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6 Tips for Encouraging Connection and Student Learning

Students and educators may not see eye to eye on what works best in the classroom, but Dr. Barbara Frank offers techniques to bridge the gap. 

Students and educators may not see eye to eye on what works best in the classroom, but Dr. Barbara Frank offers techniques to bridge the gap.

Barbara Frank, PhD


Senior Lecturer, Department of Biological Sciences,
Idaho State University in Idaho Falls

PhD Biochemistry, BS in Biochemistry

When Barbara Frank, PhD, first read through a research paper on what students think are the best ways to foster learning, she was startled by the findings. “Students were shown to have a different belief system in terms of what’s an effective teacher,” says the biochemistry lecturer from Idaho State University.

Simply put, when students were asked to rank the characteristics of a good teacher, what they wanted did not match up with what research has found to be effective. Students, for example, ranked “having impact—usefulness of information” in ninth place, even though research ranked it third. And they ranked being “concerned with students” first, while research placed it fifth in terms of learning outcomes.

As Frank sees it, effective teaching can bridge the gap between what students want and what educators know they need. In fact, she has demonstrated how to do so in her presentation “The Science of Engagement and the Art of Implementation,” which includes the following slide:

Barbara Frank

Below, Frank shares some of her favorite strategies that weave together the caring attitude students seek with teaching approaches that are proven to foster academic success.

6 Tips for Encouraging connection and learning

Understanding that students may not agree with her about what constitutes the most effective teaching, Frank has developed ways to address both their desires and proven pedagogical methods. Here are some of her favorite techniques:

1. Use a “novel” approach: Organize material into stories

Frank suggests approaching each classroom session as if it is a chapter in a novel. “Each class should build on the previous class, and the whole arc of the semester is one extended narrative,” she explains. “Effort should be used to connect the dots between the materials.”

While this structure is important, Frank notes that flexibility is, too. “The feedback and interaction of the students should help shape the nature of the discourse,” says Frank. “The questions you receive allow you to place emphasis on areas where deeper understanding is needed and to move quickly through areas that are more familiar to the students.”

2. Ask students to weigh in on what they want to know

When she introduces a new topic, Frank uses a technique called “take time for two,” which is an activity that gets students to connect new information with what they already know. “I ask students to take two minutes to write down two things they know about the topic and two things they want to learn about it,” says Frank. She then asks a few students to share their responses.

“This exercise serves two purposes,” she says. “First, it gives me a sense of what the class already knows and allows me to move quickly through review material. Secondly, it makes students more likely to listen carefully to see if I cover what they want to learn. At the end of the topic, I make sure I have addressed all of their questions.” (That, too, shows that she cares about their individual interests.)

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3. Embrace all kinds of questions

Questions are integral to establishing a student-educator connection, says Frank. They provide insight into how students are grasping the material and what they may be struggling with. “Never put down a question,” says Frank. “Always lead with encouragement, and validate what the student is asking.” This is important even if—or especially if—it illuminates a misconception. In that case, Frank suggests beginning to answer it with something like, “I’m so glad you asked that question, because I need to make this distinction.”

4. Coach them on goals—and how to reach them

In order to succeed, students need to know what they need to do. Frank recommends acting like a coach, presenting them with a playbook for success. “Be really clear in your syllabus and/or your instructions about what will be graded, how it will be graded, and the level of mastery expected,” Frank says. “Explain how you recommend studying, show available resources, and provide a list of topics to be covered and the learning objectives for the course.” Frank goes so far as to outline the “task, purpose, and criteria” for each assignment—which basically equates to what they need to do, what the learning objectives are, and how it will be graded.

5. Be a cheerleader: Show oodles of enthusiasm

Frank recommends that educators show enthusiasm whenever possible. “Science has shown that enthusiasm engages the limbic system and increases synaptic connections,” she says. “When the limbic system is engaged, memories are more likely to be consolidated and encoded and, more important, are easier to recall.” Most of us have experienced this ourselves, she notes. “Some of our most vivid memories are associated with very strong emotional feelings,” notes Frank.

6. Have high expectations—and believe students can meet them

“Science literature reports that even if a teacher does not perceive a student as being high achieving, if the student thinks the teacher does, then the student will do better,” says Frank, who calls this attitude “Fake it and they will make it.”

That said, she notes that an educator’s expectations should be high. “You are honoring the student by setting high expectations; you are letting the student know that you believe they are capable—and they will remember this and rise to the challenge,” she says. “People never forget how you make them feel.”

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