It is early in the morning as I sit in my office in Hearst Gymnasium to compose this blog. The sun is shining already, the day is warm and bright. The setting is ideal forboth composition and reflection. As I create the following piece, a final ode of sorts for my Berkeley faculty colleagues, I want to say thank you. I will be leaving my position as Director of the Center for Teaching and Learning in the next couple weeks to pursue a new professional opportunity I hope will stretch me and my knowledge in the same ways we aim to push our students to pursue continual, lifelong learning.
These past six years I have worked at Berkeley in the CTL have been the most rewarding of my career. The opportunity to work with, and alongside, some of the brightest minds in the world has been a constant motivator. More so, coming to know many of you so well has also shown me that intelligence and kindness, humility, and care more often go hand-in-hand than we often assume.
Faculty pedagogical enrichment has a very indirect impact. I don’t get to see your students’ lightbulbs go on when they “get it”. I don’t get to see your students’ smile with gratification when they’ve overcome failure to realize success. I don’t get the student email telling me how my class transformed their lives. I don’t get to grow myself from students challenging the status quo in the field, or bringing a new and nuanced perspective to a topic that has been all too long featuring a one-sided dialogue. My direct impact is with, and on, you as the teacher. And I have found no greater professional satisfaction than the direct impact I get to have on you and your teaching practice. I do get to see your excitement when we figure out a new way to teach something on which students typically struggle. I do get to see your warm smile of gratitude when you realize what was a perceived failure was actually a necessary step towards realizing a new innovation in teaching. I do get to read your email of thanks and appreciation for being committed to helping you be even better at what it is you do so well already. You may think each conversation and experience is just a blip on the radar, but I am telling you now how meaningful it is to have developed the relationships we’ve forged together and how much I have learned through it all. I’ve saved every single email you’ve ever sent me. Why? Because you took the time to send it, and that means something.
Now, as I look to what is next for me, and consider what is next for you (start of a new semester), I’d like to leave you with some final thoughts about a topic that has come up consistently across my time working in faculty pedagogical enrichment - “How do I get students to willingly come to class and engage?”
A good friend of mine has worked as an executive in Hollywood making films for 20+ years and he talks often about the importance of value propositions to elicit engagement, offering the film industry as a prime example. Think about it: we all know and watch movie trailers. They’re presented during commercial breaks on TV, viewed online, and shown at actual movies. Movie trailers range from around 60 seconds to 2.5 minutes. They are beautifully brief, yet work incredibly well. In those couple of minutes, a movie studio is able to translate it into at least $20 out of your wallet and upwards of 2+ hours of your time. That is remarkable as a value proposition! What do they offer in that value proposition? They offer a promise. A promise of an experience, interesting information, a compelling story, and more. Essentially, they offer you something you can not get anywhere else exactly like it, or of that quality.
This is where we pivot to teaching and engaging students to willingly come to class. Just as the movie trailers do, we can encourage attendance for the right reasons by harnessing the lessons learned from offering value propositions. In a 3-unit course, that’s roughly 40+ hours of class time you’re wanting students to attend. The film industry can get ~2 hrs of time based on a two minute value proposition, so our task is a bit more daunting, but no more challenging if we harness the same basic principles in communicating to students why they should come to class.
Here are five ways you can present value propositions (ideally explicitly) to students that will encourage attendance and engagement through the course:
1. Scarcity - what happens here is not happening anywhere else. Show students how the information and dialogue occuring in class is not, cannot, will not, happen anywhere else (or in the same way). “Come to class, because this is the only place to get X.”
2. Quality - what happens here is better than anything else. Be clear with students about how you have selected materials and the process of the course to engage with the topics - even be willing to toot your own horn a bit. It’s ok to help encourage attendance because you are the leading scholar in your field, or you have unique practical experience to bear on class discussion and topical inquiry. Ensure the realization of your course design is a high-quality of content, materials, activities, etc. that is above and beyond any alternative (e.g., textbook, online video lectures from another university), and tell/show students this is so.
3. Experience - you will be changed, transformed, moved, informed, etc. Oftentimes learning is a transformational process for learners. If you know your course is designed to have such an impact, make it known to students up front and throughout the course. Don’t be afraid to offer students a “learning experience” and name it as such. Emotion has a huge role to play in learning and disposition towards learning. Use that to your and your students’ advantage. Imbue emotional tone and content into the course and watch them yearn for the next class session because it literally feels good to grow, be inspired, and realize a new understanding of the world. ***Try this: next time you see students learn something new, especially through practice/application, ask them, “How did that feel?” Their answers may surprise and inspire you. And then offer them more chances to get that “feeling” through the course.
4. Urgency - you need this now, it's important, here's how to use this right away. An essential part of any value proposition is a call to action - you want people to do something. This can be a useful learning engagement strategy as well. Show students, or let students show each other, why this topic is so critical right now. How will it help us understand the current state of affairs? How will it enable us to develop novel solutions? How will it be necessary to change what is, to what should be? Assignment design that is authentic and relevant can help thread this message of urgency throughout the course.
5. Credibility - why you? why at Berkeley? why this topic? (who else says this is worthwhile? other students?). You are the instructor. You’re at the front of the room for a reason. I’m not talking about power here, but specifically credibility. You’re up there because you know more, or have more experience, with this topic we have to explore across the course. It’s ok to simply tell students, from your perspective, why class is important and that attending is important. The message from you can be enough to compel many to heed the call. Likewise, there is immense credibility in peer-to-peer messaging. Do you have comments from former students about how important attending class was to their success in the course (and beyond)? Can you solicit some of this kind of feedback? If so, share it with current students. Let their peers tell them, in their own words, why they should attend class. They may not be convinced by you, but their peer who earned an A last year may be much better positioned to be “heard”.
When looking across these 5 ways to present a value proposition to encourage attendance and engagement, a common thread is revealed - YOU. You are the value proposition in so many ways. It is the course YOU designed, YOU are teaching, the activities YOU’ve constructed, the feedback YOU offer, the opportunities for dialogue YOU create. Students aren’t just taking a class in your field. They are taking a class with YOU in your field. Own that. Own it in ways that show up in the course because you have a unique way of doing everything you do as a teacher, and that’s the value. Your experience, your stories, your questions, your way of approaching a problem - these are the essential, foundational pieces of the course’s value.
And, to finally recognize the enormous amount of value you have to offer as a teacher, and how much that will directly impact the lives of your students, the communities in which they live, and therefore the world.
Fiat Lux, and Go Bears!