Engage your Students: Ask About Their Fears and Curiosities
We are going to help you get students bought into your course by understanding their fears and curiosities.
Learning increases exponentially when we put the information and skills into a context that is top-of-mind for our students. In other words,
Put your course material into a context that matters for your students, and the learning comes alive.
We work very hard to understand what context matters to our students. But we often don’t even scratch the surface. Most students keep an emotional distance from their professor and hesitate to discuss their context.
To discover the context that matters to the students, we need to understand what is top-of-mind for them. We can then place the learning in their “right now” context. Student learning will soar. The classroom will buzz with excited energy.
Understanding what’s on students’ minds requires only two simple questions.
What Are You Thinking About Right Now
This post is an effective way to understand what is on students minds right now. For full details, check out the complete lesson plan.
Stop for a moment: what are you thinking about right now, at this very moment?
What is top-of-mind for any of us at any given moment are the things we are afraid of and those we are curious about. Here are some fears you might have right now:
- Embarrassing yourself in that class you’re teaching in 10 minutes
- Your manuscript you submitted two months ago will get rejected
- You’re not spending enough time with your children
- You are about to buy the wrong house.
The fears on your mind right now might be big or small, but they are there.
You are also curious about a variety of things right now. Here are some things you might be curious about right now:
- What is for dinner?
- Will I get tenure?
- How does [fill in name of professor you look up to] relate so well to his/her students?
- Should you get a labrador retriever or a Jack Russell Terrier? (Doan recommends a lab!)
The things you’re curious about right now might be big or small, but they are there, alongside the fears. This is true of you, and it’s also true of the students sitting in your class. In the lesson plan we offer below, we talk about how to leverage this to get your students bought in. Here is a quick overview.
What Are Your Students Afraid of Right Now
To begin, give each student a stack of post-it notes and a Sharpie. Give students the same color post-it notes and Sharpie (so there is anonymity). The Sharpie is so they can fit very few words on the post-it note. What we want here is the essence of what they are thinking.
Ask students “When you think of life after college, what are you afraid of?” and instruct them to write one thought per post-it note. Tell them that putting their fears into the world can be scary. That is why you’re not asking them to speak them, or to put their name on the notes. If students believe they are sharing their fears anonymously, they are more likely to be honest.
Share a few of the things you are fearful of at this moment – make sure you share some “little” fears and some “big” fears.
Make a strong point that quantity is the goal, not quality. Urge students to get as many fears onto post-it notes as they can
Tell them when they finish to hand you all their fear post-it notes. Your job is to stick them randomly on a wall – do not group them by student, but mix them up all over a large wall.
Ask the students to organize the notes into fear clouds by grouping them together by general category/theme, without talking. Give them a few examples – things relating to budgeting money, or to making friends, or to being happy. Then ask students to name the groups.
**NOTE: You may have to help them by aggregating some categories. For instance, you will likely have many categories that relate to financial management. Combine all those into one “Financial Management” category
Here are the fear categories Doan has assembled over many years’ of his courses:
|Fear Category||Example Statement||% of Total Mentions|
|Financial Management||"Not making enough money"||22|
|Getting a Job||"Not being able to find a job"||15|
|Job Dissatisfaction||"Not being happy at work."||11|
|Job Performance||"Not performing well in my job."||8|
|Relationships (losing)||"Growing apart from friends and family."||6|
|Purpose||"Not chasing my dreams."||5.5|
|Work/Life Balance||"Not having enough time to actually live life how I want."||5|
|Moving||"Where will I live?"||4|
|Happiness||"Not being happy with my life."||3.5|
|Relationships (making)||"Making friends in new locations."||3.5|
|Growth||"Not being prepared to live alone."||3|
|Failure||"How can I deal with rejection effectively?"||2.5|
|Missing an Opportunity||"Regretting not doing something."||2|
|Value of College||"Was classroom knowledge actually useful?"||2|
|Reputation||"How can I manage my professional reputation?"||1|
|Success||"Not being successful."||1|
Show your students how the material and skills they will learn and practice in your course map onto the things they are currently afraid of.
For instance, if you’re teaching cash flow management or startup financials, relate that to the Financial Management category (how to budget, how it applies to buying a house, etc).
When you teach customer interviewing, talk about how that skill will help them form and strengthen relationships, and how they can use that skill to build a network and identify a job that will give them a sense of purpose.
Show students how the knowledge they will acquire and the skills they will practice apply to the things they are afraid of right now.
What Are Your Students Curious About Right Now
Now we want to shift gears and focus on some fun stuff – what are they curious about? Identify that being curious can sometimes make them feel vulnerable. That is why you’re not asking them to speak their curiosities, or to put their name on the notes. If students believe they are sharing their curiosities anonymously, they are more likely to be honest.
Share a few of the things you are curious about at this moment. Make sure you share some “little” curiosities and some “big” curiosities.
Make a strong point that quantity is the goal, not quality. Urge students to get as many curiosities onto post-it notes as they can.
You will complete the same process you went through with the fears – for full details, check out the complete lesson plan.
Ask students “When you think of life after college, what are you curious about?” and instruct them to write one thought per post-it note. Tell them when they finish to give you all their curiosity post-it notes. Your job is to stick them randomly on a wall away from the fear clouds.
Ask the students to organize the notes into curiosity clouds by grouping them together by general category/theme. Give them a few examples – things relating to getting a job, work-life balance, paying off student loans. Then ask students to name the groups.
**NOTE: You may have to help them by aggregating some categories. For instance, you will likely have many categories that relate to financial management (such as paying off student loans, investing, budgeting). Combine all those into one “Financial Management” category
Here are the curiosity categories Doan has assembled over many years’ of his courses:
|Curiosity Category||Example Statement||% of Total Mentions|
|Financial Management||"How do I budget for life after college?"||23|
|Job Search||"What is the best way to find a job I love?"||14|
|Where To Live||"Where am I going to live?"||10|
|Job Fit||"How to find a job that will make me happy and still make money."||7|
|Education||"How do I apply classroom material to real-life scenarios?"||6|
|Job Switch||"How long should I stay at my first job if it isn't my dream job?"||5|
|Relationships (making)||"How to create professional relationships."||4|
|Work/Life Balance||"How can I best manage my work and social life?"||3.5|
|Job Choice||"What will I do for a living?"||3|
|Skills||"What skill will make me stand out?"||3|
|Networking||"How to build a network."||2.5|
|Start a Business||"How to afford starting a business?"||2|
|How to Negotiate||"How to negotiate the terms of a job."||2|
|Promotion||"How do I move up in a company?"||2|
|Happiness||"How important is happiness in a workplace?"||2|
|Relationships (keeping)||"Will I stay in touch with my friends?"||1.5|
|Success||"How can I become successful?"||1|
|Gain Experience||"How to gain more experience."||1|
|Purpose||"How do I find something I love to do?"||1|
|Benefits||"How does insurance work?"||1|
|Travel||"Should I travel when I'm young?"||1|
|Internships||"How to get an internship."||1|
Show your students how the material and skills they will learn and practice in your course map onto the things they are currently curious about.
For instance, if you’re teaching prototyping, talk about how they can test out jobs by job shadowing or interning.
When you teach ideation, show them how those skills can help them identify their purpose, find a good job fit, or start a business.
Show students how the application of the skills they will practice applies to the things they are curious about right now.
Your Course in Students’ Context
Return next class session with the fear and curiosity categories mapped onto the content/lessons/modules/skills you cover in the course. For instance, if you lay out each week in your syllabus with the topics you will cover, add one column for “Fears” and one for “Curiosities”. List in each column the fear and curiosity categories to which each particular topic relates.
This last step is the most critical. It is your chance to reinforce the connection between the course material and the things your students are currently thinking about. Show them how you will give them the tools to address each one of their fears, and each one of their curiosities.
Students Now Have the Context to Launch
After this activity, your students will understand the value of the what they are about to learn. They will be more engaged, because the learning is now very real for them.
Below is the complete lesson plan of the Student Fears and Curiosities exercise.
Get the “Student Fears and Curiosities” Lesson Plan
We’ve created a detailed lesson plan for the “Student Fears and Curiosities” exercise to walk you, and your students, through the process, step-by-step.
It’s free for any/all entrepreneurship teachers, so you’re welcome to share it.
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