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[Classroom Management] How to Motivate and Influence Your Students with Neuromarketing-Based Strategies

Wednesday, September 13, 2017 -- Regina Waddell

I know, I know—what does marketing have to do with teaching? But hear me out; after making my own career shift out of the classroom, I realized that there are some connections that might surprise you.

First, let’s go over some facts about marketing. Did you know that, according to Harvard Business School professor and author Gerald Zaltman, 95% of our thoughts, emotions, and learning occur without our conscious awareness? I recently stumbled upon a book on the subject of neuromarketing—Roger Dooley’s Brainfluence—which expands on this theory, and my inner educator was immediately intrigued by some of the concepts. Dooley’s main premise is that marketers spend a disproportionate amount of time appealing to consumers’ conscious 5% percent of the brain and neglect the (very influential) subconscious 95%. I think educators could take something away from this idea as well. When I was teaching, I was constantly looking for ways to get my students to work harder, remember more, and grow more enthusiastic about learning. Dooley defines neuromarketing as practically applying neuroscience and behavior research to better market to consumers by understanding their decision patterns. As I was reading Dooley’s ideas about engaging the subconscious, I realized that many of his neuromarketing approaches mirror some of the most effective strategies to subtly hook students’ attention. After all, the ultimate goal of marketers is to get buyers excited about their products; isn’t the ultimate goal of teachers to get students excited about learning?

So, why not leverage some of these marketing-based techniques to freshen up your approach to classroom management and engage your students in a whole new way? Try these five ideas adapted from Brainfluence to influence choices, increase enthusiasm, improve motivation, and boost memory in your classroom.

Influence choice by providing a decoy

Providing choice is a well-known way to motivate students because it gives them ownership over their learning. However, offering those choices while still maintaining control over your classroom and making sure that students learn what they need to can be easier said than done. Sometimes, giving your students a gentle push toward a specific choice can help. To influence students' choices, try providing a decoy—a similar alternative to your preferred choice that is in some way inferior. This makes the preferred choice more attractive because, as Dooley states, "Our brains aren't good at judging absolute values, but they are always ready to compare values and benefits."

Dooley cites an experiment from the book Predictably Irrational by Dan Ariely in which two groups of subjects were presented with magazine subscription offers. One group was given two choices, a low-end option and a high-end option. In that group, 68% chose the low-end option, while 32% chose the high-end option. The second group of subjects was given the same two choices as the first group, plus one additional high-end option priced the same as the other higher-end option, but with fewer features. In the second group 16% chose the low-end option, 0% chose the less-appealing high-end option, and 84% chose the other high-end option. Simply adding in that high-end decoy motivated more people to choose the other high-end option and discouraged participants from choosing the low-end option that didn’t have a relative decoy.

Classroom application: Let’s say you’ve just wrapped up a unit, and you want to give your students the ability to choose which project they complete to demonstrate their understanding. However, you also really want more of your students to get some experience with video editing, so you want to ensure that a solid majority choose that option. Instead of just giving them three completely unique options—for instance, creating a shoebox diorama, a PowerPoint presentation, or a video—add a fourth option similar to creating a video, like creating a video with a written essay. Few students will choose the video with essay option because it's more work, but having it available makes the standard video option look a lot more attractive, and will entice more students to choose it.

Stimulate sense of smell to enhance memory

Martin Lindstrom, author of Buyology, estimates that 75% of our emotions are generated by what we smell. Dooley cites an experiment by John Medina, developmental molecular biologist and author of Brain Rules. Medina ran a test while teaching a complex topic to two classes. In one class, he sprayed Brut cologne on the wall before each lesson; in the other class, he did not. When it was time for the exam, he sprayed the cologne for all students. The students who had received the "scented lectures" performed significantly better on the test than those who had not because they associated the information they were being tested on with the smell of the cologne.

Classroom application: Consider using a “signature scent” in your classroom. Choose a scented candle (or potpourri, diffuser, perfume, or cheaper body spray, or any other option you prefer) and use it daily, or save it for when you’re introducing or reviewing especially important material students will be tested on. Then, when test day rolls around, use the same scent. The smell will bring back both the conscious and subconscious memories your students have associated with it—including the material on the test. Just be sure to be aware of any scent sensitivities students may have, and remember that a little goes a long way.

For increased motivation and effort, leverage a tribe mentality

People are hardwired to want to connect with other people and feel like they are part of a group. Marketers have used this very effectively in campaigns like the "Hello, I'm a Mac/And I'm a PC." ads. In this instance, it was done overtly, but other times, it is done organically by consumers (think about a self-identified "Coke person" versus a "Pepsi person"). And, we’re all aware of the power of a little rivalry—just think about how much more we engage with sports when a "rival game" is coming up. My current city of Dallas becomes a sea of orange and red for the annual University of Texas versus University of Oklahoma gameday, and people who usually have no interest in college football are instant super fans.

Classroom application: When I was a teacher, I unknowingly took advantage of the tribe mentality with my students. I was teaching two different sections of reading to 5th grade students, and as we were preparing for the TAKS, our state assessment at the time, I would give students practice passages to complete. I would grade the passages and then post the percentage of students in each section who "passed" on a bar graph poster hung up on my whiteboard. When my students entered the classroom, I would point to the chart and say something like, "It looks like 5B edged out you guys last time. Do y'all think you can beat them today?" Or, I’d say, "Y’all barely beat 5A last time. I'm thinking they might be able to beat y’all today." The students would always give me an excited group response, and they were consistently more engaged as they worked on their reading passages.

Creating this kind of (friendly) rivalry between class sections or groups can be a great way to increase students’ motivation. Just be careful to always base your rivalries on something random like class section instead of any academic or demographic differences.

Choose simple fonts to motivate students to action

Dooley cites research by Hyunjin Song and Norbert Schwarz in their paper "If it's Hard to Read, It's Hard to Do..." that shows that our perception of information can be dramatically affected by how simple or complex a font is. Song and Schwarz performed an experiment in which subjects were given a sushi recipe. Subjects who saw the instructions written in the easy-to-read Arial font estimated that the recipe would take a much shorter time to complete than subjects who read the directions in the difficult-to-read Mistral font..

Classroom application: Help make a project or homework assignment seem simpler, shorter, or easier to complete by using a simple font on any instructional documents you provide your students with. This can take away some of the intimidation factor and motivate students to dive right in instead of procrastinating out of fear that the assignment will be too hard or take too long.

Choose complex fonts for increased memorability

Simple fonts may be great for making instructions feel approachable, but if you want to be sure that students remember something, then a more complex font is the way to go. Dooley cites a study done at Princeton University that compared student retention of material presented in the simple font Arial to complex fonts, including Comic Sans Italic, Monotype Corsiva, and Haettenschweiler. It turned out that the complex fonts required additional effort and, therefore, deeper processing to take in, and they ultimately led to better recall. Making the brain work a little harder can produce a stronger memory.

Classroom application: Consider using a complex font for specific facts, concepts, or details that you want students to remember, such as a key formula in math or important dates in history. However, be careful to use this technique sparingly. An entire packet of notes or a complete presentation in a complex font could cause your students to get fatigued and give up altogether.

Ready to tap into the other 95% of your students’ brains with these neuromarketing techniques? Let us know how it goes, and be sure to share with a colleague who you think would be intrigued as well. Looking for other creative strategies to try in the classroom? Check out these 21 Tips, Tricks, and Ideas Every 21st Century Teacher Should Try!