When I was a sophomore in college, I took my first course in cognitive psychology and fell in love. I was so excited that we could apply the scientific process to understand how humans perform everyday tasks like learning, problem solving, language, and memory. I found the elegance of a well-controlled experiment to be one of the most beautiful things in the world. When I walked into my first cognitive psychology classroom as an instructor, I was so excited to share this with students; however, I was shocked to learn that what was so obviously exciting and relevant to me was not so obvious to everyone else. Students were often frustrated by the apparent lack of relevance of the course material to their lives. One student once asked me with great exasperation, “Why do I have to understand research? I want to help people!”
Not being able to find course material relevant is not only frustrating for students, but it can also impact their learning. Psychologists have long understood that being able to connect new information to previous knowledge or experiences is critical to understanding and remembering that material (e.g., Chi and Wylie, 2014). Furthermore, inclusive or engaged pedagogies argue that finding relevance in the course material is key to making all students, no matter their background, feel welcomed in the classroom (e.g., Fry, Ketteridge, and Marshall, 2008).
The challenge, of course, is finding ways for students to bring in their relevant experience without undermining learning outcomes. I have found success by encouraging students to appropriately connect their experiences with the course material by using structured reflective writing assignments. Reflective writing asks the writer to analyze experiences or skills in order to learn and improve. Reflecting on our learning is critical to ensuring that what we’ve learned is not quickly forgotten (Gibbs, 1988). It is also a key component of learning how to think critically (Brookfield, 1987). Importantly, reflective writing centers the learner’s experience and therefore gets students to connect the material with their own experiences.
Below, I describe three writing assignments I use in my courses. These assignments are flexible and easily adaptable to suit many different courses. I teach relatively small courses, however, some of my classes have up to 40 students. All of these assignments are graded on a satisfactory/unsatisfactory scale.
Write about a memory
At the beginning of the semester, I have students recall a memory related to the course material. For example, when I teach a course in psycholinguistics or language development, I ask students to recall a memory they have about language. After students write about their memory, I ask them three short reflection questions: 1) Why do you think this memory stood out to you? 2) What can we learn about language based on this memory? 3) What is a question you now have about language after recalling this memory?
After sharing their reflections, students understand the diversity of language experiences represented in the classroom. For me, one of the most exciting outcomes from this assignment were the kinds of questions students generated after reflecting on their memory. Prior to implementing this assignment, I used to ask students to generate questions they had about the course topic. The questions, if they had any, were often superficial and disappointing. However, after incorporating a reflection question about a personal memory, students began generating excellent questions that were connected to things we would cover in the course. Discussing this reflection question not only allows me to generate interest and excitement about upcoming material, but also allows us to discuss the role of observation in the scientific process.
Reading reflection and connection
In most of my classes, students read and discuss primary source material. To assess they have come to class prepared to discuss, I assign a reading reflection. In the reflection, I ask them to summarize the reading in two to three sentences. Then, I ask them to make two connections between the assigned reading and their own lives. For their connections, I give them the following prompts to choose from: 1) Write about how this reading connects to something you learned in another course, 2) Write about an experience from your daily life that connects to the reading, 3) What is a question you now have about the topic after doing this reading?
Prior to implementing this reading reflection assignment, I used to ask students to summarize the main arguments and evidence presented in the paper. When I used this assignment, students would complain about the workload in my course and expressed deep frustration about the readings. When I switched to a reflective assignment, students stopped complaining about the workload. Additionally, I found that assessing their understanding of the reading was easier than I thought it would be: Superficial connections make it clear to me that the reading isn’t fully digested. The deeper connections students make helps facilitate class discussions, especially when they’re connecting the reading to things they’ve learned in prior courses.
Letter to a future student
The final assignment in most of my classes asks students to write a letter to a future student encouraging them to take the course. In this letter, I ask students to write about the most important thing they learned in the course and communicate its importance to a future student.
This has become one of my favorite assignments because I have learned so much about what students are taking away from my courses. Like all instructors, I have my own ideas about what the most important concepts are in the course, and I have my own ideas about what topics students tend to gravitate towards. This assignment has taught me that students are often leaving with a much richer understanding of course material than I had ever considered. For example, in my course on cognition, we spend some time understanding the cognitive consequences of multitasking. I have two primary goals with this lesson: 1) Encouraging students to develop good, distraction-free study habits and, 2) Encourage them to stop using their cell phones while driving. In their writing, students often refer to these goals; however, one student wrote about how the unit on multitasking helped her stop putting so much pressure on herself. She had internalized our culture’s value of multitasking and found herself to be deficient because of her inability to do it. Learning that multitasking was cognitively inefficient helped her to stop being so hard on herself.
In my assessment of my courses, I have found that the use of these assignments has improved learning and made students more excited about the material. Perhaps more surprising is that I have found that these assignments have increased my motivation and excitement around teaching. Originally, when students complained about the lack of relevance, I made the mistake of thinking that their inability to find connections between the material and their lives was a sign they weren’t engaging with the material. What I’ve learned is that students are often excited to deeply engage with the material when given the opportunity to do so. I genuinely get excited to read these assignments because students make interesting connections that I would never have made myself. I’ve learned a lot about my students using these assignments, which has deepened my empathy for them. In addition, I’ve learned that my courses do matter, both in expected and unexpected ways.
If you have assignments you use to help students make connections between course material and their own experiences, I’d love to hear about them in the comments below!
Nikole Patson is an associate professor of psychology at the Ohio State University at Marion. She teaches courses in memory & cognition, language processing and development, cognitive neuroscience, and general psychology.
Brookfield, Stephen D. Developing critical thinkers: Challenging adults to explore alternative ways of thinking and acting. Jossey-Bass, 1987.
Chi, Michelene TH, and Ruth Wylie. “The ICAP framework: Linking cognitive engagement to active learning outcomes.” Educational Psychologist 49, no. 4 (2014): 219-243.
Fry, Heather, Steve Ketteridge, and Stephanie Marshall. “Understanding student learning.” In A Handbook for Teaching and Learning in Higher Education, pp. 26-44. Routledge, 2008.
Gibbs, Graham. “Learning by doing: A guide to teaching and learning methods.” Further Education Unit (1988).