How to Communicate Effectively With Students About Complex Issues
-By Marie Groark and Christen Pollock

Get Schooled Foundation has developed a unique approach to inspire middle and high school students to stay in school, to persevere and set their aspirations toward college. Over the past three years we have proactively engaged more than 3 million students in challenge programs in 2,200 schools across the country – using games, positive peer pressure and the tools of popular culture — to promote school success and college preparation. In addition, we recently engaged middle and high school students in discussion groups in Detroit to probe awareness and better understand how to communicate the new Common Core State Standards (CCSS). From our continuing involvement with students, plus several decades of marketing communications experience, we have learned some valuable lessons on how to effectively communicate with students and want to share the highlights of what we’ve learned.

Focus on a Benefit from the Student Perspective
There is a very human tendency to want to tell, or to communicate what we believe is the right information. What parent does not believe she knows what is best for her child? What teacher does not know what her students should learn? The problem is in the translation, how we impart the information we know is right or in their best interest. The most important lesson we’ve learned is that we will communicate more effectively if we take the time to put ourselves in their shoes. That means always asking the questions they are asking, implicitly, through their own mental calculus: why should I do this, and what’s in it for me?

Commercial companies ask these kinds of questions all the time in trying to discover the most effective ways of communicating with their customers. Coca-Cola, for instance, spends millions of dollars each year on research to find out how best to sell more soda to young people. The question they want to answer is: what benefits are going to motivate them to drink one more Coca-Cola each week? Decades ago they promoted Coke as a refreshing beverage that quenched your thirst. The benefit was refreshment. Today, with so many other refreshment beverage choices, they promote Coke as a refreshing drink that facilitates friendship and social interaction. They realized they had to tap into a more emotional or social benefit to motivate and persuade young people. They use popular music, iconic symbols, and fast-paced images of young people having fun to communicate this end benefit.

When we conducted focused discussions recently with Detroit middle and high school students, we found they knew very little about the Common Core State Standards (CCSS). Not surprisingly, they didn’t respond well to the idea that CCSS will “give you the critical-thinking, problem-solving, and analytical skills you’ll need to be successful in college and your career.” This idea was too abstract and not a benefit that resonated with the students. When we probed further, however, we found they were very interested in the idea of “fairness.” Not for it’s own sake, but because fairness ensures they will not be at a disadvantage on account of where they live or what school they attend. In other words, the fairness benefit convinced them that they would get the same preparation for college and careers as every other American. That was the benefit to emphasize in communicating CCSS.

The lesson:  Work to understand the benefit or idea that will motivate students to act in a desired way, and then make that benefit the core of your communication.

Tap into Student Aspirations
Helping young people persevere through high school and college is one of the great challenges of our time, particularly among low-income students. A great deal of research has been conducted to understand why so many continue to drop out of high school. Our own study based on 516 in-depth interviews conducted by Hart Research in 2012 found that a majority (56%) do so because they are bored with school or do not see a good reason for continuing. Many factors lay behind such a response, but certainly one is that they do not see a connection between school and careers or a better life. On many occasions we have heard students ask: “When will I ever have to do this again”, or, “how is this information going to help me in the future?” One student even volunteered an answer to making learning more relevant: “Make sure that there’s something bigger than just ‘you have to learn this.’” Most students would like to go to college or have a good job later on. Many just don’t see the connection between the reality of school and those goals or aspirations. Linking the skills and knowledge that students are learning to what will be expected in the next grade, in college or careers, will help make those connections and render your communication more effective.

By way of example, we did a scan of the types of questions many companies ask in an interview with a beginning job applicant. The list ranges from Google and Apple to Starbucks. Typical questions might be: How many times do a clock’s hands overlap in a day? Or, how would you weigh a plane without scales? Or, tell me 10 ways to use a pencil other than writing. Problem solving skills developed in the classroom, certainly those promoted through CCSS, help students to reason logically. They will certainly help them with job interview questions like these. Making such connections – between what they’re learning in school and what they’ll be expected to know in college and careers – will help make their learning relevant.

The lesson: Communication will resonate if it links school work to college and career readiness benefits that students care about: Using concrete examples of what readiness entails, and making real-world connections that tap into their aspirations.

Meet Students Where They Live
Most students are immersed in today’s popular culture: its language, music, games, celebrity icons, and the digital tools that enable them to connect it all. It’s difficult for us to speak in the language of youth, more so as our age gap widens, but it helps to observe and recognize the communications environment they live in. Their media consumption is mainly mobile. They communicate in word symbols that flicker across the screen in milliseconds. Photos and visual images capture their attention more readily than words. They are hungry for information and online is the place they go to find it.

The Get Schooled website was developed to serve as a resource for students, so it has been designed with visual cues and language that are familiar and therefore attractive to young people. When they come to the site, they find information about test taking, preparing for and applying to college, financial aid and a wealth of other tips to help them plan the next steps in their life. But all this information is presented in a way that is fun, like a game with many steps that are both challenging and exciting. In 2013 the site attracted 1.2 million visitors, 60 per cent of them repeat visitors. In 2014 we launched a refresh of to make it even more engaging; we believe the new site will attract even more young people. We all don’t need to create such a site to communicate effectively, but we will do a better job connecting with students if we recognize their media habits and the communications environment they live in. We can try new ways of providing college access information to make the daunting preparation process more fun.

The lesson: Study the behaviors and media consumption of students so you can build and adjust your content continuously to engage them fully.

Keep it Simple

The education field attracts smart people who’ve spent lots of time in elite institutions earning advanced degrees. Education itself is often acknowledged to be a never-ending quest for knowledge. We value inquiry and further study, often supported by academic research. We operate in areas that are shaded in greys rather than black and white. Our writing is often couched in supposition because there may be no right or wrong answer. This equivocal approach tends to make our thoughts and communication thoughtful but also highly complex. Young people, on the other hand, are looking for answers. They are looking for guidance that is direct and clearly expressed. They want to know right from wrong. In addition, theirs is a visual rather than verbal culture. They will look carefully at pictures with short captions. They are less likely to read a long tract unless it is required reading.

The lesson: When we communicate with students, or young people in general, it pays to keep it simple, be direct and unequivocal.

Get Schooled was founded in 2010 on the belief that, if given the right combination of relevant information and motivation, students have the power to improve their own prospects for the future. When all is said and done, the most effective communication will engage students in ways that motivate and empower them to act in their own best interests.

Marie Groark is executive director of Get Schooled Foundation; Christen Pollock is president & CEO of edBridge Partners


First edBridge Survey Of District & College Leaders


Leaders Say Collaboration between K-12 and Higher Ed Key to Student Success & More Effective Approaches Needed

Today’s most intractable educational issues and greatest opportunities to raise student achievement require sustained, intentional collaboration between schools and colleges. To understand what education leaders need most to collaborate effectively, telephone interviews were conducted from October 17 to November 14, 2013 with a national sample of public school district superintendents and public and private college and university chancellors, presidents and deans.

The Collaboration Imperative, a report based on these interviews, represents a partnership between edBridge Partners and Hart Research Associates; and with AASA, The School Superintendents Association, and the American Association of State College and Universities providing valuable contributions and insights to the content and recommendations of this report.

Findings Reveal Gap in Importance & Effectiveness of Cross-Sector Collaboration

  • 90% of district and 80% of college leaders agree that collaboration is extremely or very important.
  • However, few say they collaborate effectively: only 33% of district and 34% of college leaders report collaborating extremely or very effectively.
  • Priorities differ. District leaders seek improvements in professional training, delivery of instruction and curriculum alignment through cross-sector collaboration. College leaders seek curriculum alignment as well as programs to ease students’ transition and reduce the need for remediation.
  • Leaders question the importance their counterparts place on collaboration. However, given the high value both groups ascribe to effective collaboration as an improvement strategy, findings highlight areas where new approaches to collaboration can begin.

Understanding the NC License in a Higher Education Context

In my position as a consultant to clients in higher education, I support faculty who are exploring open educational resources (OER). Part of my support is connecting them to experts and professional development that will help them understand what OER is, what the benefits are, and how to get started with adopting, adapting, creating, sharing, and teaching with OER.

One challenge that I have seen when it comes to licensing is that faculty are concerned about their intellectual property being stolen or misused. To me, this makes a lot of sense, especially for tenured faculty: they have spent their careers justifying to academia that they belong because of their unique and valued contributions to their field/discipline. Asking them to then take these contributions and open them up to anyone in the world to adapt, revise, remix, or redistribute can seem alarming. Additionally, some faculty may fear that openly licensing something would preclude them from being able to sell their works.

This is where the NC—or NonCommercial—license plays a role. Faculty sometimes choose to license their works NC to ensure that their works are not appropriated by publishers or others for profit, as well as to safeguard their own ability to profit from their works. However, the use of the NC license in this way may not be providing the protection the user thinks it’s providing, isn’t necessary to ensure that the creator can profit, and may also be restricting the use of the work more than the user intends.

What is NonCommercial?

The definition of NonCommercial is not as clear cut as some may assume. Creative Commons defines NC as “not primarily intended for or directed towards commercial advantage or monetary compensation.[1]. This definition leaves the specifics open to interpretation, and it has been shown that when you provide specific scenarios to creators and users, they are not always able to clearly distinguish between commercial and noncommercial use.[2] Like all CC licenses, the NC licenses are non-exclusive. This means that a NC licensor is free to offer the material under other terms any time, including on commercial terms.

NC depends on the use, not the user

The definition of NC depends on the primary purpose for which the work is used, not on the category or class of re-user. Users don’t have to be nonprofits or government entities to use a work licensed NC. Likewise, just because a company is a for-profit entity, does not mean that any use by that entity is automatically commercial. Additionally, the use of the material must be for profit; simply selling a work at cost would still be considered noncommercial.

NC doesn’t always keep others from profiting

Creative Commons licenses are copyright licenses, and as such, they are subjected to the same limitations and exceptions as all copyright licenses, meaning even commercial uses covered by an exception or limitation in the law can occur. In an education context in the United States, for example, this could mean that a university could provide access to NC-licensed works behind a paywall, and in such cases, the CC license never comes into play and the NC restriction (and other limitations or conditions contained in the license) may be disregarded.

NC licenses may have unintended consequences

As noted above, faculty who wish to use a Creative Commons license most likely chose Creative Commons licenses because they wanted others to be able to adapt their work or at least reuse it. However, the NC license greatly restricts both reuse and adaptation, as the NC licenses limit re-users to non-commercial uses of the work only, which includes when the work is used in a collection or when it is adapted.

Further, NC licenses can limit distribution of one’s works. Works licensed NC do not qualify as “open licenses” under the Open Definition—which is used by many platforms like Wikipedia and Wikimedia Commons—and works licensed under an NC license are not considered Free Cultural Works.[3] This may be important if one hopes to distribute their work on any of these platforms that require a license that meets the Open Definition or the Definition of Free Cultural Works.

 Potential Solution: Advocate for faculty to choose SA licenses instead of NC licenses

ShareAlike (SA) licenses require that if a user remixes, transforms, or builds upon the material, they must distribute the creator’s contributions under the same license as the original.[4] A simple CC-BY-SA license is likely enough to stop traditional commercial enterprises from taking advantage of a creator’s works for commercial purposes, as it would require them to license their adapted works as similarly open.[5]

For those faculty who are using the NC license to ensure that they can still profit from their own creative works, a SA license would also be sufficient, as all Creative Commons licenses are non-exclusive, as discussed above.

Further, SA licenses are much more usable in the open, sharing community. They meet the criteria for the Open Definition and the definition of Free Cultural Works, and facilitate use and adaption much more broadly, mitigating some of the unintended consequences of licensing NC described above.[6]

Going forward, when discussing license choices with faculty, I will plan to advocate for them to choose SA licenses over NC licenses for all the reasons listed above.

This Insight, Understanding the NC License in a Higher Education Context by Annika Many is licensed CC BY 4.0


Additional Source:

Creative Commons Certificate for Educators and Librarians. Unit 5: Creative Commons for Educators.  by Creative Commons. CC BY 4.0

[1] NonCommercial interpretation by Creative Commons is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 license. Accessed 3/18/21.

[2]  Defining “Noncommercial”: A Study of How the Online Population Understands “Noncommercial Use” by Creative Commons (2009) is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported license.

[3] The case for free use: reasons not to use a Creative Commons -NC license by Freedom Defined is licensed under Creative Commons 2.5.


[5] See Exploring music and life in the 21st century by Aaron Wolf for another example of this in a media context. Exploring music and life in the 21st century by Aaron Wolf is licensed Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

[6] Creative Commons 4.0 BY and BY-SA licenses approved conformant with the Open Definition by Creative Commons under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International license.