While on a cross-country trip a few years ago, I stopped at Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument and had a revelation. It was a few days before the nearby Sturgis Motorcycle Rally was to begin, and the parking lot was filled with motorcycles. Some of the bikes were occupied by their riders, still clad in leather, helmets on handlebars, and minds intently focused on the interpretive brochures in their hands. Other bikes stood empty as their owners wandered through the visitor center and the grounds reading exhibits and interpretive signs. Apparently these bikers were interested in U.S. history. In my nearly 30 years of designing educational experiences for locations such as this, it had never occurred to me to ask bikers about their interests or what kinds of interpretive experiences would capture their attention and inspire them to visit. Because of my unacknowledged stereotypes I just hadn’t placed bikers and interpretation together.

Sometimes what we think we know gets in the way of seeing the obvious. Outside of the activity of biking, individual bikers are likely to hold interests as varied as those of the students in my college courses. In both cases, if I design my materials without taking into account my learners’ unique interests, I miss opportunities to craft experiences that make meaningful connections and create a spark that inspires learning.

Although I have a wealth of research about teaching and learning at my disposal, sometimes it is useful to look at the field through a different lens. In my work in environmental and heritage interpretation and 15 years as a college teacher, I’ve found numerous intersections where concepts from the field of interpretation have improved my teaching, and in particular, my online teaching. Interpreters teach in a leisure setting, while teachers work in a formal setting, but we share a need to reach out and engage our audiences.

When I transitioned from designing educational materials that engage visitors to designing and teaching classes that I hoped would engage students, I brought several lessons with me that transcend both spheres. I share them here because I believe they provide a framework for thinking about our courses in a different way.

Learning is optional. Interpreters and naturalists recognize that to reach their audiences they have to create experiences that intrigue and inspire so that visitors will choose to engage. In informal learning environments such as parks and interpretive centers, visitors are on vacation. They are on their leisure time and, no matter what their education level, most are not interested in reading encyclopedias on the wall or listening to long-winded lectures. At any point, a visitor can choose an activity other than learning.

In formal education situations, it’s easy to make the mistake of thinking that we have a captive audience because, in a way, we do. Whether students sit in seats in a classroom or study from home for an online class, they have requirements for participation and must pay attention or risk a bad grade. But engagement is always optional. Even in a classroom students can gaze out the window and daydream. And in an online course they can tune out, turn in minimal work, log off, and never fully engage.

If we take this idea that learning is optional and place it front and center, it leads us to a powerful approach both for designing our courses and for fine-tuning them as we move forward.

Engagement is a choice. Wilbur Schramm (1907-1987), sometimes called the Father of Communication, studied mass communications and developed a formula called the Fraction of Selection to explain how people choose what to read. The formula is simple: the probability of selecting one item over another is based on a comparison of the promise of reward with the probable effort required. The reward must be worth the effort needed to attain it. This is a personal assessment, made by each individual in comparing one option to another, and largely made subconsciously.

Surprisingly, this formula rarely appears in articles by educational researchers, despite its implications for the design of educational materials. How many of us consider whether the rewards we offer students are equitable with the effort we expect from them? Using this formula as a framework can be particularly beneficial in determining how to engage visitors in an educational opportunity — or to engage students in learning. Related and more elaborate theories in mass media and education abound, but Schramm’s simple formula provides a way to easily determine if we are making sound design choices or if we are creating roadblocks that discourage learning.

In interpretation, application of this formula informs the design of exhibits. As an exhibit designer, I avoid organizing text in one long block because it appears to require high effort to read it. Instead I divide the information into shorter chunks. This reduces the perception of effort by making it clear that, although the text may be long, it consists of a limited number of major ideas. I then label each chunk with carefully worded, bold subheads, to make the ideas, the value of the content, jump out to readers. In my online classes, I can make a similar design decision by breaking long video lectures into short, succinct, labeled chunks, reducing the perception of effort while at the same time helping students quickly see exactly what content will be covered in each segment. In no way do I compromise the amount or depth of the content; rather, I organize it in a way that makes it more approachable.

Schramm’s formula suggests that for people to choose to engage in learning, they must perceive that the personal reward for doing so is worth the effort involved. Activities that hold high reward can justifiably require high effort. Low reward activities are not likely to inspire a high level of effort. Instead, people will simply choose not to engage.

Before I go on, I want to change terminology slightly. In the world of education, the word reward has been closely aligned with external rewards such as grades. But many factors play into a learner’s evaluation of reward, including enjoyment of the learning experience, interest in the subject matter, and relevance to personal goals. Likewise, the term effort is generally associated with cognitive effort, but students consider additional factors involving the expenditure of personal resources such as time, attention, and even money. Throughout the remainder of this essay, I will use the term benefit to talk about rewards, and cost when speaking about effort.

Greater benefits and lower costs increase engagement. We can manipulate the ratio in the benefit/cost equation by increasing the benefits and/or minimizing the costs in our classes. Even incremental changes can improve the ratio and increase the ‘fraction’ that choose to select what we offer. That might sound simplistic, but it can help us improve our course designs significantly.

To increase benefit, we need to understand what students value. There is plenty of research about what engages students in online learning. Benefit isn’t only about a grade or a job or an outcome in general, and it certainly isn’t about artificial rewards, but in great part it relates to the learning experience itself. Relevance and enjoyment have been identified as critical elements in successful interpretation and apply equally to formal education. We can argue all we want about what students should do, but that doesn’t change the fact that they will be more likely to engage when content is relevant and enjoyable.

Making content relevant doesn’t mean changing what we teach. It has to do with how we teach, and our decision to explicitly reveal, through examples and illustrations, how content is relevant to the lives and careers of students. Enjoyment can be enhanced through activities that stimulate the brain or are creatively fun, which may explain, in part, why ‘serious play’, as discussed in Building in the Humanities Isn’t New, can be such an effective learning tool.  Enjoyment inspires effort.

What a student finds valuable is personal, and although there are patterns that indicate what factors contribute to a rewarding experience in general, the key to a truly powerful course is to know the students well and respond to their specific needs and interests. Because we don’t know them beforehand, we need to listen to them.

Research about minimizing costs generally focuses on removing “barriers,” but costs and benefits are cumulative and sometimes a number of small factors such as broken links, delayed responses, hard to read fonts, or misunderstandings can add up to a significant overall cost. Individually, they may not be big enough to be recognized as “barriers” but, when combined, these factors can push the overall cost too high for the associated benefits.

Costs that don’t contribute to learning must be eliminated. Learning requires effort. Students often complain about costs that are, in fact, necessary for learning. The goal is not to simplify or “dumb down” courses to increase student satisfaction. The goal is to engage students in learning. Engagement in this sense has a very specific meaning, and it does not mean to engage their time and energy with fun technology tools or meaningless activities. We are sometimes misled by the wonder of engagement when we watch people interacting with buttons and levers in a visitor center, or clicking and swiping their way through an iPad in a classroom. But interacting with a machine says nothing about interacting with an idea. The engagement we want means engaging with ideas, grappling with content, elaborating on concepts, and thinking critically about what it all means.

If we want our students to put effort toward engaging in learning, we need to remove all of those costs that suck up their energy but serve no educational purpose; costs such as confusing instructions, off-task discussions, boring presentation style, too much text on a PowerPoint slide, assignments hidden within multiple documents, overly long audio lectures, etc. Costs such as these, that are devoid of any educational value, can seem so insignificant that they are easily overlooked, but they regularly show up as complaints in course evaluations and can account for a large percentage of the ‘costs’ identified by students. Removing unnecessary costs matters. If we don’t eliminate these costs, we eliminate engaged students and reduce the effectiveness of our teaching.

Listening to students can reveal factors that add to their perception of benefit and cost, allowing us to understand what they value and to identify costs that don’t add to learning. How can we listen? In the interpretive field, ‘listening’ often means observing visitor behavior. But in formal education we have other options. We can run mid-term evaluations and ask for feedback. We can pay attention to complaints we receive and ask ourselves if these represent challenges that are clearly required for learning to occur, or if they are difficulties that we can eliminate through changes in course design. We can pay attention when students tell us about their interests and goals and think hard about how we can illustrate the value and relevance of our content to our students’ lives. We can ensure that an end-of-term evaluation gives students the opportunity to provide sincere, open-ended feedback rather than simple numerical data.

With this knowledge, we can respond immediately and continuously to our students’ specific benefit/cost analysis. Thinking about course design with a view toward enhancing benefits and eliminating unnecessary costs can lead to better classes and more engaged students.

I worry sometimes that talking about teaching in terms of cost/benefit will be interpreted as “make it fun; make it easy,” resulting in dismissal by serious academics and educators. But I prefer to think of it as “make it worthwhile; make it inviting.” In interpretation, we have a saying, attributed to Sam Ham, that “our job is not to cover a subject; our job is to uncover it.” The idea that we should strive to provoke thought about a topic, to inspire interest in it, to spark curiosity, is as relevant to my work as a teacher as it was to my work as an interpreter. Maybe I’m thinking too big, but I measure success in my classes in terms of the interest they foster in lifelong learning.

[Photo by Lali Masriera]