Three Ways to Help Students Find Value in Your Courses

If students see the value of what they’re learning and doing in your class, they’re much more likely to invest time and effort in your activities and assessments. Here are three ways to connect students with the significance of your course content.

1. Share your enthusiasm

Often, we’ve been teaching or studying a subject for so long we lose sight of what drew us to our discipline in the first place. Spend a bit of time reflecting on what you find interesting and valuable about your subject. What are the big questions that your discipline allows you to investigate? What is the significance of the knowledge generated in your field? Share this with your students.

2. Choice

While it’s important to share why we care about our classes, our students will have different big questions than ours. Providing opportunities for choice will help your students connect with what they care about. We use assignments to assess what students know or can do and where they need additional support, practice and instruction. Each time we design an assignment, we’re designing a mechanism for allowing students to demonstrate what they know or can do. Consider whether there is more than one way for students to practice using new skills and knowledge and to demonstrate proficiency. Are there options that will allow students to engage creatively with course material, draw upon their own particular skills and interests, and connect course material with their own big questions?

One of the most memorable instances of this for me was in a course where I was teaching the Epic of Gilgamesh. I gave the students the option of replacing one short assignment with a creative project and a student used his woodworking skills to create a cylinder seal, a cylindrical object used in Mesopotamia to provide a signature. This was a student who struggled with writing tasks and so it was an opportunity for him to use a skill he was confident in to demonstrate his understanding of a topic we had addressed in class.

3. Authentic Tasks

A third way of connecting students to the value of what we’re teaching them is to build authentic learning tasks into our assessments. An authentic learning task is an activity that reflects how course content applies to a real-life situation. In what scenario would students actually have to use what you’re teaching them? Can you build that scenario into exam or assignment questions? For example, a recent article published in Advances in Physiology Education describes how faculty engaged students in a unit on cardiovascular physiology by having them come up with lifestyle-related cardiovascular disease risk factors affecting students at that university at the start of the unit, and then weaving those factors into the remainder of the unit.

Showing your enthusiasm, providing choice where possible and using authentic tasks to promote and assess learning will help motivate students to engage meaningfully with your course content.

To follow up on any of these ideas, please contact me at This Weekly Teaching Note was adapted from a contribution to the Teaching and Learning Writing Consortium hosted at Western Kentucky University.

Dana Dawson, PhD
Associate Director of Teaching and Learning
Center for the Advancement of Teaching
Temple University