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  • Writer's pictureAction Hero Teacher

4 Teaching Strategies That Will Keep Your Students on the Edge of Their Seats

Updated: Jan 20, 2023

A group of people are going down a rollercoaster, laughing.
Look Ma, No Hands!

Why do we like:

  • Rollercoasters?

  • Suspense movies?

  • Adventure holidays?

  • Donald Trump?

OK, the last one may have taken it a bit too far… But can you see a theme?

We like those things for 2 reasons:

1) They are exciting to do or watch

2) They are slightly unpredictable - you never quite know what will happen…

So the question I ask you is: Can we create those feelings in our classrooms?

I’ll let you into a little secret: the more we engage our students, the less likely they will be to try and burn our classes to the ground.

In this week’s blogpost, I will teach you:

1) How boredom fuels bad behaviour and why you must change-up your lessons like Beyoncé does outfits

2) The 4 straightforward techniques that will keep your students engaged, learning and wanting more…

Hope aboard C’ptain

The Only Thing Worse Than Going to The Dentist

A man lying down covered in post-It notes
Someone please save me.

Years ago, when I was a Telecoms Account Manager, we were sent away by our company to these ‘training camps’ usually in a remote part of the country where we would be taught everything to do with our industry.

This would usually be a mix of small intimate workshops and massive concert hall seminars where we learnt everything from Sales, Customer Psychology, the latest technological advances and Self Development from the best in the industry.

This was an all-expenses-paid trip, where they would put us up in a swanky hotel and we had a substantial food (and drinks) allowance.

We were out of our usual work environments — sounds like we were living the dream right? Wrong. Apart from my biannual trip to the dentist, this was the event that I tried my hardest to avoid. Why?

It was boring.

Not boring like waiting-in-the-line-at-your-local-supermarket boring, it was boring like is-this-what-purgatory-feels-like-and-I-want-to-cease-to-exist boring.

The main facilitator and host seemed like he had a major operation to remove every ounce of humour from his body. This lifeless man spoke in a tone that would have made HAL9000 want to go to turn itself off forever and I was in a state of perma-sleep in his classes.

The other workshops weren’t any better — manned by experts who spoke with the excitement of a people that had to go out and buy a can of beans on a Monday morning and spoke with so much jargon that only Scotty from Star Trek would understand.

I spent many of my days during the conference desperately trying to understand what was being said, doodling on my notepad, thinking about lunch and stabbing myself in my leg with a pen to keep myself awake.

I almost felt like I was being punished for all the bad things that I did when I was little kid and I couldn’t wait to get back to my day job. Have you ever had that experience?

Now I want you to imagine how our students must feel as they navigate our institutions on a day-to-day basis.

For some of our students, this can be their daily version of hell where they are shuffled to lessons where they have little understanding of the subject, the delivery is uninspiring and they don’t see how any of what they will learn will help them with their life.

I know that you already have a lot of things to do and I don’t expect your lessons to become as exciting as a Beyoncé concert — the fireworks alone would breach the Health and Safety Rules, but I am asking you to do is reflect upon your practice and look at whether your students can engage with the material that they are being presented.

If the students find it hard to stay awake in your lessons, then they will find other means to entertain themselves and that would usually involve disrupting your lesson.

Some subjects lend themselves to be more 'exciting' than others but this is where you can get creative — look at ways to innovate and turn your subject matter on its head. Here are 4 practical tips that will keep your students’ eyes and ears on you.

1) Use Stories

Story book pirates sketches come to life from the page.
This is the worst story to come to life.

Human beings love stories and that is something that has been encoded into our DNA.

In terms of human history, the widespread use of books is a fairly new invention starting over 500 years ago. Most of our information was passed down orally in story form for thousands of years and we still love it to this day.

Robert Rosen, former Dean of the University of California's Theatre, Film and Television faculty stated, "stories put all the key facts into an emotional context... The information in a story doesn't have to sit there in a logical proposition. Instead, it's built to create suspense1.”

Facts can be stale on their own but stories have suspense drama and emotion — making it easier to remember and allowing your listeners to connect emotionally with the subject matter.

Great stories will make your teaching feel more real and alive. If you want to become better at telling stories that help you influence and persuade people, I fully recommend uber film producer Peter Guber's book "Tell To Win." It's a fantastic read and it will help you communicate and connect better to your students.

I am going to paraphrase Guber's 'Story Framework2’ and how you can use it in your lessons.

FIRST - get your listeners' attention with an unexpected challenge or question.

What would you do if you were told at the age of twenty-one you only had one year to live?

SECOND - give your listeners an emotional experience by telling the story of how to overcome the challenge or to find the answer to the opening question.

This is what happened to Professor Stephen Hawking just as he was graduating from Oxford University and with a promising future in the Sciences; Professor Hawking seemed to have that bright future taken from him after being diagnosed with a rare form of Motor Neurone Disease. Professor Hawking knew that he had to act fast and started working on his groundbreaking theories... He had to make every day count.

THIRD - galvanise your listeners' response with an eye-opening resolution that calls them to action

Professor Hawking despite losing the ability to move and speak independently discovered the Laws of Black Hole Mechanics, Hawking Radiation and wrote the best-seller, "A Brief History In Time." He outlived the doctor's death prediction by 60 years and contributed much to the world. If could do that despite all those struggles, you are all capable of learning science.

2) Bridging

Two hands with positives labels on them are shaking.
This is so needed in our world right now.

'Bridging' is a technique where you teach your students new concepts and information by connecting to something that they already know very well.

It’s not about making the work easier or harder, which is differentiation. By relating it to things that they have a genuine interest in like sports, music or popular culture you are creating an emotional hook that will pull them into your subject.

The key to successful bridging is not to try to align their interests with ours, but for us the teachers, to align our lessons with what they think is cool. Let’s be honest, some of the stuff we think is cool is probably outdated and naff and we have to try, without embarrassing ourselves, to discover what naturally interests them.

A good example of this was when I was covering a Year 11 English lesson and they were looking at Ted Hughes' poem "Hawk Roosting" and were struggling with connecting with the text's themes of power and superiority.

In order to create a contrast, I gave them a written copy of the lyrics of rapper, Kanye West's "Power" and allowed them to contrast his song with Hughe’s prose. Because Kanye West is a popular artist and the students were very familiar with his music, they became very engaged and made many rich contributions to the lesson.

With their newfound insights, they could breakdown Hughes poem a lot more effectively. Bridging must have 2 main parts:

  • WHY - Do not only explain HOW you do something but WHY you do it as well. More often than not, if students do not see how what they are learning will be useful to them, they will switch off. One English particular class that I covered was full of budding rappers and singers and I always explained that their grasp of metaphors, similes and language devices would help them write better songs. Build those connections.

  • APPLY - Make sure that your students can take those concepts that they have learnt and can apply it, preferably to a real-world scenario, as soon as possible. Maths professor and Education Expert Dr Barbara Oakley states that when learning maths techniques, "you want your brain to become used to the idea that just knowing how to use a particular problem-solving technique isn't enough-you also need to know when to use it3.” This will help keep them engaged better rather than lecturing them to death and help them retain what they have learnt.

3) Enthusiasm

A lady with her iPad putting up a fist in the air in truimph
O.M.G - Just completed Level 107 on Candy Crush

This really goes without saying. You are the emotional climate of the room. If you hate the subject that you teach, this will come through your teaching and your students will hate it too. If they see that you enjoy the subject that you teach, this may rub off on them in the right way.

Have you ever had the experience where your friend wanted you to go to the cinema to watch a film that you were not too keen on? But what made you go? Your friend’s enthusiasm and persistence finally won you over and you found yourself enjoying the film. Likewise, your students may not be that keen on your subject, but your positivity may turn them around.

Be like that annoying friend.

4) Healthy Competition

Women doing a changeover in a relay race
Don't hate the player...

We all like competition — especially when we are winning. Make a game out of some of your lessons like an interactive quiz or a debate.

Use the group dynamics to your advantage — in my experience, teenagers like to look ‘cool’ and one way of doing that is being better than their peers in something that they all care about.

Create a safe and inclusive space where they can let their competitive instincts run riot and watch them learn and have fun doing this too.

I once had to teach a Year 11 Citizenship class and we had to talk about the Government Budget and all the things that went it calculating it - I knew that they would turn off as soon as they heard “Government Surplus.”

So what I did was I split the class into seven groups that represented different services that we needed like the Armed Forces, Hospitals and Healthcare, Police, Education Sector and so on.

They had to create a presentation, explaining to a “Panel of Experts” why they deserved more money than the other services. After everyone made their initial presentation, they all had the chance to cross-examine each other which lead to many heated exchanges (in a good way).

The key here is that your students will be so busy trying to compete with each other that they will not have time to become the insurgents of your classroom. They are learning and you have still got hair on your head. I call that a victory.


I am asking you to be 100% honest with yourself here. Before you call your students ‘monsters’ who are making your life ‘hell’ answer the following questions:

  1. Are your lessons boring? Do your students fall to sleep or completely disengage with what you teach?

  2. Do you find that many of your lessons, you are either doing too much talking or too much writing? Why is that? Depending on the subject can this be changed?

  3. When you set similar topics, do you find that your students groan or protest? Is it the material? Can you change it anyway?

I know that you are bogged down with work. I know that you have marking coming out of your ears. But try these techniques: the Guber Framework especially takes 5 minutes to implement and I promise you, you will see results.

Remember you are the bellwether of your class. If your students see that you are trying to make the lessons engaging and you are trying to include their interests, they will respond to you, I promise. Your lessons go a long way in how your teacher-student relationships develop. Get them onside or you will pay for it.

But there is still much to learn Skywalker about the ways of the Behaviour Management ‘force.’ Sign up to my blog below and receive more secret teachings of the Action Hero Teacher in the form of blog updates, newsletters and freebies. Become ‘one’ with your classrooms today.

1. Peter, G., 2011. Tell To Win: Connect, Persuade, and Triumph with the Hidden Power of Story. 1st ed. Great Britain: Profile Books Ltd. Page 20

2. Peter, G., 2011. Tell To Win: Connect, Persuade, and Triumph with the Hidden Power of Story. 1st ed. Great Britain: Profile Books Ltd. Page 21

3. Oakley, B., 2014. A Mind For Numbers: How to Excel at Math and Science (Even If You Flunked Algebra). 1st ed. United States of America: Penguin Group. Page 75



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