10 ways to engage students through their senses

Our senses have powerful effects on our brain, but often, education doesn't put much emphasis on them. These ideas will engage your students through touch, taste, hearing, vision and smell. (Flickr / Juhan Sonin)

Our senses have powerful effects on our brain, but often, education doesn’t put much emphasis on them. These ideas will engage your students through touch, taste, hearing, vision and smell. (Flickr / Juhan Sonin)

I love reading books.

I love being able to underline key passages. I love writing my opinions and feelings in the margins.

I like holding a book in my hand. I like the smell of a new book as I leaf through the pages for the first time.

Did that description evoke some strong memories? We remember senses from our past very vividly. They get locked in our brains long-term and come rushing back instantly, kind of like the tune and lyrics of a nostalgic song.

According to a recent Washington Post article, I’m not alone. In fact, the digital natives are with me. They’re less distracted and more focused with physical textbooks. Plus, they like the tactile experience of real books.

(“Wait,” you may be thinking, “isn’t this blog called ‘Ditch That Textbook’?” Yep, you read that right! The “Ditch That Textbook” way isn’t about hating printed books … it’s about ditching our textbook notions about education for what works best. Stick with me …)

Technology can help us to learn and experience in innovative, unique ways. But it’s not very high on engaging our students’ senses. Their devices are highly visual and play to their sense of hearing.

But taste, touch, and smell? There’s not much there. In fact, if you think about it, those three senses are underutilized in most classes.

Using two senses instead of just one can improve memory, and smell is one of the most powerful, according to Dr. Stephen Brewer, medical director at Canyon Ranch in Tucson, Ariz.

Maybe it’s time we ditch our textbook ideas about engaging students and start to think about engaging their senses — even the ones we focus on less.

How can we better incorporate the senses into our classes? Here are some ideas:

1. Write on paper. I love the benefits of digital writing. It can be accessed anywhere and anyone can read and comment on it. But there’s clear research on the powerful effect it can have on learning. Just like anything else, some balance between the keyboard and the pencil can help us harness the best of both worlds.

2. Peel an orange. Or a lemon. Apparently, the scent of lemon helps increase the flow of oxygen to the brain and makes you feel more alert. Plus, that citrus smell is jarring (in a good way!) when you walk in the door.

3. Use scents to tell a story. Think of the smells that help to tell the story of the content being delivered in your classroom. Then try to find ways to incorporate them. In my Spanish classes, when we talk about yerba mate, a green tea that’s popular in South America, I let students smell the tea leaves for the full effect.

4. Give hugs. This one, of course, depends on your level of comfort and your students’ level of comfort. Hugs help increase security, encourage positive feelings and foster better health, according to an article in Psychology Today. We release the hormone oxytocin when touched, which makes us feel attachment, connection, trust and intimacy, and all of those are important in our students’ lives.

5. Eat or drink it. Taste stimuli can make strong connections. Dave Burgess, author of “Teach Like a PIRATE,” cooked sausage for his students when they studied “The Jungle” by Upton Sinclair, which told of unsanitary conditions in meatpacking plants. The taste and the smell brought the message home for his students.

6. Dissipation. This one takes me back to a high school science class, where my teacher opened a bottle of foul-smelling chemical in class. The chemical was strong at first (and made most of us want to gag!), but it weakened as class went on, teaching us how scents dissipate into the air.

7. A kick-start to a big test. Aromatherapy experts claim that scents can have effects on our bodies and lives, including productivity. Cinnamon, mint and rosemary (in addition to the aforementioned orange and lemon) are believed to put people in a mindset of working hard.

8. Show, then tell. Images are powerful in the brain. If we tell students, they’re less likely to remember than if we show them. In fact, the picture superiority effect claims that our most poorly-drawn sketches are better at presenting information to an audience than our best list of bullet-pointed text.

9. Set the tone with music. Want to get students’ blood pumping? Want them to settle down? There’s music for that! Pandora and Spotify both offer channels or stations of music that affect our moods. Many of my students tell me they listen to music while studying, so when it’s time to work, I’ll play some music quietly.

10. Google Nose. Of course there’s this interesting product released by Google on April 1, 2013. It releases various scents collected by Google through your Internet-ready device. Haven’t heard of Google Nose? Huffington Post gives you some details.

[reminder]How have you engaged your students’ senses in class? What ways have you heard others use? Are there ideas here you think you could try?[/reminder]

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