October 7, 2013

An Assignment that Helps Students Connect with Course Content

By: in Effective Teaching Strategies

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What do we hope to accomplish when we are teaching? Students will learn the material, become excited about the material, learn to think critically? Ultimately, I think most of us are hoping that our students will connect, or engage, with the material. There is evidence that getting students to engage with the material is an important process in the learning experience (e.g., Umbach & Wawrzynski, 2005). I recently tried something new in an attempt to help my students make that connection. This is my story of an assignment that successfully helped my students connect with the material.

As I was preparing for another term of teaching a course on Adult Development and Aging, I was wondering “how can I really get these, largely 18 to 21 year-old students, to really think about getting older?” I contemplated this question as I was rummaging through previous assignments, books etc., and I made the decision to do something I have never done before. On the first day of classes, a day so often filled with a lot of “fluff,” I gave the students an assignment! Not only did I give them an assignment, but I gave them one week to do it! As I ran through the course syllabus the students took notice of the assignment (and due date), I heard a few groans. I then handed out the assignment. It’s a reflective assignment that starts by asking students a few general questions to get them thinking (e.g., What are you looking forward to about getting older? What are you not looking forward to?), and then the big one comes: Tell me about the type of person you might be when you’re older (e.g., How might people describe you when you’re about 65 years old?) What I got from this assignment was fascinating.

This assignment provided two major benefits. First, it helped students to connect with the material, and take the perspective of an older adult. I realized very quickly that I created quite a buzz. A number of students commented afterward that they had never tried to think about themselves in this way. I even heard students in other courses and other disciplines talking about the assignment. It was clear that the assignment was successful in getting students to reflect on and talk about their future selves; helping them to connect with the material on a personal level. As already noted, this connection has been shown to be important in the learning process (Umbach & Wawrzynski, 2005). Reason (2011) also suggests that it is critical for students to learn from perspectives different from their own. I feel that by getting the students to think about themselves as older adults they need to consider another perspective. Umbach and Wawrzynski (2005) suggest that although students and faculty agree that they believe perspective taking is an “essential goal” of college, fewer believe that it is actually encouraged and strengthened in the classroom.

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The second main benefit of the assignment is that it taught ME something as well. It gave me insight into my students. In the end, maybe this was the greatest gift. I saw that each and every one of my students had an interesting story to tell. Amidst the endless stream of literature reviews, an assignment that allows you to gain some insight into your students is a welcome experience. I also believe that this helped me gain a new perspective of my students, which provided a couple of benefits. The first benefit was that, by providing me more insight into my students, I was able to make stronger connections with them. Strong connections/rapport between students and instructors has been linked with success in the course (e.g., Umbach & Wawrzynski, 2005). The other benefit is that it shed light on any stereotypes that students held regarding aging and the elderly; stereotypes that I could then address throughout the course.

In the end, this assignment exceeded my expectations. It enabled students to connect with the material on a more personal level and I was able to make stronger connections with my students. I feel that both of these things led to an overall better learning experience for both the students and for myself. I look forward to using the assignment again in the future and tailoring it to fit other courses.

References
Reason, R. D. (2011). Encouraging perspective-taking among college students. Diversity & Democracy, 14(1), 8-10.

Umbach, P. D., & Wawrzynski, M. R. (2005). Faculty do matter: The role of college faculty in student learning and engagement. Research in Higher Education, 46(2), 153-184.

Dr. Alisa McArthur is an assistant professor at St. Mary’s University College, Calgary.

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Comments

Melissa Hudler | October 7, 2013

Although this is an example of an engagement strategy in a very specific course, it is generally useful, in that it reminds us that the best way to foster engagement with course content is, not only to give our students an assignment that allows them to connect the content to their personal and/or future professional lives, but to do so early on in the semester. Thank you, Alisa, for the strategy and for the reminder.

Laura S | October 7, 2013

I do much the same sort of "introductory reflections" essay in my classes on religion. I ask students to discuss if they are or are not "religious" and what their experience with and perspective on religion has been thus far in their lives. Not only does it, as you note, help me get to know who my students are and where they are coming from with regard to attitude and perspective on the course content, this introductory writing assignment serves as a benchmark to let me know the sort of writing style and quality I can expect from my students. This can come in handy in detecting possible plagiarism on future writing assignments if those do not seem to match the initial writing in style, structure and mechanics. I also have students doing reflective writing periodically as we move through the course content, writing their personal "response and reflection" on the unit of study they have just completed (typically each unit takes several weeks and is a different religion). I find that some students are not accustomed to being asked to write about their own thoughts and feelings and end up moving into too much mere descriptive facts as if it were an essay test or research paper.

Aca | October 12, 2013

Getting students prepared for the content is absolutely important, but often left out, ie thinking to maximize the classroom time. But I agree this preparatory activity is so crucial to the success of the class.

Elena camera | October 14, 2013

I think i will use this assignment or a form of it as it does sometimes happen that content and pushing through the course can come at the expense of students connecting and engaging in lass.


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