Some years ago, I set out on a journey of self-improvement. I wanted to become more cultured, expand my intellect a little, and one way I hoped to do this was by reading more classic literature. So early one morning I dropped by my local library and checked out a copy of Herman Melville’s Moby Dick. This was it, the beginning of my grand literary adventure! Or at least, that’s what I thought.

It turns out Moby Dick is really, really, boring. Reading it was a chore, and by the end, the only thing I’d learned was that picking a fight with a deranged Sperm Whale is a very bad idea. Not exactly a groundbreaking revelation. After years of listening to academics tout Moby Dick as the “First Great American Novel” I have to say I was disappointed. While this wasn’t enough to derail my quest for personal growth, it certainly killed my momentum, and taught me a valuable lesson about raised expectations.

Great Expectations

Expectations can play just as much a role in classroom culture as they do in books. Think carefully about what expectations you set for yourself and your students. If you want to make your lessons engaging, and you decide to stage a full-on Broadway-worthy performance of the content, you may engage them, but you also set the expectation that you will deliver that level of experience every time. Can you sustain that?

Or, like my maiden voyage with the Pequod, what happens when things don’t live up to the hype? How do you recapture student motivation when that novel they were excited to read turns out to be a dry slog? What happens when that cool science experiment doesn’t work out the way you planned? How do you reignite their passion?

Sense & Sensibility

Perhaps the best place to start is with a few simple steps. Here are three methods for keeping your classroom inspired and engaged:

  • Clear Goals: When you begin a new lesson, be sure to set your students clear and reasonable goals. Don’t make things too easy. You want your students to productively struggle with their learning and feel a sense of accomplishment in their achievements. Don’t go overboard either. Students shouldn’t get overwhelmed or feel like there’s no point in even trying. Finding this balance is the key to their motivation.            
  • Student Choice: If you really want to engage your classroom, make sure student voice is a priority. Pick three novels and let them vote on which one they’ll read next. Have them take a stand for a cause they believe in or choose a side in a debate. When students make decisions about their education, they become invested in their own learning. This kind of responsibility can yield big dividends.
  • Real impact: Let your students know their work actually matters. It’s easy for them to grow bored with a generic homework assignment, but what if they’re asked to raise money for someone seeking a life-changing microloan? How would they respond if they knew the project they were constructing could literally change the world? Tap into your students’ passion and encourage them to be a powerful force for good!
Brave New World

Rather than trying to razzle-dazzle students (and burn yourself out in the process), aim to give them that authentic euphoria that comes from actually learning something. Consider how it feels once you master a song on the guitar or you nail a skateboarding trick. That’s as motivating an experience as any performance, much more attainable on a long-term basis, and a lesson they can take with them well after they leave your class.

Give them challenging tasks, let them struggle, encourage and guide them, and then get out of their way. That’s how you set an expectation you can deliver on.

What about you? How do you manage student expectation?