term, its basic definition, and an image of the term, or an image that conveys the meaning of the term.