making course material relevant
I love stories; stories about life, our personal experiences, the happy and the sad. Stories teach us about how the world sometimes works and how we relate to it. When I was young, I used to love to hear my parents talk about their experiences when they were young. Their stories gave me the opportunity to learn not only about their lives, but also gave me a better understanding of my culture, the traditions of my family, and its history. In a sense, these stories gave me a better understanding of myself. Stories put into context information that would otherwise remain fragmented, pieces of this and that, thrown into a catchall closet in which items are tossed and usually hopelessly lost.
Remember feeling nervous before starting your first day on the job? You may have experienced butterflies in your stomach, had questions about expectations, or concerns about learning the rules and finding information. Students feel the same way with a new professor, regardless if the class is face-to-face or online. With technology, you can reduce new-class jitters and get your students on track for success.
How often do you hear the following sentiments from students?
• “I won’t ever use anything I am learning in this class, but I have to take it to graduate.”
• “I don’t care about this class. I just need a passing grade.”
• “I can’t remember anything I learned in that class.”
Granted, not all classes cover interesting material—or at least material that’s of interest to students who may be there only to fulfill a requirement. While we can’t change what needs to be taught, we can change how we deliver it. If we make the right adjustments to our course design and teaching methodologies, we will hear less complaining in our classes. So, what can we do to achieve higher levels of student satisfaction and long-term learning that lasts far beyond the end of our class?
Do you ever wonder whether your students care about your course material? Do you question whether your students appreciate how the information you address in class is relevant to them? Do you feel like there is often a mismatch between your intentions for your class and what your students actually want to learn?
It is difficult to teach if students are unprepared to learn. In a 2013 Faculty Focus reader survey, faculty were asked to rank their biggest day-to-day challenges. “Students who are not prepared for the rigors of college” and “Students who come to class unprepared” finished in a statistical dead heat as the #1 challenge; roughly 30% of the respondees rated both challenges as “very problematic.”
“Get students talking about their experiences!” I heard this recommendation in a couple of sessions at the recent Teaching Professor Technology Conference, and the admonition does rest on sound premises. Students learn new material by connecting it to what they already know. If a teacher gets a sense of that knowledge base (which often grows out of and rests on experience) it’s a lot easier to make good connections between what students know and what they need to learn.
Underachievement in college students is linked to lack of motivation (Balduf, 2009 and references therein). Two major factors that contribute to poor motivation are inability of students to see the relevance of classroom activities to their chosen careers (Glynn et al., 2009) and lack of a sense of autonomy (Reeve and Jang, 2006; Reeve, 2009).
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.
It was an idea for framing an exam review session, and it came to me at 3 a.m. in one of those slightly desperate bursts of inspiration that dare us to do something different and unconventional. That was five years ago. Since then I’ve used the idea in undergraduate survey courses, graduate seminars, and lots of other courses in between. I’ve decided it’s a good idea and worth sharing with others.
During the final meeting with one of my speech classes, I asked each student to give a few parting words to the class. I found a similar message resonating from many who spoke. Soon after, I received an email from an advisor at our school asking me to share some tips on fostering learning in the classroom. Since I had recorded that final speech class, I decided to use my students’ comments as the basis for my advice.