Communicate the Relevance of Course Content

These pages were developed by R. Mark Leckie, University of Massachusetts-Amherst.

Irrigated fields in a desert are one way to illustrate the human dimensions of the geosciences.

Even in large enrollment courses, students can be engaged, challenged, and motivated to learn. One way to motivate and engage students is to let them know how the course is relevant, both in terms of content and in terms of the important life skills it will help them learn. Make connections to the real world, not only in terms of the important life skills that mostly go unnoticed in general education/distribution courses, but also in terms of how your course relates to the human experience today.

Start with the Course Syllabus

An important way to communicate this message from Day One is to provide a detailed syllabus. Your syllabus should thoroughly describe the goals and functionality of the course. In some ways, this is analogous to a contract. Explain all policies regarding deadlines and missed work; relate these issues to work in the real world. Include what your expectations are of the students, as well as what they can expect from you and the course material. Your syllabus also provides an opportunity to 'set the hook' of engagement and student buy-in. Consider including the following in your syllabus:

Logistical Information

  • Contact information and office hours: Your students will need to know how to reach you and/or teaching assistants.
  • Details of course: Does your course include a web-based component such as an online learning management system? Provide all the necessary details about accessing and utilizing this resource in your syllabus. Include a clearly stated policy for missed classes, assignments, and exams, as well as the basis of grading.
  • Calendar: Provide dates with topics to be covered and associated readings, as well as the dates, places, and times of review/help sessions and exams. Update as necessary during the semester.
  • Expectations: Explain what you expect from your students, as well as what they can expect from you.

Information About the Relevance of Your Course

  • Purpose of the course: What makes this a General Education/Distribution course, and why should the student engage in it? Review the General Education/Distribution requirements and goals on your campus as a partial basis or guideline for writing this statement.
  • Learning goals/learning outcomes: Articulate what it is that you hope your students will gain from the course. This is a useful exercise that forces reflection on your part as the instructor. Read more about establishing learning goals below.
  • Real world connections: Articulate how the course pedagogy and the course policies are relevant to the real world. For example, making deadlines, solving problems, thinking critically, proposing ideas and then evaluating or testing the likely outcomes, working in groups, considering diverse perspectives, communicating effectively, and writing well are important life skills that may be practiced in your course. Students will have a much better appreciation for your course if you make these connections and model them in your teaching.
  • Human connections: One way to build relevancy, greater student buy-in, and bridge content areas within diverse general education or distribution requirements is to articulate how your course has an element of human dimensions. Relate the course content to the human experience from a historical, present day, or futuristic point of view. Examples may include the impact of human activity on global climate or regional environmental conditions, or how we exploit a wide range of renewable and non-renewable resources.

As an example, here's my syllabus from Introductory Oceanography at UMass-Amherst (Acrobat (PDF) 189kB Jan28 11).

Learning Goals and Outcomes

Learning goals include the important content areas to be covered and cognitive skills to be utilized within the context of the broad thematic topics and pedagogy of the course. Learning outcomes include the key concepts to be learned and critical thinking, communication, quantitative, and/or analytical skills to be practiced by the students in your course. Your learning goals can relate to course content, the tangible life skills that your students will be exposed to, and/or attitudes you would like to challenge or foster during the course. In the spirit of college and university general education or distribution requirements, the goals of a large enrollment introductory geoscience course might include: 1) uncovering the basic principles of geology and Earth system science, 2) exploring the process of science and how we know what we know, 3) discovering our planet's dynamic geologic past, 4) considering human impact on a rapidly changing world today, 5) encouraging critical thinking and problem-solving skills, 6) growing an informed citizenry, and 7) fostering life-long learning.

Why use Learning Goals and Outcomes?

Students are much more likely to engage in the material if they understand how and why your course may be relevant to them. 'What's in it for me?' can be addressed with your Learning Goals and Outcomes, as well as the other parts of your syllabus.

How do I implement Learning Goals and Outcomes?

Begin your course planning by asking yourself a couple of questions: What do you want your students to learn? What do you want your students to be able to do with what they learn? What are the most important take-away messages from your course? For example, what 5-10 outcomes, including content, skills, and attitudes, would you want your students to remember 5 or 10 years after they take the course? Most introductory textbooks are jammed with an abundance of topical information, diagrams, and examples. It follows that most of us struggle with what to cover and what to leave out. The process of building a clearly defined set of learning goals and outcomes will help sharpen the focus of your course content and can be used to help make time for student-active learning practices as part of your daily routine. For additional guidance in choosing and articulating your course goals, see the Course Design Tutorial.

Here's an example of Learning Goals and Outcomes from my UMass-Amherst Introductory Oceanography syllabus:

  • To demonstrate that science is accessible to a largely non-scientific audience by gaining exposure, familiarity, confidence, and interest in our home planet and our place in it.
  • To grasp fundamental concepts about how Earth works as an integrated system comprising the geosphere, hydrosphere, atmosphere, cryosphere, and biosphere.
  • To relate common experiences to our understanding of the world around us and to gain clearer perspective of our collective impact on the Earth system.
  • To ask how we know what we know.
  • To explore scientific inquiry as a process that reveals the details and splendor of our natural world.
  • To challenge ourselves to become better stewards of our home planet.

If you're wondering how such goals can be measured, a Likert-scale questionnaire is one option. Here are the results from 160 students in my fall, 2009, class, for the first goal:

demonstrating that science is accessible