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8 Values That Make Your Course Content Engaging


Walk down any faculty hallway on campus and you’ll hear echoes of the same questions:

Why don’t students get engaged in courses that feature topics that certainly have engaged us as teachers?

And how do you catch the interest of your students when there’s so many more things vying for their attention?

Try putting yourself in the position of a journalism intern at a newspaper.

The news release comes in from a state legislator via fax. The office of the Honorable Gentlemen, our state representative, indicates he wants the paper to know that the state had purchased two new fire engines for the town.

Even though you probably don’t give two hoots about the fire engines, your readers probably do. To your audience it is newsworthy—there are qualities in the story that make it news. And you know this because, luckily, you were awake when you got lectured about news values, and why they matter.

While understanding news values[1] may seem kind of quaint, getting familiar with what journalists are looking for in a given pitch can help literally anyone in developing content. After all, what instructors are trying (or should be trying) to do is capture students’ interest so they master more of the material being presented.

Understanding content values will help you with everything from organizing your course to how you present every little bite of it. These values can guide you in conducting research on what to include (and what to leave out), to design each session you will have with your students, and most importantly, your pitch to your students and even to your colleagues, department chair, dean, and many others.

Why does this matter? Well as you’ve likely heard 1 or 2 million times, there’s a lot of content competing for student’s attention these days.

Understanding content values will help you with everything from organizing your course to how you present every little bite of it.

Every individual, group, advertiser, marketer, and sales point is trying to get their content published or at least noticed by heavy-hitting publications. So very rare and precious, like unicorns, are those moments when one student says to another, “Wow, I had no idea that the electoral college worked that way! I wonder if it wouldn’t be better if the U.S. had parliamentary system?!”

How do you hunt unicorns? Kill them swiftly, then turn their skin into a sweet pair of pants and grind their horn into an aphrodisiac? Good question!

The secret to generating engagement on the part of students is in understanding this set of values that comes originally from journalism, but is just as valid in teaching: impact, timeliness, prominence, proximity, the bizarre, conflict, currency and human interest.

Teaching—teaching that achieves results in that students can do more of the things instructors want them to be able to do—is a form of storytelling[2]. The best stories will have these values.

Impact

How will this lesson affect my students’ lives? This is the real guts of the lesson, and it should typically be the “lead” that you should “pitch” in introducing a lesson. Another term is “the hook”—what will grab the students’ interest? The impact of the “story” you want to tell quickly establishes the importance of the piece to the students, and the consequences for themselves.

In the fire engine story, for example, the impact of this story was that anyone getting this information, and unlucky enough to suffer a house fire, should likely suffer less damage because of these amazing new fire engines. It also lets people know that they should keep an eye out for some shiny new fire engines driving around town. This value works hand-in-hand with proximity (which we’ll get to in a moment), as impact is largely determined by audience.

Timeliness

Why are you telling me this now? These shiny new fire engines are—well, new!

What puts the “new” in your presentation? Note that this doesn’t mean the story itself has to be new, but some new information has to have come to light that makes the story timely and/or relevant again.

Like the story that now we are “Measuring the Age of the Universe with Gravitational Waves.”[3] The title begs the question, “Just how old IS the Universe?” The discovery is something new. It’s important to emphasize what’s new, or at least “new to you.”

Prominence

Why are you telling me this? Are you droning on without ever thinking whether I might be interested or not?

Many stories compete for acceptance on the age of the universe. Creationism advocates  demand their views be taught in public schools. Are they reliable? The story needs authority.

What makes the sources cited in a story worth quoting? What qualifies you to tell the story? It’s important information to establish your credibility as someone qualified to tell this story. Also, the credibility of the source must be evident.

Proximity

Does this story (the immediate chunk of the material I’m presenting) matter to my audience?

In the case of the fire engine news release, they sent it to the right place—they knew that a news outlet would care about the new fire engines driving around town. I doubt they would have bothered sending a news release to the radio stations at the next town because the reach of the story (its proximity) was limited.

Proximity is all about understanding the impact of your story, as it relates to the audience of the person you’re pitching.

What differences does it make that NASA’s InSight Mars lander touched down on November 21, 2018? Hey, it’s on MARS! That’s right, the lander is on a two-year mission as the first spacecraft to study Mars’ deep interior! Perhaps students think they know all they need to about Mars, but they don’t. Mars captures the attention!

The Bizarre

Is there anything unexpected about your story? This news value is best expressed through a great journalistic aphorism that I’m sure to mangle, but let’s give it a shot: “When a dog bites a man, that’s not an interesting story. It happens all the time. But if a man bites a dog, then that’s news.”

There was nothing bizarre about the fire engine story. Nor did it have any elements of conflict, currency or human interest—the final three news values were about to get to. But that’s OK—rarely will a story (or a piece of content you’re pitching) fit all these parameters. It can still be newsworthy—read “capture student interest”—you just have to be aware of where your story is strong and play up those strengths.

Conflict

What are the different sides of this issue, and what are their arguments?

Think about the way political news is reported. It’s almost covered like sport, right? You’ve got two teams fighting it out at all times, and it never seems like they can agree on anything.

Well, part of the reason it seems like they can never agree is because the stuff they do agree on is boring. If Americans wanted to see politicians agreeing with each other, they’d watch C-SPAN. Instead, they watch cable news.

Humans love conflict, especially simple, two-sided conflict. It engages us emotionally, as we get to judge the merits of the arguments, judge those who are wrong and get our righteous agreement jollies by nodding vigorously along with those we agree with.

To me, many instructors could do more with conflict, but (and perhaps this explains why it’s underexplored), creating content around conflict can be tricky, as you have to be thorough in your research and careful to accurately represent the argument (or arguments) in the conflict.

Think about this from the New York Times (December 27, 1994): “Astronomers Debate Conflicting Answers for the Age of the Universe.” Think it is a settled issue? It relates to the determination of a single number, the Hubble constant.

Currency

Is this trending? Currency means that an idea’s time has come.

Think about the Ice Bucket Challenge. That story generated a momentum completely of its own—and news outlets covered everything from the latest video of a celebrity dumping water on their head to the economics of the phenomenon.

Astronomers achieve instant attention when they detect gravitational waves. That doesn’t ring a bell? What about (the same thing, with a different lead) “Scientists detect a collision of two black holes devouring each other.”

Human Interest

Are there attractive people who are impacted by this story? When you think “human interest,” you probably think of those unfortunate stories that your grandma loves on 60 Minutes about some poor lady who got ripped off by her builder.

Human interest can still be a very handy tool. In the history of astronomy, there is the treatment of Galileo by the Catholic Church—and he wasn’t pardoned until October 31, 1991!

People like stories about other people, so a human interest angle can be especially useful in helping you put a human face on a chunk of material that needs to be personalized.

How would you cast the topic about Galileo? “Catholic Church pardons Galileo for asserting that Earth revolves around the Sun,” or “After 350 years, Vatican says Galileo was right: It Moves.”

Putting This All to Work

A colleague of mine comes from a journalism background. She’s great at consistently getting her colleagues to develop courses that students flock to and the colleagues are recommended for teaching awards.

When I asked her how she manages to find such consistent success in creating online content, she told me it’s all about tenacity. If a student isn’t interested in your pitch, offer the student another angle, and then another—“how about this part of this material? Don’t you think your students would be interested in this angle?”

Using these news values can help you identify the strongest potential leads in your lessons so you can smartly focus your instructional pitch to engaging students. You’ll be wearing unicorn pants in no time.


[1] See Olson, Kyle, “The Eight Values That Will Make  Your Content ‘Newsworthy,” Digital Third Coast

[2] See Egan, Kieran (1986; 1986). Teaching as Story Telling: An Alternative Approach to Teaching and The Curriculum. London: Routledge [OCLC: 1067810373]; Egan, Kieran (1985).”Teaching as Story-Telling: A Non-Mechanistic Approach to Planning Teaching,” Journal of Curriculum Studies (17, 4, Oct-Dec 1985, pp. 397-406).

[3] Jump, Tyler, “Measuring the Age of the Universe with Gravitational Waves,” Sci Tech Daily (October 23, 2018).


Fred Wilson, Ph.D.
Fred Wilson, Ph.D.

Dr. Fred Wilson teaches astronomy courses in ASU’s Department of Physics and Geosciences. Contact him at fred.wilson@angelo.edu or 325-486-6984.

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