Engaging students in the age of disruption


The students we’re teaching in tertiary institutions are different to those who came before. These are young people who have grown up with Facebook and Instagram. According to three professionals in the field, keeping these students engaged is all about disrupting classrooms and keeping things fresh.

These days, teaching a classroom of mainly millennials can feel like you’re about to perform at a TED talk.

Engagement is possibly the most important thing for a teacher to achieve - after all, how can you teach anything if your students are uninterested or bored?

Media studies- everything from dissecting movies to making them yourself- might seem like an easy class to teach in this respect. It’s entertainment right? How hard can it be to engage students in something most of us do for fun? But media tutors and lecturers have to work just as hard to engage their students, and inspire them to apply what they’ve learnt in practical real-world scenarios.

We spoke to three tertiary teachers who work in media and entertainment about how they create classrooms where their students are involved and learning.

Know what you’re trying to teach

How you design your lectures or tutorials comes down to your end goal. What do you want your students to walk away with?


Liz Giuffre lectures in Communications at the University of Technology in Sydney, teaching popular media, music and culture. Beyond the pragmatic learning outcomes of each subject, she wants to inspire curiosity.

Liz Giuffre headhsot

Dr. Liz Giuffre

“You want them to get interested and engaged, and in particular, expand what it is they didn’t know before. To get excited about being curious. I don’t think there are enough curious people at the moment, it’s not even an anti-intellectual wave at the moment – it’s just an anti-knowing stuff movement. So, I want my students to get excited about knowing stuff, and the power that knowing stuff can give them”.

A love of learning

Once you have created that spark, Melissa Voderberg believes you can nourish curiosity into an enduring love of learning. Melissa is a lecturer in Communication Design at the Billy Blue College of Design in Melbourne, where she runs her classes like a studio.

Melissa Voderberg Headshot

Melissa Voderberg

“Your time when you’re teaching them will come to an end. But if you’ve created a curious person, who starts to see that little edge of the bigger world, and all these different things that are out there, they’re going to continue that for themselves, to be a lifelong learner”.

The ability to put thought into action

David Balfour is head of Learning and Teaching at the Australian Film and Television School in Sydney. Like Liz Giuffre and Melissa Voderberg he believes in inspiring students to push beyond what they already know, and to ask questions about the world around them. The next step he says is to put all the curiosity and discussion into something tangible.

David Balfour Headshot

David Balfour

“Students can actually effect change and be a part of that world. It’s inspiring them to go beyond, to connect thought to action.”

Creating the inspiration: engaging students in class

You’re standing in front of a room full of students with mobile phones waiting enticingly on their desks. How do you stop them reaching for it, and losing them in the depths of Facebook or Instagram?

Create enough interest to get their attention

According to Liz Giuffre it’s all about meeting the students halfway.

“Not completely where they’re at, because then lectures would just be Buzzfeed listicles, and nobody would get much out of that. But it’s about mixing the theoretical stuff, and the stuff that’s probably a bit uncomfortable for them, and a bit alien for them, in with a delivery mode that they feel a bit more comfortable with.”

An example of this is how she explains a theory called Affect. That is, how we are made to feel by a piece of media, and why that feeling matters when we’re communicating.

“In order to get that across, I’ll often play them a piece of music like Dizzee Rascal or something, and get them to feel their pulse as it plays. Noticing that kind of subconsciously, your pulse changes as the volume gets louder and stuff happens.

“It’s about getting them to understand that they’re kind of feeling something they didn’t even realize they were feeling, and they’re reacting before they even realized they were reacting. So their job as people who will be media scholars or media students, is to understand that’s a game that people play, and that their responsibility is they can manipulate that, and what do they do about that?”

Make the class an interactive experience

Gone are the days when tertiary classrooms had someone standing at the front and lecturing to their students. These days teachers need to think outside the square.

Melissa Voderberg has a 15 minute rule. After 15 minutes she will stop and have a breakaway session, a discussion or a hands-on activity. She may put a question on the board, and get students to discuss it in groups of three.

It’s not a solid one-way classroom. If you allow the students to contribute, they’re going to be engaged, because there’s something of them that’s going to be part of the learning experience. They’re able to be participants as opposed to passive listeners, passive learners.

Melissa Voderberg in class

Melissa Voderberg in class

Making students participants in their own learning experience is something David Balfour also uses in his classrooms. Part of his process involves getting students to ask each other questions.

“The lectures may start off with me talking, but then quickly, I want to get them talking. So, the less talking I do, the more talking they do, the better. And the more making they do, and the more sharing the work that they produce with each other, the better. And the more that I can intervene in helping them formulate how they ask questions of each other, developing the practice where you can question students, rather than lecture students, is what we aim for.”

Use a structure to make your classes sing

How you put together the course you’re about to teach can be the key to achieving your goals in the classroom.

Melissa Vodeberg’s classes normally run for 12 weeks. She organizes them visually, laying out each week in small cards on one desk.

“I color-code those cards around whether it’s content, an activity, a group activity, an individual exercise – and I have them so I can see them across the table and look at the week. So, I can see really quickly by color if any weeks are missing, if there’s something that I need to do to make that class be more engaging.”

Creating presentations that capture attention

The biggest lesson Liz Giuffre learnt early in her career was making sure students could read her presentations.

“This is such a basic thing that I do, but it works. I always use a black background, and light colored font – so a white or a yellow font. The reason I do that is because it works no matter where the lights, in the room that you’re projecting, are.”

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She also avoids using a lot of text on a screen, instead using only key words and dot points.

“It’s really hard to listen to somebody and read something at the same time, particularly if they’re different things.”

And finally she’ll throw in a visual pun or two.

“I’ll teach a class on Fandom Studies, and I’ll just have a big industrial fan up there. It keeps me happy, but it’s also just reinforcing the idea, but also making it worth their while to come and listen. If they could just read, if the PowerPoint was just the text of my lecture over slides, then why would they bother coming?”

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Only have one platform where students can ask questions

Have you ever had a slew of emails, all asking the same question? Teachers can be inundated with emails but there are ways to make answering them easier.

Examples in lessons might include MP3s or video files, so having a platform where you can answer one question for everyone and also be able to upload different files is important.

Melissa Soderberg uses Slack.

“Slack’s really helpful because it can host a lot of different media. Let’s say we’re working on a project, everything for that project will be in one place, so you can put a PDF, you can put a Word document, you can put a video, you can upload images. If I’ve sent students out to capture images to respond to a question, everything can go there.”

In order to create a discussion on one platform David Balfour uses Socrative. It’s a program that allows David to do quick polls and quizzes with his students. It creates a word cloud from the information that David then uses to generate discussion in class.

Classes should be interactive, current and led by passionate teachers

These days there’s a lot of talk about “disruption” – the idea that traditional businesses and communication models are being uprooted by new, more innovative and effective ways of doing things. For example how social media “disrupted” news, allowing ordinary people to report in real time what traditionally only broadcast media could do.

Tertiary teaching today seems to reflect this kind of disruption. There is no longer one person dispersing their wisdom to a silent and passive audience.

David Balfour says that interactive classrooms are the way to go.

“I think it’s to create more space for the students to express themselves, and to figure it out on their own, and with each other. So, it’s less talking from the teacher, and more talking from the students.”

Students still need good quality content to talk about. Melissa Voderberg says making classes interesting and relevant to the real world is important.

“I would say mix it up. Really try to mix up the modalities, move around the classroom, or the residual environment. Change things up from week to week. And also, try to be topical. Keeping up with what’s going on in the world, and bringing that in to whatever class you’re teaching, whether it’s around user experience, or communication design, or UX – try to bring in current events to your content is really good.”

But ultimately, when it comes to teaching, Liz Giuffre says you reap what you sow.

“I think it’s really important to have some kind of spark with what you’re doing. And it doesn’t mean that you have to be a performer, it doesn’t mean that it has to be stand-up, but you’ve got to give it some kind of personality.”

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