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How to Mesmerize Your Online Students and Make Them Better Learners

by Justin Marquis Ph.D.

In a time when education is searching for a clear path into the future, it doesn’t hurt to stop for a moment and look back into the past to see what we can learn. As I tell my students when we are brainstorming media design project ideas, there is nothing that you shouldn’t consider during the initial stage of a project when you are looking for inspiration. This idea led me to consider the work of noted 18th century medical innovator Franz Anton Mesmer who is, of course most notable as the father of mesmerism, the precursor to modern day hypnosis. Just because Mesmer is a controversial figure in medical history, doesn’t mean that he didn’t have some good ideas, or that he can’t at least provide inspiration for those of us teaching in the 21st century. 

That said, the notion that student engagement helps learning is an accepted fact at this point (Kuh, Cruce, Shoup & Kinze, 2008) . So how, as an online instructor, can you fascinate, mesmerize, or engage your students in order to make them better learners? Here are some suggestions inspired by Mesmer’s principles of Magnétisme animal(animal magnetism – from the Latin animus, life force).

  • "A responsive influence exists between the heavenly bodies, the earth, and animated bodies" (Mesmer, Propositions Concerning Animal Magnetism, 1779).  

    21st Century Interpretation – While Mesmer was literally talking about the effects of planetary bodies on people, the idea that there is a connection between the instructor and his/her students is an important one. There is a predetermined, preexisting relationship between teacher and student that is present even before the two formally interact. This relationship is created by societal expectations and past experiences in the classroom and is something that the online instructor needs to take advantage of immediately to engage their students. At least initially, online instructors should seem completely confident and assume complete control of the relationship between themselves and their students. This can most easily be achieved by showing learners that you have a concrete plan for the class and by outlining the learning objectives that students will attain through their participation in the course. Establishing a clear and consistent set of goals and expectations at the outset of a class is critical to engaging students.
  • "A fluid universally diffused, so continuous as not to admit of a vacuum, incomparably subtle, and naturally susceptible of receiving, propagating, and communicating all motor disturbances, is the means of this influence" (Mesmer, Propositions Concerning Animal Magnetism, 1779).  

    21st Century Interpretation – The technology-mediated student-teacher relationship and the confidence that it inspires in students is extremely subtle, working at the subconscious level as well as consciously. Because of this, it is equally important in the online environment that all of the technology required for student participation works flawlessly at the outset of the class. Any software, hyperlinks, or videos should be tested and retested on a variety of platforms prior to the first session to ensure that the initial lesson comes off without a hitch, because web-based resources can vanish unexpectedly. Save innovation for after the students are mesmerized.
  • "It is by this action, the most universal which occurs in nature, that the exercise of active relations takes place between the heavenly bodies, the earth, and its constituent parts"(Mesmer, Propositions Concerning Animal Magnetism, 1779).
     

    21st Century Interpretation
    – Active learning aids in engagement (Siberman, 1996). This simple fact of learning also applies in online education. Passive education is boring and does not help students become engaged in the course. Including activities that force students to interact with each other, the instructor, or even people in their local environments, makes them feel that they are part of a community and that they are doing something of value.
  • "Experiments show that there is a diffusion of matter, subtle enough to penetrate all bodies without any considerable loss of energy. Its action takes place at a remote distance, without the aid of any intermediary substance" (Mesmer, Propositions Concerning Animal Magnetism, 1779).  

    21st Century Interpretation – The online medium is not a limitation to student engagement. In fact, it provides several enhancements over face-to-face leaning that can be taken advantage of to further mesmerize students. There are powerful communication technologies available that can seamlessly bridge "remote distance" in ways which can forge a stronger bond between instructor and student and thus increase student engagement. Consider using social media to enhance the interpersonal relationships between members of the class; use video conferencing tools to make virtual "face-to-face" connections; and incorporate interactive technologies such as TED Ed’s new "Flip This Lesson" to provide unique, individualized experiences for each student.
  • "This doctrine will finally enable the physician to decide upon the health of every individual, and of the presence of the diseases to which he may be exposed. In this way the art of healing may be brought to absolute perfection." (Mesmer, Propositions Concerning Animal Magnetism, 1779).  

    21st Century Interpretation – Even though we are not talking about disease and diagnosis, the analogy is very apropos – a lack of engagement on the part of students can have the same detrimental effect on their learning as a disease has on the body. Fortunately, in the online environment there are many tools that can be used to measure (diagnose) students’ prior knowledge, engagement, and learning, some of which are built into the learning management system. For example, it is a simple matter to track student posts in an online discussion to see who is and who is not actively participating in class discussions. Tools also exist for tracking participation in Twitter conversations, such as these "Twenty-Six Twitter Tools to Track Tweets." Other ways of measuring student engagement include holding course discussions on a site like Quora, or if your course subject matter allows it, the student tracking tools in the Khan Academy are nothing short of brilliant. In short, technology gives the online instructor far more power to stay connected to their students’ progress and to intervene more effectively than is often possible in the traditional classroom.

Keep Them Under Your Spell
Much of the criticism of Mesmer was due to an inability to prove any actual curing of people through the principles of mesmerism. One incident even led to his being driven out of Vienna in 1777 (Skeptic’s Dictionary, Mesmerism). Despite this,  I feel confident in saying that the application of the mesmeric techniques I have interpreted above will not get you tarred and feathered or run out of town on a rail. In fact, using some or all of these techniques to mesmerize your students is likely to have quite the opposite effect on you and your career as an educator.

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