When they can see real-world applicability of what they’re learning, students feel more motivated and engaged. Students find that real-world practice problems, explicit connections in lectures, interesting applications of concepts, and learning transferable skills, all contribute to whether a course feels relevant.
Real world and relevant. Relevant assignments, real world problems, and context-based lectures allow for more connections to outside knowledge, capture attention better, and boost motivation to learn well. [3.1]
“Capstone presentations and real world application projects enable different types of learners to understand material, and see different applications while remaining engaged. This pushes students to think about assumptions and effects. More than memorization.” - Finance Faculty
“I was interested in my biology class this semester because I was interested in the topics that we were discussing. This made it easier for me to engage well with the material and put time into it.” - Neuroscience
Photo: Political Science/Pre-Health
Purpose. For some students, seeing the purpose and value is the key to wanting to learn. Students want to understand the intent behind assignments, topics, and skills learned, to feel that what they’re doing is relevant and important. [3.1.1]
“It's important to know why each task is assigned, and have a road map for why certain topics are being learned.” - Anthropology/Environmental Sciences/Digital Marketing
"I had a professor that showed us a study on how the brain grows at our age when we're challenged, and that the increased capacity stays with you even if what you're doing in the future has nothing to do with what you learned in school." - Unknown
“Accounting is hard and tedious, but I was motivated because I did a prior internship that made me see how important the skill was. I want to own a business one day, so I was able to frame the class as part of my long-term goals. My peers that couldn’t see the applicability of it had a hard time getting motivated.” - Marketing
Some students learn by doing, rather than simply soaking in information. [3.1.2]
“Collegiate learning should be community facing and interactive. They can learn better through real experience and application.” - Theology Faculty
“Problems requiring creativity help students learn.” - Mechanical Engineering
Photo: Visual Communication Design
Students appreciate and need to see how information applies, fits into the larger picture, and is relevant. [3.2]
“Exploring interconnectedness of the world and tying passions to a subject allows for meaningful interactions.” - Sociology/Political Science
“Seeing the relevance between class info and real life motivates me to work harder.” - Computer Science/Peace Studies
Photo: Political Science
Students want to be able to use the skills they learn in class out in the real world. For example, taking their knowledge from a class and using it in their first job. [3.3]
“The learning you do in college should continue and contribute to your success in the real world.” - Psychology
“Interested in courses that are applicable to life beyond education. More engaging that way.” - Finance/ACMS
Photo: Mendoza Faculty
Ideas for Increasing Relevance
Below are some tangible ways to implement the above insights into your classroom structure.
Eliciting Thinking, Connections, Curiosity: "What do you already know about...?"
Ask students to share what they already know about a certain topic. Drawing out what they already know primes students to build upon that foundation with what's to come in class. Learning happens when students voluntarily engage and make connections to their previous knowledge and experiences. Questions to elicit thinking include:
"What do you think of when you think about ________?"
*Referring to last lecture* "Who can tell me about _____ from last class? How might it relate to ______?"
"What do you already know about ____?"
"Tell me about a time when ____?"
Ideas for Interesting, Real World Examples
Students feel a difference in motivation and engagement when real-world examples are timely and interesting. The most direct way to understand what is interesting to current students is to ask them.
Case studies from interesting current events, rather than dated case studies
Teachable moments from current events
Assignments that allow for students to application to current topics
Ideas for Increasing Motivation by Showing Relevance
Set the stage at the beginning of the semester for how this knowledge or skill can be used in the real world.
Industry speakers (in-person or zoom). Speakers can explain how they're practically applying a skill, the value of a skill, and will help students to connect their learning to the larger picture and their post-grad goals.
Incorporate real-world projects such as working with industry sponsors, scenarios, case studies, etc.
Explain the tangible benefits, such as resume talking points, jobs obtainable, etc.
Ideas for Purpose of Assignments
Quality > Quantity. When possible, give students assignments that have a clear purpose that extends beyond memorization. Students feel they're better able to dedicate themselves to fewer, high-quality, intentional assignments.
Assignments that model work that students can picture themselves doing in the workplace. "HW1: Your boss needs you to reconcile and merge these lists using Excel..."; "Write an article for the Times about..."
Ideas for Hands-on Projects
Reach out to recent alum in your field of studies--for example, newly-minted programmers, columnists, consultants--and ask what they wish they would have learned via a hands-on project in college.
Find community partners that can provide mock problems they're facing, for student groups to solve.
Encourage staying informed. Assign low-stakes, completion-based grade for reading news articles on the topic.
Asking Students About Learning Styles
Asking students about how they learn best often provides the "why" behind why some students come to lecture, and others don't. Students can also share what they want to be held accountable for in order to learn well.
Open-Ended Survey, to understand how students learn best. At the beginning of the semester, you could allow students to answer open-endedly:
"What environment do you learn best in?"
"What has worked best for you in past classes to 'get' the material?"
"What should you hold yourself accountable for to learn well?"
Multiple Choice Survey. Allow students to choose which "Learning Needs" sound most like them, with an option to elaborate or write their own, including these choices pulled from the Summit:
"I need to be in the classroom environment to learn and focus best"
"I need to go at my own pace. I often find myself referring to or preferring learning the material outside of lecture."
"I often need 1:1 help outside of class to have my questions answered."
"The option to miss class for mental or physical health reasons is something I usually need to take advantage of"
If these descriptions do not capture your learning style, please elaborate or write your own: ________________