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Engaging students is an uphill battle; one of the most demoralizing experiences as a teacher is to teach apathetic students. Students who are bored and disengaged.
In this article we’ll show you an easy exercise that gets students bought-in and motivated to participate in class.
Engaging Students Right Away
The secret to engaging students is to get them students bought in to what we’re teaching. To get them bought in,
It’s most effective to treat our students, like our customers.
At the end of the day, you want your students to leave your class with a new set of skills. To accomplish that you can either:
- Take an authoritarian approach where, “I-am-the-teacher-and-you-are-the-student-and-therefore-you-listen-to-me” power dynamic.
This is where most of us start because a) it’s the way we were taught and b) its not obvious how to change this paradigm and still accomplish our goals.
The authoritarian approach is great for generating compliance and obedience from students, but its abysmal at garnering the enthusiasm, energy and participation you need in an experiential entrepreneurship class.
- Alternatively, you and your students can collaborate in defining the nature of your class, just like companies and their customers collaborate to define mutually beneficial solutions.
The key is to recognize…
We teachers are selling a set of skills and ideas that we want our students to buy-into.
The most effective way to get our students to buy what we’re selling, is to use the same techniques we teach them to get their customers to buy-in. Which leads us to the tried and true principle of entrepreneurship:
Customers don’t buy products. Customers buy solutions to problems.
Practice What You Teach: Solve Their Problems
If our goal is engaging students, we need to use the exact same principles we’re teaching to our students in class. If we follow these principles with our students to get their buy-in, we recognize that we can’t sell them “products.”
We can’t sell them “products” like:
- What they’ll learn
- Experiences they’ll have
- Projects they’ll do
- Grading structure of the class
They won’t buy it, because those are the products of teachers.
If we want our students’ buy-in, we need to solve their problems.
Exercise: Problem Post-Its
A fast, and fun, way to discover the problems of your students is called the Problem Post-Its.
This exercise is inspired by Laura Klein, the author of UX for Lean Startups and you’ll find that it’s a fantastic brainstorming exercise in general. We’ll use it for brainstorming problems here, but you can also teach it to your students as a way for them to brainstorm any kind of ideas. This technique balances the energy of extroverts on a team, with the great insights the introverts on a team, so all voices are heard.
DARE to Solve Their Problems
This exercise can be broken down into four steps. We use the acronym DARE to outline each step.
- Discover – discover your students’ problems.
- Analyze – analyze and categorize them.
- Reflect – reflect their problems back to them to get their buy-in.
- Emphasize – emphasize the solutions to their problems that you’re going to offer throughout the course.
We’ll take these one at a time starting with…
Step 1: Discover Their Problems
To discover your students’ problems you’re going to arm them with a set of post-it notes. Give each student roughly ten post-it notes and a Sharpie or some other kind of marker. Ask them to write down one problem they have per post-it note.
It’s a good idea to emphasize this one-problem-per-note bit. If you don’t, you’ll find that at least one person in your class is going to end up writing down all their problems on a single post-it note.
So it’s one problem per post-it note. Then, give them two minutes to write down all of the problems they have related to:
- Jobs that they want
- Financial problems they have
- Career problems
- Business related problems
When you focus your students’ attention to problems in these categories, it will constrain the problem set to ones you can actually help them solve during your course.
During their two minute silent brainstorming, ask them to aim for at least ten problems – so at least ten post-it notes.
After the two minutes is over, move to…
Step 2: Analyze Their Problems
Have your students take their 10-ish Post-It notes and pick out their top three problems. Then ask your students to stand up and meet you at a wall in your class with their top 3 Post-It notes.
Now that you have all of your students standing with you at a wall in your classroom, you’ll start grouping their problems into “problem clouds”, where similar problems are posted next to one another.
To do that, ask a student to volunteer a problem. They will say something like,
“I’m about to graduate and I don’t know what kind of job I want.”
To which you’ll reply, “Okay, great, who else has a Post-It that says ‘I don’t know what kind of job I want after school?’”
Everyone who has that problem will raise their hand and you’ll collect all those notes and put them up on your wall together to make a cloud for that problem. Now ask another student for a problem they have.
They might say something like,
You say, “Okay, who else has a post-it note that says ‘I got no money?’”
Collect all those post-it notes and make another problem cloud on your wall. Ask for another problem and maybe someone will say,
“I know what job I want but I’m not sure how to get it.”
You’ll collect all those and create another problem cloud kind of close to the original “I don’t know what job I want” cloud because they’re both related.
Keep going until you’ve got everyone’s problem post-it notes on the wall, after which you’ll move on to…
Step 3: Reflect Their Problems
Now that you have all these problem clouds, you’ve analyzed your students’ (i.e. customers’) problems.
You can see what problems your students have, and what are the most common problems. You’ll now know the most prevalent, the most pressing problems of your customers, in their own words.
You’re now ready to reflect the problems you’ve heard back to them. Not only do you want to make sure you’ve heard them right, but when you reflect your students’ problems back to them in their own words, you will get their buy-in.
When you 1) reflect your student’s problems back to them and 2) help them take steps towards solving them, they will buy in.
You can say to your students, “I hear you that you’re broke. I totally get that. In fact, you can actually fund your next semester’s tuition with the techniques you learn in this class!”
You can tell them, “If you’re unsure what kind of job is right for you, you can use the same techniques I’m going to teach you in this class to identify the right kind of business for you, to identify the right kind of job for you!”
And you can encourage them by saying, “The same techniques you’re going to use to interview customers, you can use to interview potential bosses – increasing the likelihood that you’ll get the job you want. You can find your dream job using the skills you’ll learn in this course!”
When you connect the dots for your students between the problems they have and the skills you’re going to teach them, they will buy in. In fact, they’ll do more than that.
They will engage.
With a young or old, undergraduate or postgraduate, MBA or freshman, when you understand the problems of your customers, connect the dots, and show them how what you’re going to teach them is going to help them solve those problems, you will engage your students!
Step 4: Emphasize Their Problems
Now that you’ve reflected their problems back to your students, you want to emphasize that you’re going to solve those problems throughout their course.
What that looks like is simply reminding them for each exercise you do, or each day of your course, how this is going to help solve one the problems in their original problem clouds.
For instance, when it’s time to reach out and interview customers, you can say, “the same skills you guys are going to use today to reach out to your customers are the skills you can use to reach out to potential employers.”
You are always emphasizing how elements of this course tie back to the problems they are actually experiencing.
That is how you DARE your students to tell you their problems:
Bonus: You’re Modeling a Problem-Centric Mindset
In addition to discovering the keys to engaging with your students, by running this exercise, you’re modeling the behavior you want your students to exhibit. Namely…
Focusing on their customers’s problems.
By genuinely engaging with your students’ problems, you’re showing them what it looks like to be empathetic. They will take the same sincerity you apply to this exercise with them when they conduct problem interviews with their customers.
That is the secret to engaging entrepreneurship students is:
- Getting our students to buy-in, by treating them like customers.
- Customers don’t want to buy products. They don’t care about the organization of the class, the syllabus, or the textbook, or the lectures or anything like that.
They care about solving their problems.
- DARE to solve their problems.
When you show your students how your course will solve their problems, they will engage with your class like never before.
Problem Post-Its Lesson Plan
We’ve created an experiential, 45-minute, Problem Post-It Lesson Plan to help you engage your students in the DARE process. It encapsulates everything we’ve talked about above.
It’s free for any/all entrepreneurship teachers. Please feel free to share it.
All we ask is that you leave us some feedback on it the comments below so we can improve it!
In a future article, we will explore in more detail how to use the DARE exercise to co-create a syllabus with your students! Please subscribe here to get that post in your inbox.