All of us were once students, although it may seem for some of us as a long time ago, (I myself entered the University of Illinois as an undergraduate in 1987!). Professors then likely faced the same issues as we do now-- students whose attention has waned, hands that are never raised, and the look of indifference to the passionately explained subject material. I know I’ve certainly had those moments as a student and now, standing in front of the class, I recognize the same look on my students’ faces. And it seems endemic, once a student succumbs, the rest of the class is likely to follow. Students just aren’t able to learn once a sluggish or negative classroom vibe takes hold.
As a professor, it is easy to believe students are too engaged with electronics-- too busy, and too checked out of the subject matter to reach.
But as I see my colleagues and I try everything under the sun to make our classrooms more engaging, to make the material more relatable, or to catch students’ interest, surely there’s got to be a simpler way.
In 2006, Reed and Ones1 published a summary of 158 studies that examined the impact of aerobic exercises, such as brisk walking and jogging, on positive mood. The aerobic exercise participants were compared to control participants who primarily spent their time sitting, similar to students in a classroom.
Reed and Ones gathered research articles from as far back as 1978 with over 13,000 participants having been in such studies. In research, we refer to this type of summary as a meta-analysis because it is a statistical summary of many students. The research gathered by Reed and Ones was wide-reaching and yet familiar to me.2, 3
Reed and Ones reported that aerobic exercise compared to a control condition such as sitting improved positive mood robustly and reliably. The great news for us teachers? The participants did not have to run a marathon or sprint to exhaustion to change their mood. Low-intensity aerobic exercise such as a brisk walk did the trick in improving mood.
So what does that mean for us in the classroom, facing the daunting task of not only teaching but keeping students engaged? My simple solution: take a walk. Take 5-10 classroom minutes to have your students move, whether it be up and down the aisles, if in a lecture hall, up and down the stairs, or if you’re able-- take a walk outside. You can even lecture while the students take their walk. Having implemented this with my own students, I’ve seen the effects this type of activity can have towards creating a positive classroom atmosphere. My students are more alert and more interested in my lectures. And the best part of this type of quick activity? Based on Reed and Ones’ work, the created positive atmosphere lasts for at least 30 minutes.
So my fellow colleagues, when you start seeing the tell-tale sign of disinterest creeping into your students’ eyes, my recommendation – take a walk!
 Reed, J., & Ones, D. S. (2006). The effect of acute aerobic exercise on positive activated affect: A meta-analysis. Psychology of Sport and Exercise, 7(5), 477–514.
 Lochbaum, M. R., Karoly, P., & Landers, D. M. (2004). Affect responses to acute bouts of aerobic exercise: A test of the opponent-process theory. Journal of Sport Behavior, 27(4), 330–348.
 Lutz, R., Lochbaum, M., & Turnbow, K. (2003). The role of relative autonomy in post-exercise affect responding. Journal of Sport Behavior, 26(2), 137–154.