June 14th, 2013

The Importance of Relevancy in Improving Student Engagement and Learning

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For more than nine years, I have been deeply interested in metacognition as it applies to the art and science of teaching. I have also been involved in taking non-professional teachers and training them to be both content area experts and more than adequate teachers in the classroom. This can be a tough endeavor as people like to teach in non-traditional schools for a variety of reasons and some are not always interested in becoming teachers qua teachers. Worse are those who feel being a subject matter expert is enough because as long as they’re talking, the students must be learning, right?

Pushing metacognitive techniques in the classroom has been modestly effective, but more so for the individuals already familiar with the skills needed to be a more than adequate teacher. However, teaching metacognitive engagement is notoriously difficult because the techniques are so course and subject specific. Going beyond the basics and hoping those attending the workshops can apply the information isn’t really the best approach either.

I decided to use the notion of relevancy with the standard materials on metacognition to see if that made any difference in the reception and application of the notions behind metacognitive engagement by my faculty. The results were stunning and many who were reluctant before or who had shown clear lack of creativity in implementing the techniques got excited. The more they got excited, the more good reports I heard from the faculty members and their students.

This outcome led to including in every new faculty onboard training at least one session on engaging students through a metacognitive approach that included the following principles:

  1. The relevancy of the course. No matter the major, students have to take a variety of courses. We ask the teachers to explain to students in the first meeting why the course is relevant to the degree and to life in general. Whether marketing or humanities, there is a reason for each course and various skills and knowledge that should be gained. Emphasizing this relevancy helps keep the course in perspective.
  2. The relevancy of the learning goals. Every course has a variety of stated learning objectives. Returning to them frequently and discussing the goals in class helps teachers and students stay focused as well as providing ongoing assessment of how well the teaching and learning are aligned with those goals.
  3. The relevancy of the assigned readings. Focusing on the relevancy of the readings helps both teacher and student understand what should be gleaned from the readings. Often this prompts a discussion on how to best approach the readings and can lead to better techniques to successfully utilize the variety of readings for specific courses. One does not approach an accounting text the same way one approaches readings in a philosophy class.
  4. The relevancy of the assignments. Basically, if the teacher does not understand what the students should get from an assignment, the students are not likely to understand either. Before starting any assignment, students should be apprised of how to approach the assignment as well as what skills or knowledge should be garnered in completing the assignment. Having this relevancy explicitly stated helps students get what they need to complete the assignment successfully and helps the teacher get what he or she is seeking.
  5. The relevancy of the feedback. This is often overlooked but should be a critical part of any assignment. Students should understand not only what the feedback will entail, but how to use that feedback to become better students as well as better versed in the subject matter at hand. Interestingly enough, we’ve found that this emphasis on relevancy of the feedback leads to instructors being more willing to give detailed, specific feedback.

On my campus and with my faculty, promoting relevancy has led to some epiphanies among some instructors, prompting more creativity in assignments and in approaches to the courses. Even the veteran teachers find a renewed sense of engagement in the classroom.

Dr. Steve Wyre is an Associate Director of Academic Affairs at the University of Phoenix.