What do students care about?

Research shows that students invest more and retain more when they care about what you are teaching them. If you can do this at an individual level and connect what you’re doing to something in a particular student’s life, it can make all the difference.

My friend Tolga Koker is a master at connecting with students when he teaches Introductory Microeconomics. He’ll take a dry concept like cross-price elasticitity and put in terms of a student’s favorite candy. Suppose you went to the store and they had doubled the price of M&M’s–Would this make you more likely to buy a Kit Kat? Yes? How much more likely? The cross-price elasticity is a precise measure of that! This approach starts conversations as students immediately grasp the concept and want to work with it.

The catch, of course, is that this approach requires a teacher to know what their students already know and care about, not just in terms of the material they’re teaching, but much more broadly. Some professors try to get this knowledge by going around the room on the first day and asking students to introduce themselves. I hate when they do this: It’s boring, nerve-wracking, and becomes an exercise for many students in saying as little as possible as quickly as possible.

My friend Bonni Stachoviak does something similar in form with a modern twist that I’m very excited to try in my summer classes which start in (gulp) two weeks. She poses a few introductory questions on a class message board and expects students to answer before the first day. Students can give their answers some thought, and Bonni’s experience is they are much more willing to share in this format. So before class even begins, everyone knows something real about everyone else. I’m planning to try these questions the first time around:

  • Where did you grow up?

  • What’s something you’ve done that you’re proud of?

  • Who is someone you admire that you’ve never met?

  • What’s your favorite movie and why?

Something really cool about this method is that it should scale up to be effective in big lecture classes too. If a class has discussion sections one could create separate forums for each section, and ask these questions there to give the teaching assistants insight into their individual students. In a class without sections, a professor could group students in teams that work together throughout the term. Having students answer these questions for each other helps those team members get to know each other and do a better job teaching each other.