The 21-Day Challenge: Can you keep students engaged after the final exam?

Don’t waste their time – it’s one of the guiding principles for high school teachers.

Start on time; end on time. Put off routine tasks (like passing back papers and taking attendance) until after students are engaged in a new assignment or discussion.

No matter how much students beg, don’t give them free time or a movie day. When you share stories, share them with a purpose in mind.

Make it clear: Your time together is valuable, and you are going to respect it.

This principle doesn’t just guide how my students use class time – it guides my planning as well.

Every day, I think about what my students need to know and why. Does it matter if they can calculate unemployment? And if so, why? Not just so they can parrot it back on a test, but so that they can read economic news, evaluate policy choices, vote based on their understanding.

I won’t claim that every second in my class is time well spent – that would be foolish – but that is my goal.

I won’t design lessons around multiple-choice tests or require teenagers to learn facts that few adults recall, like the “cloture rule” or the number of members in the Federal Open Market Committee. I experienced that kind of teaching as a high school student, and I know it’s not meaningful.

I won’t claim that every second in my class is time well spent – that would be foolish — but that is my goal.

Usually, it isn’t difficult to use class time well. In a course like AP Macroeconomics, which I taught to 60 American public high school students this spring, there is more substance than most teenagers can master in one semester. They need to learn more than economic facts; they need to apply logic and analytical skills to difficult economic questions. It takes all of our time.

But the final four weeks of the semester always present a distinct challenge to my philosophy, and this spring I decided to take it on.

The Challenge

Here’s the situation: Second semester this year started Feb. 1, giving me 63 class days before the Advanced Placement test and 21 days – a full quarter of the course – after it.

In other words, my students took their final summative test a month before school was out. I had to find a way to make the last four weeks meaningful – and not waste their time.

How could I do it? What was essential for them to learn beyond the defined course content, and how could I keep them in engaged?

There are a few ways to approach this situation.

  • One strategy, of course, is to simply cancel class (if that was permitted) or discontinue teaching after the final. After all, my students had worked extremely hard to learn AP Macro in such a brief time, and they surely deserved a break. I wouldn’t be wasting their time — but I wouldn’t be valuing it either. That was a nonstarter.
  • Another way is to forge ahead in college economics – teach them content that isn’t on the AP test but might be covered in an introductory college course, like the Solow Growth Model or indifference curve analysis. But could I keep them engaged in this material without the extrinsic motivation of a test? And would it be the best use of their time?
  • Another would be to assign a major research paper and use the motivator of a high-stakes assignment to keep them going. But that seemed unfair; I didn’t want to create an assignment just to keep the students busy, and I didn’t want to rely on extrinsic motivators. I wanted them to learn because they enjoyed learning for the final month of class.

The Solution: Active learning

I knew that whatever I chose, it would have to be highly engaging and relevant to skills or knowledge that all of them will need in the future – not just the future econ majors.

It would also have to involve active learning, like games, simulations and competitions.

Researchers who have studied active learning strategies have found that they are far more effective than our traditional, lecture-based teaching models, but American high school teachers often shy away from them because they are unconventional; they require the teacher to give up control; and they take more time to plan and implement.

I’ve been studying and promoting these methods for the past few years – and I’m working on a book about how active learning can improve our classrooms – so I decided to go all in.

Call it my personal “Don’t waste their time” challenge. I would see how engaged I could keep 60 high school students, mostly freshmen, in the final month of school just by using active-learning strategies. No tests, no assignments, only participation points.

How did it go? Overall, surprisingly well.

The Simulation

The first two weeks we spent doing a major trade activity called the International Economic Summit (created at Boise State University), which incorporates not only simulation and competition, but also debate.

In the summit, students work in teams to represent countries. Some are rich countries; some are middle-income or poor. Each has a fixed quantity of exports, and the teams set import goals, invest in long-term infrastructure development, and debate global economic proposals.

The students earn points along the way, with the goal of improving their nation’s economy – and winning. (Although those points didn’t count toward a grade, they did receive participation points.)

The culmination of this activity is a one-day summit in the high school gym, where students dress in costume, make displays, form trade alliances, buy investment coupons – and most importantly, trade to meet their import goals.

It’s hard to describe the summit day, except to say that it was loud, stressful, intense and thoroughly engaging. Thirty-five teams of students were negotiating, arguing, plotting, reneging – they were completely absorbed by the challenge of it, and they loved it.

This is so stressful!” they would tell me as I passed by, checking out displays and observing their discussions. “This is so much fun!” “Can we do it again?

What did they learn from it? One of the volunteer judges, who works in regulatory affairs for a major corporation, put it this way in an email to me later:

The summit offered the students the opportunity to compete with each other while applying the principles of economics. This is a lesson that will stick with them for life.

The summit met the “Don’t waste their time challenge.” The students applied economics knowledge and also learned 21st Century Skills like teamwork and negotiation, and they were motivated by something other than points. I’d never seen them work so hard.

The only problem? I still had two more weeks.

Personal Finance: Interesting, to a point

The final two weeks I decided to dedicate to personal finance – something that’s critical for all high school students to learn but not required in my state or school district.

Lecturing on types of insurance or passing out budget calculation worksheets wasn’t going to cut it. Personal finance might be important, but that doesn’t mean it’s interesting to kids. And at this point, I decided to use no more external rewards at all. No more points, even for participation.

I selected a few of my favorite lessons from a curriculum I wrote for the Economics Center of Cincinnati (called On My Way), as well as a stock market simulation I developed for Econ Edlink, and used them along with an online game called Thrive ’n Shine, developed by Mindblown Labs.

The game was a huge hit – it again tapped into the students’ inherent love of simulation and competition. It didn’t feel like work. The students created avatars and plunged themselves into their virtual lives: earning income, paying rent, paying taxes, eating out and sleeping. They barely looked up from the game during class, except to ask why they had to pay so many taxes.

Many of them finished the entire game at home the first day and eagerly told me the next day how they had bought a car, moved to a different town, financed college and built up a savings account. They played again, every time I let them.

A few of the lessons were similarly engaging – especially an insurance game that involved rolling dice to see if any “bad events” struck them and the stock market activity, which let the students follow their stocks through 16 years of ups and downs.

But there was one day that completely failed the challenge. One of the lessons I picked was on borrowing money and using credit. I thought it would be interesting – after all, we were talking about paying for college and college debt, and those are real issues for our students.

I realized I had slipped back into traditional teacher mode – I was talking and talking and expecting them to listen.

But as I moved through the slides, asking the students questions and trying to engage them in discussion, I realized their eyes were losing focus. Phones started popping up under desks; yearbooks came out, and I heard muffled conversations.

I realized I had slipped back into traditional teacher mode – I was talking and talking and expecting them to listen. That might work sometimes, when they need to listen to learn something they’ll be tested on or when they are afraid of being disciplined, but it wasn’t going to work that day. The only way to engage them, within the parameters of my challenge, was to actually do something engaging.

I quickly wrapped up the lesson, apologized that it was boring, and realized I would have to replace it next time.

Lessons from the challenge

For 20 of the 21 days, I think I succeeded in not wasting my students’ time. I didn’t give up teaching just because the final was over, and I didn’t force busy work on them to make the four weeks manageable for me.

The students learned about trade and negotiations, economic development, taxes, insurance, the stock market and a host of other topics – all because the learning was engaging. It was fun for them, and honestly it was fun for me.

Using active-learning strategies isn’t new for me, but using them to this extent – and hoping that these strategies will tap into students’ intrinsic motivators enough to keep them involved without any sort of extrinsic reward – was new. It was a big risk, in some ways, and I felt how risky it was the one day it failed. I was nervous, disappointed, even miserable that day, realizing how desperate I was for some way to keep them engaged.

Next year, not only will I take this challenge, and do it even better, but I plan to increase my daily use of active-learning strategies throughout the semester.

We know what works to get students engaged and excited about learning. We know that if we use these strategies well, our students will engage in deeper learning and remember far more than they would ever remember from a lecture. We also know that active-learning strategies can turn students into inquisitive, self-directed learners, something that rarely happens in a direct-instruction setting.

We need to work past our misgivings and just do it.


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