“Save My Babies!” 7 Ways to Make Your Students Care about Your Online Course

“Never believe that a few caring people can’t change the world. For, indeed, that’s all who ever have.” –Margaret Meadfire_flames_building

True story. My mother was napping with my younger brother and me, both of us still babies.

Downstairs, my older brother discovered the thrill of playing with matches. While we slept, he caught the closet on fire and soon the first floor was in flames. He hid outside under the front stoop. My mother awoke to the smell of smoke and realized we were trapped upstairs.

She gathered the two of us in her arms and climbed out the window onto the roof. She spied a neighbor and shouted to him. “Help! Save my babies!” And she tossed us off the roof into his arms.

You know I lived. But did my brother?

At this point, you care how this story comes out. I’ve used emotional appeal for a hook that has caught your imagination. It’s vivid. It’s got the potential to be heartbreaking or uplifting.

As a lead, it works very well. BUT.

But if I don’t make it do any work for me, for my purpose in this article, it’s really nothing more than a cheap shot. There’s nothing worse than making someone care without a good reason.

Fortunately, I have a reason: to show you that caring about a subject is a reason to learn about a subject.

In fact, once you’re an adult and not subject to school requirements, caring about a subject is the ONLY reason to learn about it.

Unfortunately, many teachers jump into their subject matter, especially in online courses, without lighting the fire under you that makes you hunger to know more. They start with the syllabus. An outline of what’s to come. Learning objectives.

And on. And on. And on, until you’re snoring in your office or the classroom; surfing the web; or throwing the ball to your dog.

In this week’s blog, we’re going to talk about 7 ways to make someone care, whether you are creating an online course or simply writing an article:

  1. Appeal to their emotions
  2. Lure them in with a compelling story pertinent to the subject matter
  3. Give them facts that astonish them—appeal to their curiosity and intellect
  4. Bring the subject into their world in a way that surprises them with its relevance to them
  5. Frame the subject matter with a “bookend” approach
  6. Begin with a demonstration of something in the course; unpack it and show how it fits in the grand scheme of the course or lesson
  7. Combine some or all of these techniques

If I were teaching a course on fire safety, the opening for this blog would have secured your belief that the subject was important.

I could have added a surprising fact: “How many kids die every day from a fire at home?” [Pause.] “Every day at least one child dies from a home fire.” By phrasing this as a question and pausing for a response, I also engage students in thinking about the answer.

Or I might have included this statistic: “83% of structure fires in homes caused by play were started by males.” Which raises a bunch of questions about men that are outside the scope of my article, but could have gotten a lot of discussion going right off the bat in a class!

By then, students would have gotten engaged emotionally and intellectually. They would have learned two “shareable” facts. If they had children or siblings, they would have found personal relevance to the topic. Overall, they would have realized that the subject was important to learn about. They would pay attention.

Now do you see why a great opening can make an enormous difference to your online course and to each class? It elevates the level of investment from the get-go, and the level of investment is what will propel them from the first lesson to the last. Or not.

Let’s go back to each technique and look at examples from online courses I’ve helped develop.

Appeal to Their Emotions

Years ago I was working with John Renton on a geology course. I wasn’t that good at sciences when I was young, and we were having a difficult time crafting an opening that made me feel like I wanted to pay attention.

I asked him whether he ever heard from his former students. He pulled a wrinkled letter out of his shirt pocket and said, “Why yes, I carry this letter around all the time, because it reminds me of why I love to teach.”

We started the course with his pulling that same letter out of his pocket and reading a section. He touched the audience when this student described how he’d told his child about the connection between the stars and the earth that he had learned in class.

Start with an example or story that touches upon physical, social, or psychological needs and tie it soundly to your subject matter. It can be very persuasive—and surprising, as in the moment when the geology teacher’s students realized that earth’s elements began in the stars.

Lure Them in with a Compelling Story Pertinent to the Subject Matter

One of my favorite teachers to work with is John Hale, an ancient historian. Why? Because he is a masterful storyteller. He understands that we learn and remember through stories.

When The Great Courses started a new series combining travel, history, and culture, he was our first choice. In the opening lecture for The Great Tours: Greece and Turkey, from Athens to Istanbul, John brought along his travel hat and outfit to help put us in the mood. We were immediately curious.

Then he told us about seeing ancient civilizations from his perspective, walking the hills, touching marble columns that ancient Greeks and Romans had also touched, eating the same foods that they had.

He used his entire first lecture to put us in both the present and the ancient space at the same time. By the end, we wanted to go there, too. And we wanted to go with him as our guide.

Give Them Facts that Astonish Them—Appeal to Their Curiosity and Intellect

 We knew when we made the course, Physiology and Fitness, that we would want demonstrations throughout the project. We also realized that some viewers would think that exercise was for other people, not for them. But engaging as many people as possible in actively participating was a key goal.

I asked International Fitness Instructor Dean Hodgkin to speak directly to the viewers when he began. Before he did or said anything else, he told them to stand up and then sit down again. Then he told them how many muscles and bones they had just put into play. It was an astonishing number (watch the course to find out!).

He surprised his audience with a combination of facts and a simple demonstration. Even those who didn’t think they’d be able to handle the physical part of the course still wanted to learn the physiology—and were encouraged to do what they could to participate.

Bring the Subject into Their World in a Way that Surprises Them with its Relevance to Them

Grant Voth is a literature professor who is a terrific storyteller. When we began working together on The History of World Literature, I enjoyed his stories during our conversations but realized that in the actual lessons he didn’t use any of them. Instead, he leaned on literary criticism and lost his own voice and interpretation completely. The result killed the joy he obviously felt in his subject.

I asked him to begin by helping us imagine that we were prehistoric men and women huddled around a campfire in a cave. He set the scene and then wove together a narrative that took us in and out of great stories through the millennia. It only took a few minutes to deliver, but the impact was powerful, almost magical. He transported us to a different time and connected us to all those stories. His opening made us understand that every bit of literature in his course, no matter when or where it was told, was part of our own story. We were hooked.

Frame the Subject Matter with a “Bookend” Approach

Framing is another easy device for many types of subjects. Simply put, you treat your opening and closing as bookends—two parts of the information or story that reflect the central theme of the lesson. Here are three examples:

  • In Turning Points in Modern History, Vejas Lieulevicius started each lesson with a vivid story from the period he was discussing. He didn’t wrap up the story until the closing of the lesson.
  • In Nutrition Made Clear, Roberta Anding opened each lesson with a case study based on real situations she had encountered in her clinics. The outcome was revealed at the end of the lesson and made good use of the content in the lesson.
  • In Trails of Evidence: How Forensic Science Works, Elizabeth Murray unveiled a true-life crime scene, which couldn’t be solved until you learned that lesson’s techniques.

You can probably see how easy it would be to introduce a course or lesson with framing.

Begin with a Demonstration of Something in the Course; Unpack it and Show How it Fits in the Grand Scheme of the Course or Lesson

This is one of my favorite ways to begin a course or lesson, as it’s fun, energizing for both the teacher and the student, and has so many variations. Here are just two examples.

Jennifer Simonetti-Bryan is a Master of Wine, which is an incredibly arduous title to achieve. It took her ten years to attain it, and in her final exam, she had to blind taste-test 36 wines. (To blind taste-test means that the wines are unidentified, not that you are blindfolded.)

For The Everyday Guide to Wine, we crafted a demonstration of this mind-boggling knowledge. We poured 36 glasses of wine, which was dazzling in and of itself. Then she picked up one at random. She looked at it, swirled it, sniffed it, and tasted it. And pronounced exactly what wine it was, where it came from, and what year it was produced.

Who wouldn’t want to learn from someone like that? She convinced everyone that she really was the expert she said she was. Being seen as credible in the eyes of the audience is a big win, to say the least. We also all wanted to learn how to see, sniff, swirl, and taste the way she could.

 Here is another demonstration that also proved the very premise of the course and gave the instructor amazing credibility. Art Benjamin is a math professor who has been on television and has a best-selling book that became the basis for his best-selling course, The Secrets of Mental Math.

How did we start out? By having him solve a seemingly impossible math problem in his head—and then assuring us that he was going to teach us how to be able to solve that same problem and others like it.

Who wouldn’t watch every lesson, after that?

Combine Some or All of the Above

I’ve already demonstrated that pairing up some of these techniques can amp up your wattage. Mix and match as makes the most sense for your subject matter and what makes you excited about it. The more you use (so long as it’s logical), the more engaged your audience will be from the first minutes of your class.

7 Ways to Come Up with Your Own Killer Opening

Try any of these methods if you’re still feeling stuck.

  1. Answer this question: “Why do you care about the subject?”
    1. Set a timer and spend 10-15 minutes free-writing without stopping. If you’re using pen and paper, don’t lift the pen from the paper. If typing, don’t stop to correct your spelling or rethink what you’ve said.
    2. Put down every reason you can think of about your subject that truly gets you wound up and wanting to talk faster and louder about it. Your field might be marketing, or the Persian Wars, or neuroscience—it doesn’t matter. You got into it for a reason, because something got you fired up about it.
    3. What is it? Dig deep. (NOTE: If you can’t think of a single thing you really care about, you might not be a good candidate for the course. Just saying.)
  1. What was your defining moment—your ah-ha! experience that made you want to know more about your area of expertise? It might not be a single experience; maybe it was cumulative. Maybe it was a great teacher. If there is such a moment, and if it’s a good story—one you’ve told it to friends and at parties, and everyone’s always interested, it could be a fantastic way to open the course.
    1. For my father, an American historian, it was learning that history was open to interpretation. What? It wasn’t all just facts and dates? Bam! He wanted in.
    2. For geology professor Michael Wysession, it was the rocks. Give him a box of rocks, and he sees treasures in each one. He lights up, and so does everyone listening to him.
  1. Go through your course material. What facts make people’s eyeballs pop? What makes them say, “You’re kidding! Really?” What blew you away when you first learned it? Those facts can be highly effective when you use them to open a lesson, and then you can knit them together to help students comprehend the material.
  2. Do you use case studies to teach your material? Could you use them, even if you hadn’t planned on it or done it before?
    1. If so, could you use a “before” and “after” set-up to frame the course and each lesson?
    2. If the learner sees him/herself in the case study, then you have emotional investment as well as a frame and a good story.
  3. Is there an object or objects related to the subject matter? If you’re comfortable handling objects which seem to have a story of their own, then you could begin by telling where it came from, what’s unusual about them, an obscure but pertinent fact, etc. This could cover story, surprising facts, and personal relevance—depending on the nature of the object(s).
  4. What “stuff” do you have around your office that ties to the subject matter? Simply having a prop on hand can loosen up a class and lead to an effectively surprising point.
    1. I attended a lecture by John Hale that he began by showing students the various artifacts he would be talking about—but then they had to wait for the “show and tell” at the appropriate moments in the lecture. Believe me, no one walked out of that class early!
  5. What’s your very favorite story about your subject? The one that gives you chills…a juicy tidbit you love to share…. Consider starting with that, but test it on a friend outside your area of expertise first to make sure it’s not too much inside baseball to begin with.

A side benefit of beginning your course and your lesson with a one-two punch is that you’ll feel more engaged yourself. That energy, in turn, will help the rest of your performance. Because, yes, teaching is about performance as well as about content.

Have you got a tip about how to start your online course or online lesson? What methods have you used to start an article which could also be used for an online course? Please share your tips in the comments field.

I haven’t forgotten that I didn’t finish the story about the fire. Did you notice that I’m framing this lesson by returning to the story?

Except that I’m going to save those details for next week’s blog: “Cliffhangers and Other Delicious Ways to Wrap Up Your Online Course Lessons.” Tune in next Friday for Issue #5 of “Everything You Need to Know to Create Outstanding Online Courses.”

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About Marcy McDonald

Marcy on assignment in Siena, Italy

Marcy on assignment in Siena, Italy


Online Course Producer



Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

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