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Every instructor has heard that dreaded question from students: “When am I ever going to use this in my real life?” As an instructor, it may seem clear that if the material wasn’t relevant, it wouldn’t be taught. But oftentimes, simply telling students that what they’re learning is relevant isn’t enough.
Many students have a difficult time making connections between their coursework and the outside world on their own, and they need instructors to provide context. These students often get labeled as disinterested, but they’re just missing that deeper connection to the material.
What really is relevance in education? Relevance in education means relating the material to another concept or topic in a way that is meaningful and engaging.
If students aren’t making connections between the material and their own lives and experiences, they’re going to have trouble remembering and engaging with the material. This can lead to disinterested students and poor learning outcomes. Creating an active learning environment for students has proven to be one of the most effective teaching methods and yields better results in the classroom.
A great way to actively engage students in the learning process is to ask them to think critically about the communities they are a part of. Some ways to encourage students to think about their communities include using real-world case studies, getting students to interact with the environment outside the classroom, getting to know the students and using culturally responsive teaching, and providing students with intended learning outcomes.
Methods to help make the material relevant to students:
1. Use real-world case studies and examples
By using real-world case studies, instructors provide a necessary link between the classroom and the world beyond it. Case studies allow students to process concepts in action and create a deeper understanding of the material.
2. Get students to interact with the environment outside the classroom
The author of Adding Relevance to a Biology Lab Experience With Plastic Waste and Social Media Justin Shaffer has some fresh new ideas on how to get students to interact with their outside environment. After first establishing a connection between course content and the outside world, Shaffer recommends having students talk about the content and its connection and share it with tools they’re used to using. Since so many students actively use social media, Shaffer has students “take pictures, record videos, and interview themselves and each other” about the content and the connection to the outside world, and share the final outcome to the social media site of their choosing. This helps students document and share what they’re learning, and how it’s relevant.
3. Get to know your students and use culturally responsive teaching
Instructors can’t provide relevant examples to their students if they don’t know their students. Getting to know students and their interests can help instructors provide context and examples that stick with the students. Culturally responsive teaching allows students to draw on their own lived experiences to make connections with the material. Once familiar with the students, culturally responsive teaching becomes that much easier.
4. Provide prospective students with the intended outcomes of the class
Providing prospective students with the intended outcomes of the class will help students pick the right courses for their interests and learn about transferable skills. The course name often doesn’t provide students with information about what the day-to-day is like and what knowledge they will be leaving the classroom with. A course that might not seem relevant to a student’s life might provide the transferable skills they need for a future career they’re interested in pursuing. Providing upfront and reiterating throughout the term the objectives of the class is extremely beneficial to students and can set them up to appreciate the relevance of the course from the beginning.
5. Frame the course around a question students care about
The author of Becoming a Learner: Realizing the Opportunity of Education Matthew Sanders does this with his own courses and recommends other educators try it. Try to frame the course around a question that students really care about and want to know the answer to. By framing the course this way, each lesson goes toward answering the question. This provides relevance to students as they see how the material relates to the question to be answered.
Relevance is an important part of teaching, and can have lasting effects on students. Most importantly, providing students with relevance for their course material allows them to make connections that help the information stick. Learning doesn’t happen independent from the real world and experience; these connections help all of us retain information and contribute to our communities.
Relevance also helps students to prepare for their careers by being able to relate their course to the outside world, and recognize transferable skills. With a deeper understanding of their course materials, students will be able to discuss the importance of what they’re learning with family and friends.
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