Lecture slide with two composite images. The first image is of Alloy FE-12Cr-2Si, with grains and grain boundaries demarcated. The second image is of the cut surface of cheddar cheese.

Lecture slide from Nuclear Science Professor Michael Short’s cheese-tasting class.

By Sarah Hansen, OCW Educator Project Manager

Why did you become a teacher? For most people, the opportunity to catalyze students’ curiosity about the world into understanding was a major factor in deciding to pursue education as a profession. When you entered the classroom for your first year of teaching, you probably discovered quickly that before students could learn anything, they first had to focus their attention on what you were teaching.

This was easier said than done! Cultivating and sustaining students’ attention to the myriad nuances of the curricular content and experiences you were developing most likely consumed most of your energy that first year in the classroom. I, for one, remember remaining at school—long after cars had cleared the parking lot—to construct a life-sized tree out of paper and masking tape. It was a novice educator’s attempt to pull students into a series of complex literacy experiences. It worked, but boy, was it exhausting.

The challenge of helping students attend to what you are teaching is as important today as it was on your first day in the classroom. Probably more so, given just how “plugged in” students are to what’s going on outside of the classroom while they are inside of the classroom. “Today’s instructors,” observes Lincoln Laboratory Fellow Dr. Jeremy Kepner, “compete with laptops, cell phones, and social media for students’ attention. Lectures have to be engaging.”

But as you learned early on, the desire to engage students in the learning process is not enough. You need strategies. MIT faculty members and instructors understand this, too. Through the Instructor Insights sections of their OCW course publications, many have shared specific (and often outside of the norm) approaches they have used for engaging learners in their residential courses.

I’ve included a sampling of highlights below. You won’t find “Constructing Paper Trees” on the list (yet!), but you will find concrete strategies for using analogies, non-traditional examples, humor, and music for helping students engage with curricular content. As you gear up for the academic year, I hope you find a strategy that inspires you!


Nuclear Systems Design Project

Thumbnail image of logo designed for class project.This capstone course is a group design project involving integration of nuclear physics, particle transport, control, heat transfer, safety, instrumentation, materials, environmental impact, and economic optimization. Professor Michael Short includes a class session in which various cheeses demonstrate the properties of metals under the high temperature and stress of a reactor. “To teach them about the granular structures of metals,” describes Short in his Instructor Insights on making content tangible, “we talked a little about cheddar cheese, because if you break real cheddar cheese apart, it actually fractures on the curd, so curds in cheese are like grains in metal, and there are grain boundaries or curd boundaries. That helped the students understand key ideas. What are grains? How can they fail? Do they always break through the grains, or do they break around the grains?” Yum. What student wouldn’t want to attend to the properties of metals when they come served on a cheese platter? I’m guessing if you add crackers to that “unconventional pairing,” you’ll have everyone’s attention.

Non-Traditional Examples

Slavery and Human Trafficking in the 21st Century

A woman doing agricultural work.This course explores the issue of human trafficking for forced labor and sexual slavery, focusing on its representation in recent scholarly accounts and advocacy as well as in other media. In her Instructor Insights, Mitali Thakor notes that she uses non-traditional examples to broaden students’ understanding of human trafficking, including exploitation in the food processing, modeling, and sports industries. “When we say the word trafficking,” notes Thakor, “a lot of different images come to mind, but usually beef production and migrant workers are not among them.” Using examples that challenge students’ conceptions of how the world works can help engage them in exploring phenomena they previously thought they understood.


Principles of Chemical Science

Graphic depiction of equations and bondsThis course provides an introduction to the chemistry of biological, inorganic, and organic molecules. Professor Catherine Drennan purposefully uses humor to engage students in lectures. “MIT is a relatively serious place,” she says in her Instructor Insights video on this topic. “But the MIT students are really fun people. They’re willing to make fun of themselves and be a little geeky.” She incorporates elements such as videos about dogs teaching chemistry, references to comics, funny chemistry t-shirts—and even acts out buffering, all in the service of capturing students’ attention. According to Drennan, “it really helps people remember when you do something a little bit different.” Agreed.


Artificial Intelligence

Artist's rendering of man going from agricultural work to computer work.This course introduces students to the basic knowledge, representation, problem solving, and learning methods of artificial intelligence. Professor Patrick Henry Winston uses music to fuel anticipation for learning experiences: “I like to play rock and roll music in the room as students are entering the lecture hall. I usually select something from the Rolling Stones, because it’s the kind of music that gives me an edge and energizes the audience.

When the music stops, everybody knows the performance is about to begin.” In his Instructor Insights section on experiencing the large lecture as theater, he comments that he connects the music to curricular content. “For example,” he says, “we have a topic in artificial intelligence called constraint satisfaction problems. What else could you play, but the Stones’ (I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction?” So true. Take a cue from this professor: To engage students, leverage your playlists!