How to Make Course Material Relevant: Tips from an Instructor
Janet Mizrahi is a continuing lecturer who teaches professional writing at the University of California, Santa Barbara. She is also an author at BizCommBuzz.
Those of us teaching in liberal arts colleges often teach students who have no inherent interest in our subject area but must take our class as a GE requirement. How do we show them that what we teach will improve their critical thinking and career-readiness? In other words, how do we make our course material relevant to their lives and goals?
It turns out there are ways to do just that. Keep reading for tips.
- Teach theory in moderation. I’m not saying not to include theory—we know the ideas that underpin what we do in a field of study must be understood. But when we dedicate the first weeks or a month of a class to only learning theory without any practical application, students tune out. The reason is not just a lack of interest—there’s actually a neurological reason for this. See Item Two.
- Relate new theory to old knowledge. The brain stores information in neural pathways or networks. For new information to get into those pathways, that information must connect to something the student already has stored in the brain and learned. When instructors help students see the way new information connects to old knowledge, it helps move that information from working memory into the long-term storage areas of the brain.
- Help students personally connect with the material. Unless students feel they have a personal stake in the information, it’s unlikely they will hold on to it. Their motivation must be stoked rather than doused. After you spell out the importance of the information, ask students to jot down how it could relate to their current life or future careers.
- Apply theory to practice. Show students how your subject area relates to everyday life. Whether you teach Algebra, Chemistry, Physical Anthropology or History, relate what you teach to the reality that the students are living. This helps students make sense of the world.
- Link course content in various ways. Find news items that relate to your course content and show how the content can be viewed from the prism of your field. Likewise, you can use case studies in which your area played an integral role.
- Give students agency. Allow students some leeway in choosing topics for assignments or even allow them to create their own assignment that meets your pedagogical imperatives. When students pick a topic that has more meaning to them, they more readily apply what you teach to the task at hand.
- Tie content to students’ long-term goals. The utility of your course content may not be readily apparent to students. Explain why what you teach is not just interesting but worth knowing in the future.
- Be likeable. It’s much easier for students to feel motivated if they feel a bond with their instructor. It helps them want to hear what the teacher has to say.
Helping students to see that what you teach is worth knowing is the first step to student learning. And while students must also take responsibility for their educations, it’s also true that instructors need to teach the students who appear in their classrooms by engaging them and making the material relevant.
Get more strategies for engaging your students in our Student Engagement handbook.