Enthusiasm for Teaching
Your energy in the classroom motivates myself and the students around me to reach complete understanding of the course material and to think like an engineer. Complex concepts and theories, through clear explanations and real-world examples, became easy to understand.
– Georgia Tech Student in BME2210
We have all experienced an enthusiastic instructor in a class at one time or another. However, it can be challenging to describe exactly what occurred that made the class exciting, and how (or even if!) that contributed to your learning (Metcalfe & Game 2006).
When instructors bring enthusiasm – or passion – to their teaching, they tend to create environments where students are engaged, motivated, and enjoying themselves, while also connecting their positive feelings to their learning goals. In other words, if you are able to demonstrate your passion for and interest in the content you are teaching, while you are teaching it, you can expect your students to reciprocate with increased levels of their own enthusiasm (engagement, motivation, enjoyment, etc.) throughout the semester (Davies, Carpenter, Lamb, & Donaghy, 2006; Feldman, 2007; Keller, Hoy, Goetz, & Frenzel, 2016; Kunter et al., 2008; Myers, Goodboy, & Members of COMM 600, 2014; Patrick, Hisley, & Kempler, 2000; Zhang, 2014).
According to the Cambridge Dictionary (n.d.), enthusiasm is “a feeling of energetic interest in a particular subject or activity and a desire to be involved in it.” In other words, the notion of enthusiasm captures interest, passion, energy a draw toward investment, and more.
In the teaching context, instructional enthusiasm refers to the enthusiasm an instructor demonstrates in the learning environment, and there are two types of behaviors that present themselves as markers of enthusiasm: displayed enthusiasm (use of communicative cues that convey enthusiasm) and experienced enthusiasm (implicit affect and personality traits that convey enthusiasm). (Keller et al., 2016; Kunter, Frenzel, Nagy, Baumert, & Pekrun, 2011; Kunter et al., 2013; Kunter et al., 2008; Mahler, Großschedl, & Harms, 2017; Moe, 2016; Patrick et al., 2000)
Instructors demonstrate enthusiasm through nonverbal communicative cues (e.g., gestures) and features of their vocal delivery (e.g., pitch and tone). These features of communication tend to convey additional meaning to what is said in a lecture or discussion, and thereby have the power to positively affect student learning behavior and connection to the content (Keller et al., 2016; Kunter et al., 2011; Kunter et al., 2008; Moe, 2016).
Instructors also communicate enthusiasm through their passion about subject content and teaching, and their individual personality traits (e.g., charisma). This passion and personality can be communicated in a variety of ways, and when done effectively it tends to increase student motivation and engagement. For example, when an instructor shares research findings that they view as particularly compelling or interesting, they are also sharing their interest in – and enthusiasm for – the content they are teaching (Keller et al., 2016; Kunter et al., 2011; Kunter et al., 2013; Mahler et al., 2017).
The role of enthusiasm in teaching has an interesting relationship with other strategies and features in play. For example, research looking at the interplay between enthusiasm and clarity found that clarity was more important than enthusiasm when it comes to student learning and performance, but enthusiasm can bring further positive impact to otherwise relatively effective teaching. That is, enthusiastic delivery of unorganized content is inferior to less enthusiastic delivery of well-organized and clear communication of content (Marsh & Ware, 1982; Myers et al., 2014).
Overall, student perceptions of instructor enthusiasm have the most impact in the context of an already healthy learning environment (e.g., students perceive instructors as being respectful, available, clear, and so on). In one study, enthusiasm was the critical factor in distinguishing an “outstanding” lecturer from an “average” lecturer. (Murray, 1983) That said, instructional enthusiasm is particularly important due to its positive impact on learning and performance.
Students perceive the enthusiasm (or lack thereof) of their instructor by way of both verbal and non-verbal cues. When certain features are present, students (consciously or unconsciously) conclude that their instructors are passionate and interested in their content and/or the teaching enterprise. Other features will lead to the opposite conclusion. In either case, the point is that these perceptions from students, based on instructor behavior, will affect the learning environment, student learning, and academic performance (Alsharif & Qi, 2014; Babad, 2007; Davies et al., 2006; Feldman, 2007; Frenzel, Goetz, Lüdtke, Pekrun, & Sutton, 2009; Murray, 1983; Orosz et al., 2015; Patrick et al., 2000; Tauber & Mester, 2007).
Econ is typically not my strongest subject, but your enthusiasm for the subject made it significantly more interesting to learn about!
– Georgia Tech Student in ECON 2105
Thanks for being enthusiastic about math. You do a good job explaining the concepts and engaging the students in class. You find a way to make calc 3 interesting.
– Georgia Tech Student in MATH 2401
Your experience and knowledge in Economics is obvious and your enthusiasm really helps to get the students more excited/interested in the subject.
– Georgia Tech Student in ECON 3120
Enthusiasm for instructors connects deeply within his or her preferences for teaching. It is related to how much an instructor enjoys teaching, what choices are made about how to teach, and what to teach (Baum, 2002).
Strategies for Sharing Your Enthusiasm with Students
The simplest strategy for creating a positive learning environment through instructional enthusiasm is to find and embrace your enjoyment and excitement for your discipline content and/or for teaching itself. Do not be afraid to share with students that you enjoy the material you are teaching, especially the challenging areas. Students often view instructors as role models for the profession, so demonstrating your love and frustration with content gives students permission to do the same. This helps students make connections to learning the content by piquing their interest or enjoyment of the content (Babad, 2007).
In addition to subject matter, you can communicate enthusiasm to students through your love or enjoyment of teaching. Tell them why you value teaching in your discipline, or why you think education and college are important. Share with them some of the thought and preparation you put into the course, and some of your favorite moments from past classes.
Stories and humor allow you to integrate your enjoyment and excitement for teaching and subject content into your class. By making connections to the class material, you build enthusiasm in the classroom experience for students. Stories and humor attract student attention, provide an anchor point for students’ memory and schema building about class content, allow both instructor and students to make a connection, and offer moments of levity in the class that can reduce student anxiety and resistance to learning (Buffo, 2015; Myers et al., 2014; Tauber & Mester, 2007).
Consider the timing
An important part about using stories and humor is the timing. At the beginning of class, stories capture student attention. In the middle of class, stories are useful for making connections to complex concepts. At the end of class, stories serve as a summative moment to wrap up the material learned in class for the day. Finally, using stories and humor spontaneously can reduce anxiety and tension in the classroom.
Tell stories about your discipline and your experiences
Stories can draw students into the content in a new way, and are particularly effective when they relate to your experiences or a colleague’s experiences, or if they are about a particular scholar or individual who is the source of the content you are currently teaching. Stories can be long or short, and can take many forms (Moorman, 2015; Storytelling, n.d).
Find ways to use humor in your class
Humor can be used to create a positive learning environment by building rapport with students. It introduces fun to the process of learning and can act as a momentary cognitive break for students by reducing stress, tension, and anxiety. It can also add a new perspective for thinking about specific content. Use of classroom humor may be best approached as a form of “planned spontaneity”: think through the pedagogical reasons for incorporating a specific piece of humor (e.g., alignment with relevant content), but aim to apply it more spontaneously. Besides creating an enjoyable moment for students, a piece of humor (story/cartoon/joke) can serve as part of their mental schema for recalling an idea or concept (Banas, Dunbar, Rodriguez & Liu, 2011; Keller et al., 2016; Tauber & Mester, 2007).
Options for use of humor in the classroom abound, but to start you might think about using cartoons or memes, telling (appropriately) funny stories or jokes, incorporating some levity into case studies, and so on.
Your verbal and non-verbal cues – or your displayed enthusiasm behaviors – can affect your students’ perception of your enthusiasm. “Faking it” can be detrimental to your cause, but it is useful to reflect on your own communicative behaviors, and think about areas where you may need to develop new habits (Taxer & Frenzel, 2015, 2018).
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