Earbuds Out: Five Tips for Creating Engaging Humanities Courses

Picture of Brian Oger

Brian Oger

A boy with an earbud in one ear, and holding the other earbud in his hand.

It was a little harder sneaking music into a classroom when I was in high school. The smallest music-playing device looked like this:

A Sony Walkman cassette player.

The walkman was pretty challenging to fit in your pocket, but it came with a clip so it could fit on your belt. With a long, bulky sweatshirt, it was virtually invisible. The smallest headphones, though, looked like this:

2023-03-Walkman with earphones

At the time, we thought the bright yellow looked cool, but it wasn’t great for camouflage.

Kids these days, though, can sneak earbuds into a class easily, tucked under their hair or just sticking out of the one ear that is facing away from the teacher.

Now, I know that for some students, listening to music helps them to focus and concentrate better on their work, but given the importance that I put on the things that we are learning in a classroom, I’d rather have students with their earbuds out for most of the lesson. I don’t want to have to use threats of punishment to make that happen either: I would rather have them interested enough in what we are doing so that listening to music feels like the second most interesting thing they could be doing.

So how does a teacher get their students to take their earbuds out?

Tip #1: Put relationships at the heart of your courses

At StudyForge, we believe that in education, relationships are everything. Whether we are talking about face-to-face classrooms, blended learning environments, or online learning spaces, it is the relationships that make the biggest difference on whether a student has a positive or a negative educational experience.

Start strong

Establishing positive relationships with your students is vital, especially the first time that you meet them. We need to build connections with our students if we want them to learn anything from us.

So how do we build relationships in an online learning space? It’s not going to happen automatically — we need to make it happen.

On its own, an online course is just a digital textbook. Without the involvement of a teacher, the student will still probably learn something, but that learning will be truncated without the impact of a positive teacher-student relationship. To mitigate this, set up your online courses so that students can’t start working on the material until they’ve had a Zoom meeting with you. Let them see you smile before you mark any of their work.

Stay in touch

As students progress through the course, stay connected, and not just when you are marking their work. If you ask them about something that is not school-related, they’ll know that you care about them as a person and not just as a student on your list.

It can also be helpful to set up regular checkpoints throughout the course. A couple of five-minute conversations at key checkpoints, where you hear how they are doing, answer questions, and double-check that they are managing well, can pay huge dividends in the end.

If you put relationships at the heart of your courses, it will help students to feel safe enough to take risks, stretch themselves, and grow. My first principal used to say, “They won’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.”

And if they know how much you care, they might just put their earbuds in their pocket.

Tip #2: Foster curiosity using guiding questions

As likable as you may be, though, you still need to teach some good content to keep kids engaged. The best way that I know how to foster curiosity is to, a) be genuinely passionate about your subject area yourself, and b) use solid guiding questions.

This can happen on the course level, the unit level, and the lesson level. One example of this is the guiding question that we created for our English Studies 12 course. Our team created an animated video as a “hook” to the course, hoping to get students thinking and curious.

Did you catch all the guiding questions there at the end? They were all centered around one key idea and the guiding question for the whole course: What are we pursuing? As students are thinking about the end of high school and what’s next in their lives, this is a very relevant question. If it’s relevant, if it gets them curious, if it gets them thinking, then it will foster engagement.

Every StudyForge humanities course has a guiding question that frames the entire course, but each lesson has a guiding question as well. The student should know from the very beginning of the lesson what they are going to be learning. By framing this purpose as a question, we hope to foster curiosity. Hopefully, this will help them to get their minds engaged and their ears emptied of earbuds.

Tip #3 – Tell stories

When I think back to what I remember from elementary and high school, a lot of it is a blur. I remember a few of the dates and dead generals, but there are thousands of facts that I memorized and forgot. What really stuck, though, are the stories that our teachers told us: Our English teacher learning to drive; our Social Studies teacher telling us the story of losing her two-year-old daughter in a tragic accident; our History teacher talking about his military training. Human beings are wired to tell stories, and stories stick in our minds in ways that facts and propositions do not. So, if there is a way to tell a story, find a way to fit it in. Everything else in your lesson might be forgotten, but the story will stick.

This might mean telling one of your own stories, and I think that is a really good thing to do (see Tip #1). But it also might be telling someone else’s story. An example in our New Media 11 course is the story of Ava Majury, a teenaged TikTok star whose life changed when an obsessed fan came and shot her front door open with a shotgun. The story is longer than I have space for here, but even that one-sentence summary probably got you curious and interested. In the lesson, the story is a jumping-off point for some really important questions about social media use:

  • Should people as young as 13 be allowed to post videos of themselves that anyone in the world can access?
  • Is Ava’s desire for popularity and influence a healthy thing?
  • Are Ava’s parents doing the right thing by continuing to allow her to be on social media?
  • What other lessons can be learned from Ava’s story?

The students may not remember those questions, but they will probably always remember the story, and they will probably be willing to take their earbuds out to hear it.

Tip #4: Mix it up

They say that the average attention span is about eight seconds, so unless you’re above average, you’re probably not even reading this anymore.

Avoid long lessons with only text

A phrase I use to describe some online lessons I’ve seen out there is “a wall of text.” Online courses that are all text are not very engaging. Students may or may not read your text, and as brilliant of a writer as you may be, even if they do, they won’t remember much of it anyway. You need to engage multiple senses to go beyond the eight-second threshold.

Engage multiple senses

Mix your content up between videos, audio files, text, and photos or illustrations.

Get them out of their seat

Get them away from their computer whenever possible. Sitting in front of their computers or in their desks all day is not the best for students’ eyes, their bodies, or their learning. For example, our Political Studies 12 course has students interview two different people with different political perspectives; our English 12 students take a sketchbook and go into nature to describe something beautiful that they find; our Social Justice students get involved by volunteering in their community. If you can get them off their computers, do it.

Alternate between content and practice

If you’re talking for more than five minutes in a classroom, you’re going to lose people. If students are consuming content for more than five minutes without doing something with what they’re learning, they’ll forget it. Give them a chance to do something with what you just taught them. Build an online quiz, create a reflection question, or get them to play a game.

Variety is an essential survival skill for teachers. Mixing up your content delivery is an important way to keep students engaged and keep their earbuds in their backpacks.

Tip #5: If you can’t teach something interesting, at least make it fun

Admit it: There are uninteresting things in every subject area. Moreover, even the things that are interesting to you may not be interesting to your students. So, if you have to teach something boring, at least have some fun doing it.

Here is another video in our English 12 course. It is one in a series of three videos that all talk about literary devices — not the most thrilling subject, no matter what your English teacher told you.

Here is another video from our English 6 course on subject-verb agreement, which, you have to admit, is not going to get many hearts racing.

Sometimes you have to cover something that isn’t super thrilling, and you can use humor and energy to liven it up. Keep it fun, memorable, and informative

So, if you keep relationships at the heart of your teaching, foster curiosity, tell stories, mix it up, and make it fun, your students might even leave their earbuds at home.

Well, probably not, but it’s good to dream.

About the Author

Brian Oger, B.A., MDiv


Brian lives in White Rock, British Columbia with his wife, four children, a dog, and more chickens than he would like to admit. Don’t worry — the chickens stay in the backyard. He has been teaching for slightly less than half of his life, including several years in a blended classroom, but still has not achieved his professional ambition of having his class stand on their desks at the end of the year and say, “Oh captain, my captain.” He currently spends much of his working life writing online courses that he hopes will inspire the younger generation to love literature, language, history, and philosophy.

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