Every academic discipline was invented to answer a group of compelling questions. If those questions are made compelling for this generation of students and answered in satisfying ways, the desire to learn will typify students in the course.
- Michael Gray
As experts in our fields, we automatically recognize the relevance of what we teach. Unfortunately, studies show that experts unknowingly, yet routinely omit 40-70% of what students need to know (Feldon, 2010; Koh et al. 2015; Tofel-Grehl & Feldon, 2013). Often, these omissions seem so blatantly obvious to experts, they think they have taught it. However, students do not yet have your experience—they do not readily see the relevance of what you are teaching. Yet, studies also show that how your students view the relevance of your course differentiates a typical course from one that is memorable and impactful long after the final grades are submitted (Kember, Ho, & Hong, 2008; .Bolkan, Goodboy, & Kelsey, 2016). As students experience your course, they are asking themselves:
Why Does This Matter?
This question is essentially one of value. Students are more likely to engage when they perceive the value of what they are learning for their personal growth, professional growth, and for the people, communities, and causes they care about. The value may be so intuitive to you, you might have a hard time expressing it. Take the time to express it clearly to yourself so that you can help make it clear to students.
Put the “Why” into the “What.” Find ways to answer these questions:
- Why is it important to you?
- Why is it important to the profession/discipline?
- Why is it important to society?
- Why should it be important to students?
When Will I Use It?
Often what experts omit is the specific application of concepts and theories to real lives and real situations. Experts intuitively see the application, student often do not. Attitudes toward course content change as students see the real-world application of what they are learning. The effect is better still if they can put it into practice themselves.
- Model your thinking. Thinking out loud as you solve a problem or work through a concept will help students see how a successful person would think about the solution.
- Make connections explicit. Be aware of the “expert blind spot.” The connections may be obvious to you, but students don’t have the same experience with the material that you do.
- Share your story. As you share your life experiences, students will relate to you and see how studying your discipline has impacted your life.
Teaching Professor “Why Do I Need to Learn This?”