What Will Your Students Remember About Their Classes in 20 Years?

by Alex Gay

posted on 05-06-2019

Twenty years from now, what do you hope your students will remember from the courses they take at your institution? Professor James M. Lang, director of the D’Amour Center for Teaching Excellence at Assumption College, talks about a few of the thoughtful answers his colleagues gave when they sat down to discuss this question. As you can imagine, the answers differed widely.

“One thing became painfully clear in the weeks that followed as we continued the conversation in person and in writing,” James said. “None of us listed specific course content as something we hoped our students would recall in 20 years.”

Would you agree that specific course material is not the thing you hope students will remember from their classes in 20 years?

The truth is, students may forget a lot of the subject matter details faculty teach them, no matter the discipline. But by finding the balance between subject matter and skills, being flexible, and shaking up classroom habits, faculty can assign classwork that will leave a positive, lasting impression on their students.

Balance subject matter and skills

Here’s what the professor concluded after pondering the 20 years question:

“What I want students to have retained from my English courses has very little to do with any specific poem, story, or play we read in class, or any theory we debate. It has much more to do with some kind of fundamental change I hope to effect in how they think, communicate, or interact in the world.”

For classwork to make an impression on students, it has to change them in some way.

Digital literacy can be the vehicle for that change. Not only can digital projects teach subject matter in a memorable way across disciplines, but it can also teach soft and hard skills that change students for the better. These skills can apply directly to the rapidly changing modern workforce and will be relevant in the future.

Since faculty have to teach their subject matter to their students, how can they find the balance between subject matter and life-changing skills?

Digital creative projects lend themselves naturally to striking that balance. For example, students can use digital literacy skills to plan, film, and edit a news story video. This project works across disciplines — after all, news stories can be about anything! The project helps the students engage deeply with the content and also teaches essential soft skills like communication, problem-solving, and creativity.

With any digital creative project, students and faculty can adjust the intensity of the creative requirements to suit their course. This ensures that the challenge of the digital creative aspect supports and doesn’t supplant what students are learning about the subject matter.

Be flexible and allow student-led learning

Finding the balance between a carefully-crafted syllabus and being flexible takes deliberate effort. How can professors go about finding that balance?

“The best way to start, I’d argue, is by working to align our goals with students’ goals for themselves,” said David Gooblar, a lecturer at the University of Iowa. “At the beginning of a semester, in particular, it’s worthwhile to devote time to figuring out — and asking your students to figure out — what their goals are for the semester and beyond. …I tell students on the first day of class that the syllabus is a provisional document; the course will change depending on what they need.”

One of the benefits of using digital tools that help foster digital literacy is that digital tools and assignments can easily be adapted and adjusted to meet individual student needs. This includes the need to prepare for the modern workforce.

For example, the English department at Fayetteville State University decided to reconfigure a required composition course to “help students learn the type of writing that could help them on the job.” Chuck Tryon, an English professor, took this change to heart and assigned students to write a proposal to modify either his course or the mission of the university.

What he learned was that students want to take a more active role in their learning. They suggested things like assigning students to present the course material and having more in-class activities.

Faculty can learn a lot from their students, especially when faculty specifically ask them for feedback. Using digital tools to develop digital literacy encourages flexibility and student-led learning. Projects like using InDesign to create a course-relevant press kit can be flexible and encourage student-led learning.

Try these activities and assignments

If faculty are feeling stuck as to how they can assign memorable classwork, here are some activities that might jump-start their creativity (and their students’ creativity):

If your classrooms are generally set up in neat rows, a circle configuration is sure to get students’ attention. Then, to take it to the next level, professors can hold a discussion in which students are not allowed to repeat an observation made by a classmate who has already spoken.

Faculty can surprise students with an assignment to give an oral report on last night’s reading in class. They might choose to give students 15 minutes to prepare a presentation on Adobe Spark and then report with the aid of the presentations they create. Having a time constraint and using creative technology will make for an exciting and memorable day in class.

Once the semester is well underway, students often fall into a seating arrangement and a classmate group and don’t budge. But when it comes to group work, it may be a good idea to pair students either with someone they don’t know or with someone who is very different from them. This could include differences in personality, upbringing, and area of study.

An assignment like creating packaging for a mini cereal box might be a good one to do in unlikely pairs.

For this assignment, students “create a new breakfast cereal brand, logo and build a mock packaging design,” says Fred Benitez, an educational technologist for Eanes ISD. This assignment can be adapted for a few disciplines depending on what the instructor highlights. Some ideas include public health (by focusing on nutrition), English and marketing (by focusing on creating a visual argument), and engineering (by focusing on the actual creation of the box). — This assignment would be memorable as differing students come to a consensus and create together.

Students may forget a lot of what their professors teach them. But professors can create meaningful, memorable classwork by finding the balance between subject matter and skills, being flexible, and shaking up classroom habits.

Want to see your campus become a hub for memorable classwork? See what other educators have done to incorporate digital literacy.

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