Why aren’t our students more engaged? We pour out our hearts and souls in our lessons, coaching sessions, etc. but at some point we lose them. 

You know the look–they’re physically in the space with us but their mind is clearly somewhere else. Want to know the secret to stopping that look once and for all?

Stop OVER SHARING. It’s that simple

Before your next session, ask yourself, “What is the least my students need to know to take the next right action.”

Its time to free ourselves and our students from the constraints of us over-sharing and over-teaching and instead teach them how to self-regulate and take control of their own learning.

Want to learn my quick and easy method for keeping students engaged? Watch the video or read on!

Have you ever noticed that adults who are experts in things tend to explain too much? 

I am one of those experts who has spent too much time explaining “why” to students when it doesn’t actually help them take the actions they need to take in their habits and their learning. So, as a former teacher and now as an academic coach, I have become obsessed with this question: what’s the least a student needs to know to take effective action? 

I consider this one of the most important questions an educator could ever ask themselves. So today, I’m actually going to share three stories of times when educators needlessly explained too much to students. Then, we’re going to talk about what we can do instead, so we can together and in our own personal teaching practices, hone, and hone, and hone the idea of what’s the least a student needs to know. Let’s dig in.

Story #1 & #2: the tales of my personal trainer and homework help from my father. 

There is a link between the two. If you’ve been following me for a little bit, you know that I’ve been wearing braces, and that I actually have a major jaw joint replacement surgery coming up in May of 2023. This has meant that I go to a lot of medical practitioners: my orthodontist, surgeon, myofunctional therapist, personal trainer, physical therapist, and my osteopath. It’s a little much! And each one of these experts wants to tell me what’s going on, why it’s going on, and what I need to do. 

I do want to hear what I need to do. And I even want to hear what’s happening and why. But I am so filled up with bla bla bla bla bla facts and the fact that nobody has even asked me if I want to know has me at my wit’s end. 

So I went into my personal trainer the other day–and I love him, his name is Eddie–and I said, “Eddie, you like to tell me why I need to do certain exercises. And actually, I just had too long of a conversation with a doctor who forced some information on me that actually I didn’t really want to know. So I need to let you know that I don’t have tolerance for this anymore. We need to figure out what I can say if I’m feeling a little resentful, or that I don’t want to hear it.”

Do you know what happened? He came up with an amazing solution that I’m going to save for the end of the video! It’s brought so much fun, so much laughter, and so much peace to me. And actually, it’s even improved our relationship with each other–I can’t wait to tell you. 

It’s a solution I wish I had had long ago when I was 14 and doing Algebra homework with my father, who was a mathematician, and who is passionate about all things numbers. I would sit down at the table and say, “Dad, I need help with this algebra problem. And I need to solve it in this way.” I was very clear about what I needed, and I would be using my pencil and using it to point to places. “I just don’t know how I’m going wrong somewhere.”

Then Dad would take the pencil out of my hand, which maddened me, and say, “Before we solve the problem, it’s helpful to know that there are three different approaches to bla bla bla, bla bla.” You can imagine this pissed me off! If only I had the solution that my personal trainer and I have come up with. 

So these are two examples from the world about how experts tend to over explain. Now I want to drop into the world of education and provide some examples as well. 

Story #3: The overly enthusiastic study skills coach or mentor

So many coaches come to be trained by me, and there are lots of people who are starting study skills programs at their schools. This is an up and coming thing. I’m so grateful that more and more schools are teaching habits and study skills to students. But one of the reasons coaches and teachers come to me is because they’ve been learning about the science of learning and neuroscience, and while it’s inspiring, it’s a lot of information and it can feel super complicated when they try to translate it to a curriculum for their students or to their 1-on-1 academic coaching. And what they discover is that their students might find it interesting, but don’t seem to have effective behavior change. 

One of the reasons is that they’re explaining too much. Teachers and coaches are excited about all the information, so they’re sharing it. But knowledge does not equal action

We need to provide opportunities for both knowledge and action as educators, but only the knowledge that’s needed to take the next effective action, back and forth, back and forth. 

One of the reasons that so many educators like to take my training program is I have figured out what is the least students need to know about their brains and how they learn, and how do you teach that in these short, little mini-lecture formats. 

There are six or seven complicated ideas from brain science that you can explain to students pretty simply with simple visuals. The Study Cycle is one of them. I’ve been talking about that a lot lately. If you’re interested to understand more about the Study Cycle, here’s a free resource I have for you.

It will give you more than you need to know about how to teach the science of learning to students in a little bite-sized nugget. A  lot of the coaches and teachers who come to me have already tried teaching the brain science behind the study cycle in different ways before they are trained by me, and they’ve told me afterwards that the mini-lecture I teach them to use was exactly what they needed to teach, not more; that it is the shortest method and it is the least students need to know to get into effective action in terms of their learning. So that’s a story from study skills coaching…

…but teachers, I want to talk to you. Recently, I’ve had the pleasure of actually attending classes at a school where I’m consulting, and prior to that, I’ve been an academic coach for 15 years working with hundreds of students–which means I’ve seen into the classrooms of 1000s of teachers, at least seeing teachers’ assignments in the portal and hearing students talking about them. As a result, I know that teachers spend time over-explaining things, and if not over-explaining, over-managing the learning process for students. And some of that is because we don’t trust students to manage the learning process for themselves. That’s what I’m passionate about: what’s the least students need to know so they can do the learning for themselves to free up teachers to actually not have to over-construct the curriculum in order to help students learn. 

Two signs of over-explaining are:

  • lectures that go on too long without action or activity.
  • overly-detailed assignment sheets that are designed to make it easier for students to take action, but there are too many steps. 

I’ve seen super creative, but overly complex activities that have so many parts to them, the students get lost. The teacher is really thinking about how they’re moving the student through this cool activity, but it’s too much. As a teacher, I taught at a middle school, and oh my goodness, the amount of creativity I put into creating a learning experience and creating the right handouts and worksheets and et cetera, et cetera–it was a lot. And I would venture to say, it was actually too much. There are ways in which we are overworking in our own brains, so we are not actually sharing the intellectual load with our students. 

Before I share my suggestions for how to curb over-explaining, however, I want to tell you the solution my personal trainer came up with when I told him that I was at overload and I just didn’t think I could hear any more explanations during that session. He said, “Why don’t we create a safe word? And every time you’re feeling overloaded, Gretchen, you could just say the safe word. What about the word ‘porcupine?’”

Nice. I think porcupine is good, because don’t you get bristly when there’s too much explaining? So I was like, “Yeah, that’s how I feel.” And, later in the session, I actually had an opportunity to say porcupine. And it was so interesting because he stopped. I love that he respected my request, the safe word. What’s funny, though, is he just went on to explain it in a different way. And I had to be like, “No, no, no, no, no, no, no! It’s not ‘explain it in a different way.’ It’s stop explaining. I don’t want to hear anymore!”

The truth is, I actually don’t mind hearing the explanation. But my healthcare providers, number one, don’t ask if I want to hear it–so I don’t get a chance to consent to it; and number two, they don’t stop after a little bit of time to help me practice retrieval by asking, “What have you heard so far? Is this helpful to you? Why don’t you just say it back to me, so I know what you understood before I continue.”

Without that, I just get overloaded and overloaded and overloaded. So notice that moments of retrieval practice would help me not get to the overloaded part. 

Suggestions for How to Stop Over-Explaining

  • Ask for consent 

I really would love more and more educators to practice learning to ask for consent, and it’s easier one-on-one than in group settings. I have a free gift all about how to ask for consent using my simple, three-step Anti-boring Ed model that I call the Consent Burger that you can get here

  • Use a safe word

It could be fun to have a safe word or have different kinds of safe words or maybe safe gestures in the classroom for, “Who’s too full? Who’s heavy or feeling emotional?” I don’t know what the different experiences would be–I’m making this up as I’m talking. But it occurs to me that having gestures like that, or being able to raise your hand with a different gesture, could be a really useful thing to do as a teacher and collaborate with your students to create the gestures. 

  • Have students create their own detailed assignment sheet

It would be such a wonderful executive function task for teachers to provide an overarching assignment. Then to assign students to read that overarching assignment and give themselves sub-tasks and break it down into parts themselves. Then have the teacher approve each student’s assignment sheet. That would be so helpful, because that’s what students need to work on. They don’t need the teacher to break big things down into smaller parts, they need to practice their own skills and doing that for themselves. It does take more time, though, to do this in the classroom to make space for that and teachers don’t have time. So I recognize there are some tensions….

  • Find ways to share the load

Notice when you’re doing something that maybe you don’t need to be doing and just see if you can catch yourself or ask your students to participate in the experiment, “Hey, I’m trying to notice areas where I say too much or I do too much, or I plan too much. Can you all help me?” 

  • Incorporate Retrieval Practice frequently

Frequent retrieval practice helps keep people from getting too full. Those little breaks where they practice out loud what they heard brings a moment to actually have some self-esteem, to be like, “Oh, I really get that I know some stuff so I can relax and continue listening now.” Other students might have a different experience with it, but that’s my experience. 

“Porcupine!” You might be telling me, “Porcupine right now, Gretchen! Stop talking!” And so I will! Let me know if you have any questions or any AHAs in the comments down below.