As a PhD student teaching statistics to undergrads, Chris Hulleman ran into a challenge that all teachers encounter at some point: his students just didn’t seem interested in the topics of his class. After getting to know his students, Chris realized that most of them had chosen to major in psychology because they wanted to help people, not because they were particularly interested in statistics. This lack of interest in content, uncertainty about their math abilities and, in some cases, the preconceived belief that the class would be boring were just a few of the negative learning mindsets that Chris was up against. From this experience, Chris began his career-long investigation of the factors that influence learning mindsets and motivation. Over fifteen years later, he and his wife, Teresa, in collaboration with Character Lab, launched a tool designed to help teachers and students overcome barriers to motivation that can be present in the classroom. I sat down with Chris and Teresa to learn more about the history of Build Connections and the process of designing a one-page tool that successfully links education research and practice.

So, you’re teaching stats to undergrads and you run into this problem – your students aren’t motivated to learn about the topic. Is that when you developed the idea for Build Connections?

Chris: That’s where it started. A lot of my students were surprised they needed to take statistics, afraid they couldn’t do well in the class since it was math, or thought it was going to be boring. Since a change in curriculum wasn’t possible, I started thinking about what I could change within my 50-minute classes. With input from Teresa, who’s a former teacher, I started developing activities to help students find connections between the course material and their daily lives. Ultimately, this question -- how to make classrooms more engaging for students -- turned into my dissertation work and laid the groundwork for Build Connections.

How did you go about turning that PhD-level research into something that teachers could use in the classroom?

Teresa: Chris would talk to teachers about his work, and their reaction was usually “That’s a nice idea, but tomorrow I have to teach fractions, so what can I do right now?” So pretty quickly we realized that if we were going to make these ideas and this research useful for teachers, we were going to have to translate it and provide more scaffolding.

Chris: As we were thinking through the best way to do this, we were approached by Jenn Charlot, who was working with Character Lab at the time. She was also very interested in translating psychological interventions into teaching practices, so Teresa and I started working closely with her and building a tool we initially called Making Connections.

Teresa: As a first step, I dove into the utility-value intervention literature to try to tease out what was most essential. I asked myself “What do teachers really need to know from this research?” and “What’s the mechanism of this intervention?” What we came up with was a 30-page full-color document, which looked great, but when we presented it to teachers in Philadelphia and Harrisonburg, their response was “I’m going to print pages 4, 8 and 12 in black and white.” That feedback was critical.

Can you share a bit about the process of turning that 30-page document into the current 1-page tool?

Teresa: The way teachers think is in lesson plans, so we had to start thinking about how this tool would fit within a traditional lesson plan. Chris resisted this at first because he really didn’t want it to feel like a worksheet.

Chris: When we started working with a graphic designer, our work really hit a turning point. She helped us think differently and use graphics to cut down on the things that were going to distract teachers and students.

Teresa: Then we put that second version in front of students, which produced some really interesting and surprising insights around what students were getting stuck on. We discovered we needed to make the tool more linear, easier for students to connect the dots, and that students responded better to prompts that were a little less open-ended, and more fill-in-the-blank.

So, are teachers currently using the tool in classrooms? Have they had success with it?  

Chris: We renamed the tool Build Connections, and it’s currently being tested by collaborators in New York City. It’s being used in the classroom by around twelve teachers across five schools in New York. We’re also collecting data from middle school teachers in Harrisonburg, Virginia and a group of teachers in Minneapolis. Character Lab has a fairly extensive teacher network, and we’re getting feedback on it through that channel, as well.

Teresa: This testing phase that we’re in now is really important. Build Connections is based on prior research, but the tool itself hasn’t been rigorously tested. We want it to be evidence-demonstrated, which is our way of saying that we want the tool itself to have evidence that it helps students, rather than just being based on prior research on something similar. We’re also thinking about different ways to provide scaffolding for teachers.

Chris: Teresa is going to be talking to teachers every week, and we’re working on building momentum for a larger network. We’re also going to be using the data and feedback to think through how to adapt Build Connections for different groups – high school versus middle school, special education teachers, and others. 

  Build Connections is an activity that helps students understand how their existing interests relate to the content they learn in school. In other words, Build Connections taps into students’ intrinsic curiosity. What’s more, it encourages that curiosity to flourish in class.

Build Connections is an activity that helps students understand how their existing interests relate to the content they learn in school. In other words, Build Connections taps into students’ intrinsic curiosity. What’s more, it encourages that curiosity to flourish in class.

How does Build Connections fit within the movement toward helping students build “21st Century Skills?” How does it connect to education reform more broadly?

 Chris: I see Build Connections as a catalyst for larger change. It’s kind of like a Trojan horse. We’re starting small from the inside, giving teachers discrete strategies that they can grab ahold of and take to the next level. It’s less about changing entire curricula and more about teachers taking ownership of their own curriculum and pedagogy and infusing it with strategies that build motivation. I think the key is getting those strategies into the hands of teachers, so that they can spread and be scaled up.

Teresa: What we require of teachers is so onerous, we really don’t want to be adding to their already extremely challenging job. We need to be thinking about how to make teaching easier and doing the work of translating the research so that they’ll buy in. If teachers think something will work, they’ll use it.

Chris: Build Connections is just one example of how we can improve education by marrying psychology and research with practitioner knowledge. That’s why we do this work. We study motivation and conduct this rigorous research so we can apply it in the real world. Whether that’s at the classroom level, helping teachers be more effective, or using our research to inform and instigate change at the system and policy-levels. Ultimately, the goal is that our research be used to help as many students as possible reach their potential.

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Megan Moran sat down with Chris and Teresa in February 2018 to write this article. Megan is a lab manager at the Motivate Lab. When she’s not making sure the day-to-day operations of the lab are running smoothly or coordinating the lab’s work in removing barriers to motivation in community college math, you can find her practicing mindfulness, on the yoga mat, or as eating as much sushi as possible.

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