Five Ways to Make Learning Relevant to Students

Four years ago, I was teaching Wireless Communication to senior year electronics engineering majors in India. I chose to teach this course because of my personal interest in digital and wireless communication. But more than that, it is a topic that requires a deep understanding of probability–which I believe is a critical concept for everyone to learn. However, when a student asked me, “Why are we studying probability in wireless communication?,” I was surprised that I could not provide a satisfying answer.

Personally, wrapping my head around the concepts of probability took me several years. As a result, it has had a serious effect on my understanding of the world in general, including my position on some crucial political, medical, and spiritual issues. When my student asked me for why it was relevant, I tried to explain why I cared about it and how it connected to wireless communication. I could tell that he did not care about either of my reasons. This bothered me for weeks, perhaps, months. Well, it still kind of does. But, it led me to wonder what could I have done differently? Last year, now working as a researcher in literacies at MSU, I found my answer.

For the past three years, I have been doing my research in the realm of literacies. Research in literacies (plural) is contemporary to literacy (singular) and is more inclusive of different social and cultural activities and practices in which the learners engage these days. A literacies lens takes into account the role of more than one ways of making, representing, and communicating meaning in digital and non-digital spaces. It values the literacies of students and deems them important and relevant, too. Snapchatting your trip to the local science museum is an example of a type of literacy; rather, a combination of several literacies. As a result of this experience, I know now that, in my wireless communication class, I needed to make probability relevant to my student; not simply share why it was relevant to me. Sharing my personal liking did not connect with him because our experiences with probability had been quite different. I need to situate my teaching in my student experiences. The question is: how?

Through my research and teaching at MSU, I have learned 5 pedagogical moves that are important to make learning relevant to students: knowing student experiences, explicit instruction, situated and transformative practices, critical framing, and aesthetic framing (Cope & Kalantzis, 2015; Girod, Rau, & Schepige, 2003). Think of a topic from your own teaching that you wish your students cared more about. It could be social justice, evolution, literature, or anything that you really care about but some students do not. Now, how can you use these 5 pedagogical moves to make your topic relevant for students? To help you think through, I have 5 tips and questions–based on literacies research–that you can ask yourself to keep your teaching relevant to your students.

Knowing Student Experiences

Ask yourself: Do I know my students’ experiences that bring them to this class?

Knowing your students and their experiences is a continual process that cannot be achieved in a single post-class survey. It takes place in bursts of examples that slip out of several in-class discussions and through your regular awareness that provide you a window into their out-of-class experiences. As a teacher, you need to be aware of these examples that get you closer to understanding what your students find relevant.

Tip: You can, of course, set up surveys to get a glimpse of student experiences. Another way to tap into topics that students find relevant is by scaffolding discussions where students are given opportunities to provide examples situated in their experiences, choosing their styles of expression and communication.

Explicit Instruction

Ask yourself: Is it obvious to my students why this topic is important to study?

If you think it is not obvious to your students why they study a certain topic, make it explicit. As teachers, the link between significance, necessity, and implications of a topic are clearer in our heads than often in our teaching. As students just getting to know a topic, these links may not be obvious to them. And, it is possible that they are trying to make their own links to justify it, which may lead to further alternative conceptions.

Tip: Include a quick list of significance and implications in your syllabus. This does not have to be a comprehensive list, but something to hook your students. If you wish to have some fun with, make it a catchy Buzzfeed-like clickbait sentence. However, make sure that you do not frame your click bait in a way that takes the substance out of the topics, or essentializes students. Here are a few examples that do and do not work.

Situated and Transformative Practice

Ask yourself: Will students be able to go outside and use what they have learned in their real world?

Often, we forget to make connections with students’ out-of-class experiences. Why should students care about chemical reactions, when their biggest challenge is clean drinking water? The connection between chemistry and real life may be clearer to you than it is to your students. When topics are shared with real-life implications and examples that are connected with students’ personal experiences, they become more relevant to them.

Tip: Create projects or assignments that involve solving a real problem in students’ communities. These could be papers, a survey of their community, or actual working projects. There is always room for improvisation.

Critical framing

Ask yourself: Are my students critical of the information they engage with, or do they agree without further questioning?

Critical framing sounds like a very scientific approach, but it is equally valued in literacies. Being critical of information is as important a skill for a literature major as it is for a scientist. But being critical is not limited to questioning information for evidence. It also means being socially and culturally critical. Are your students aware of racial, gender, and other biases in their learning environment and profession? Do they question practices that are taken for granted but could be marginalizing to others? Framing your own teaching in critical ways advocates a critical lens on the world. As teachers, we are among the best role models for our students on how to be socially and culturally conscious, scientifically skeptical, and adept at navigating media and information.

Tip: Show your own skepticism towards marginalizing and unscientific practices (e.g.: practices that are based on evidence, but still value other ways of knowing) in your discipline. Add a question at the end of each topic that makes connections to how it affects (or has affected) social and cultural issues.

Aesthetic framing

Ask yourself: Are my students genuinely curious about this topic? Do they think about this when they leave my class?

Aesthetic framing should be a requirement for all disciplines. Although it is inherent in disciplines like literature, music, and science, it is often lost in everyday teaching and learning. An aesthetic framing speaks of making connections to the content in a way that inspires emotional responses from  students. How you explain the inner-workings of a leaf can either bore students or inspire them with further curiosity to learn more. Our goal as teachers is to provide a disciplinary lens for  students in the world. Everywhere students go, they should be thinking about things from this disciplinary perspective; at least that should be a worthy goal for us all.

Tip: Pay close attention to your word choice when framing the language in your syllabus, and more importantly, during your instruction. Keep in mind that music, lighting, and other modalities can also have an effect on emotions. Feel free to experiment with the ambiance of your classroom. For example, reading Edgar Allen Poe with dim lights and spooky music creates an eerie atmosphere often associated with Poe’s work and genre, thereby making it more engaging.

Overall, the purpose of these five questions and tips is to excite students about disciplinary content, inspire authentic discussions, and bolster relevant practices. Our goal is to have them onboard with the things that we have learned to value and care about, so they can be good, literate, and emotional citizens who value each other and the world they live in.

Related readings

Cope, B., & Kalantzis, M. (2015). A Pedagogy of Multiliteracies: Learning by Design. Palgrave Macmillan.

Girod, M., Rau, C., & Schepige, A. (2003). Appreciating the beauty of science ideas: Teaching for aesthetic understanding. Science Education, 87(4), 574–587.

Ladson-Billings, G. (1995). Toward a theory of culturally relevant pedagogy. American Educational Research Journal, 32(3), 465–491.

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