10 ways to make your learners happier in class
10 ways to make your learners happier in class
By Nick Michelioudakis
Imagine you have a choice between two activities: in the first one, the students tell each other about a film they have seen; in the other, they take it in turns to say three things they like about each other. Which one would you choose? For me, the question is a no-brainer. Both of these activities get students to practice language, but the second one is so much better – it makes students happier too.
There are many ways to make your learners happier in class - here are ten of them.
1. Use ‘Humanistic’ activities
Because of the huge importance for humans of being part of a group, nature rewards us every time we engage in activities with others or in activities which bring us closer to others (Lieberman 2013). Any task which involves finding things out about other people, discovering similarities, and sharing experiences or problems strengthens the bonds between students and leaves them feeling happier. However, all too often we get so carried away with the demands of the syllabus (‘3rd Conditional’ / ‘Passive Voice’ etc.) that we fail to pay sufficient attention to this social dynamic.
2. Give students greater control
Research shows that people are happier when they feel they are in control (Lewis 2013 – p. 100). Even if your students come from a traditional background where the teacher is expected to make all the decisions, people still feel happier if they feel they have a say in things or that their needs are taken into consideration (interestingly enough, it is the perception that matters – not necessarily whether people are actually in control). The implications are obvious: giving students options, involving them in the way things are done (e.g. getting them to come up with classroom rules for instance), asking them for their opinions and preferences and asking them for feedback – all these things can increase students’ perceived level of control.
3. Make use of humour
Laughter releases endorphins, which make people feel happier. But it is not only that; laughter also serves a ‘bonding’ function – people who laugh together come to see each other as friends, even if they are mere acquaintances (Dunbar 2021 – pp. 160-161). There is a profoundly social basis to the evolution of humour, smiling, and laughter. It is no accident for instance that we are 30 times more likely to laugh at a joke when there are others present than when we are alone. The moral here is obvious: try to include a good dollop of humour when you are planning your lessons. Whether this is a funny story, or a comic sketch, or the way some teachers have of cracking little jokes or acting in a funny way, the importance of humour comes up again and again in student evaluation and feedback forms.
4. Get students to count their blessings
Happiness is largely a question of where we direct our attention. What happens very often is that we tend to focus on our problems and this of course causes anxiety – even when our problems are minor ones. What we often fail to do is to direct our attention to the aspects of our lives which are perfectly fine. Psychologists have found that one of the easiest ways to make people feel happier is to get them to pause and reflect on all the many things they should be grateful for (good health, a loving family etc. [Tierney & Baumeister 2019 – p. 202]). Needless to say, these can be excellent language activities: from simple sharing in pairs, to mini projects with students preparing perhaps posters or mini videos about reasons they have for being satisfied with their lives. Notice that such sharing activities also help bring people closer (see point 1).
5. Get students to reflect on happy moments
Once again, this is an exercise of directing attention to positive things. Researchers have found that ‘reliving’ pleasant experiences is like experiencing them anew (Bloom 2023 – ch. 15). We could make use of this by getting students to recall times when they were happy and either give a mini presentation (perhaps with the help of pictures) or simply talk in pairs or small groups about some particularly happy moments in their lives. Their classmates can ask them questions so they can find out more. The more vivid the recollection becomes, the better the effect. Once again, such a task can help students discover something they did not know about their classmates.
6. Practice the ‘Future Perfect’
Naturally, I am not talking about Grammar here! What goes for the present (point 4) or for the past (point 5) also goes for the future (Wiseman 2010 – p. 18). Everybody has goals and dreams, and in fact we all take the occasional trip to Neverland and imagine what things would be like if our wildest dreams came true. Well, there is no reason why we could not ask students to do this in class – in English. Again, it could be done in pairs or groups, with the other students asking further questions (‘What kind of book would you like to write?’ ‘Do you imagine it becoming a film?’ etc.) It is true that this kind of wishful thinking, while making us happier, does not do much to bring those dreams or goals any closer. However, studies have shown that if we also think about what active steps we need to take to achieve those goals, this actually does help!
7. Practice the ‘Gratitude Attitude’
Telling someone how grateful we are for something they did is bound to please them. What is amazing is how happy it makes us too (and how rarely we do it…). Time and again psychologists have found that people can make themselves feel a lot better by reflecting on something good that someone has done for them and then calling them on the phone or sending them an e-mail to express how they feel – even if this was something that happened in the remote past (Tierney & Baumeister 2019 – p 204). The reasons are not hard to see: i) we remember something good that someone did for us (see point 5); ii) telling them how grateful we are creates a stronger bond with that person (see point 1); and iii) the act of letting them know is like a little gift from us to them. And it turns out that gift-giving is a great source of pleasure – for the giver too (see also point 9).
8. Practice ‘Affectionate Writing’
We all feel nice when others say good things about us or pay us compliments. What is slightly less obvious is the effect this has on the ones who do this. Studies have shown that expressing warm feelings towards others has a markedly positive effect on our well-being. One such activity is called ‘Plateful of Praise’ (Wiseman 2010 – p. 30). Students work in groups and they choose one of their classmates to focus on. Then they work together to write little notes about what they like best about them (e.g. the fact that they are helpful or relaxed or funny) and then they put them all on a little tray and present them to that person. The recipient of this praise is naturally elated, but so are the people in the group who have prepared the praise. (NB: It is important that the teacher makes sure that everybody gets their ‘Plateful of Praise’ eventually so that nobody feels left out).
9. Get students to do things for others
We instinctively know that if we buy something for someone else that makes us happy; what is far less obvious is that it actually makes us happier than if we were to buy it for ourselves (see also point 7). Here are two more discoveries: i) this does not just have to do with money (it could be doing someone a favour for instance); and ii) the pleasure we get is the same regardless of how great the gift/favour is (apparently, helping an old lady across the street makes you just as happy as buying an expensive present for your nephew). The moral here is clear: we can make our students happier by getting them to do things for others – or even simply by getting them to plan little things they can do for others after school and then write something or tell a classmate / the class how it all went. [NB: Watch the excellent 10-min TED talk ‘How to Buy Happiness’]
10. Engage students in something meaningful
According to Seligman [watch the TED talk ‘The New Era of Positive Psychology’], there are different ways in which to lead a ‘happy life’. There is the pursuit of simple pleasure, the pursuit of ‘flow’, but there is also another level – one in which we engage in something meaningful, something which is bigger than ourselves. This type of engagement leads to lasting happiness – far more so than the other types. This has not been overlooked by large corporations, which often involve their employees in pro-social initiatives, and it is also part of the rationale behind the Creativity, Activity, Service (CAS) element of the International Baccalaureate programme for instance. We too can make use of this by engaging students in projects which would benefit the environment for example, or stray animals or the local community perhaps - the possibilities are endless - and all of them can be discussed in class!
“Happiness is a place we visit; it is not a place you can expect to move in to. Emotions are a compass which guide you through life; a compass which is stuck on ‘north’ is pretty much useless”
Bloom, P. (2023) The Human Mind. London: The Bodley Head
Dunbar, R. (2021) Friends. London: Little, Brown
Lewis, D. (2013) The Brain Sell. London: Nicholas Brealey Publishing
Lieberman, M. (2013) Social. Oxford, Oxford University Press
Tierney, J. & Baumeister, R. (2019) The Power of Bad. London: Allen Lane
Wiseman, R. (2010) 59 Seconds. London: Pan Books
YouTube: P. Bloom: ‘The Good Life: Happiness’: https://tinyurl.com/nf7vstp5
YouTube: M. Norton: ‘How to Buy Happiness’: https://tinyurl.com/4mys79cp
YouTube: M. Seligman: ‘The New Era of Positive Psychology’: https://tinyurl.com/3jp62adj
Nick Michelioudakis (B. Econ., Dip. RSA, MSc [TEFL]) has been active in ELT for many years as a teacher, examiner, presenter and teacher trainer. He has worked for a number of publishers and examination boards and he has given seminars and workshops in many countries.
He has written extensively on Methodology, though he is better known for his ‘Psychology and ELT’ articles which have appeared in numerous newsletters and magazines.
His areas of interest include Psychology, Student Motivation, Learner Independence, Teaching one-to-one and Humour.