If what we're teaching is relevant to students' personal lives, future careers, and current success, that's motivating, Leah Hoops observes and documents with references. If it's not, students either don't learn what we're teaching or don't learn it very well. Of course, from our vantage point, all of our content looks very relevant. It's hard to imagine how that relevance isn't equally obvious to students.
But Hoops writes about finding out that something she considered very relevant didn't appear that way to students. And, it was one of those in-your-face encounters. Hoops had started working part time in her campus learning center. Specifically, she was working with a team of undergraduate coaches who met individually with students and conducted the usual “how to study” and “how to succeed in college” workshops. Two of these students were working with Hoops on one of these workshops that she'd had a “pretty heavy hand in creating,” both in terms of the content and format. She didn't divulge that to the students.
Almost immediately the two students started talking about how the content in the session was irrelevant. “This part is so stupid! Why in the world do we need to tell students to be confident? Like they don't already know that. . .” Hoops tried to explain, but the two students remained unconvinced and proceeded to criticize the inclusion of Kanye West as an example.
Hoops was clearly taken aback but then describes how she used the experience to revisit relevance. In this case, she decided that her content was not irrelevant. There's lots of research supporting the role confidence plays in success in college, and also a lot of evidence documenting that many students lack confidence. They don't tackle course content as confident, empowered learners. So sometimes the issue isn't the relevance of the content but how that relevance is communicated to students.
Hoops recommends being transparent about our content and pedagogical choices. We need to explain—clearly, explicitly, and sometimes more than once—why the content is important and why it matters. We need to talk about why we've decided on a particular pedagogical approach. Problems arise when we assume that the relevance of what and how we teach is obvious. And that problem becomes even more serious when we assume that the reasons something is relevant to us are the same reasons that content should be relevant to students. The age gap between teachers and students widens quickly. Shortly after we begin teaching, we can no longer assume that students are having the same educational experiences we had. Their lives have been and will be different from ours.
When reassessing the relevance of what we are teaching, Hoops asks how we can find out whether what we're teaching is perceived by students as irrelevant. “We may be teaching from expert blind spots” (p. 143). Hoops' method of discovering was accidental. Soliciting feedback from students is a more purposeful approach. Why not a short reaction paper that asks, “Out of what we have covered so far in this class, what is the most relevant concept to your life?” (p. 143). Or provide students a list of the concepts covered in the course and ask them to rate the relevance of each. And there's no harm in asking students one-on-one, provided you don't become defensive when they report that the most important concept in the course doesn't seem all that relevant to them.
Most of what we teach students is relevant, although perhaps not everything. But irrelevant content is much less an issue than failing to show students the relevance of what we're asking them to learn. They may not believe us now, but they may well subsequently discover the importance. A faculty member posted this comment from a former student on his course website: “You can learn how to write arguments in this class. I didn't. I didn't think I needed to know how. I was wrong. First week on the job, I had to write four arguments against a plan submitted by one of our large clients.” Comments like that may be more persuasive than anything the teacher could say.
Reference: Hoops, L. D., (2017). That awkward moment I became irrelevant. College Teaching, 65 (3), 142–144.