We often are told that what we teach should be relevant. To many, this is interpreted as a need to link newly taught content to previous content. Or, that content should be couched in terms of how it relates to the rest of our discipline. I used to teach about concepts of lactation biology. I would stand in front of class and use a cow’s udder as my example of those some of those concepts. After awhile, I realized that the large majority of my students have never seen a cow’s udder first hand, never milked a cow, and never touched a cow’s udder. Using the image of a cow’s udder to help them understand a lactation concept is about as helpful as using a word to define itself. The realization of the lack of personal knowledge (experience) about the animals that our animal sciences students are studying lead us to develop a hands-on course where students work directly with the animals. Many do learn to milk a cow. Now when they come into my upper-level course they at least have a rudimentary personal knowledge of the animal. But, to accomplish this we had to design a new course, yet another course. There must be other ways to integrate relevance.
Students also tell us that they want to know how the things we teach are relevant. Here again, we often misinterpret their request in terms of how something is relevant to the rest of the discipline of study. We must keep in mind that our undergraduates are novices in our discipline. That is why they are in our classes in the first place. As novices, they do not have a sound basis to understand the broader organization and interrelationships among the many parts of our discipline. They do not have a sound basis to define the relative importance of specific content or linkages among components of the content.
Are students asking us how our content relates to them personally when they ask us how is it relevant? That is, “What’s this got to do with me?” Our discussions about the inquiry process, specifically the ASK phase, relate to this question. If the effectiveness of purposefully employing the inquiry process in student learning is in part based on ASK (arising from the student’s lived experience), then their learning something new is most effective when it has personal meaning related to and relevant to their lived experience. Relevance of what is being taught should be couched in terms of how does that content relate to the student’s lived experience. Often that is not easy to do. How can we pull that off? Our animal handling class is a one example where the students are gaining some rudimentary lived experiences under our guidance. Those experiences could be capitalized on in other courses, assuming we were organized enough to do that. That approach probably is not applicable to all disciplines.
One of our challenges in this Faculty Learning Community is to gain a deeper understanding of the concepts underlying the inquiry process so that we may develop other effective means of accounting for our students’ lived experiences, of adding to those lived experiences (hands-on courses, research projects, community-based projects, international experiences, etc), and of capitalizing on those experiences in our own courses or in other courses in our curricula.