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Teaching Unprepared Students: The Importance of Increasing Relevance

By Kenneth L. Alford, PhD, and Tyler J. Griffin, PhD


It is difficult to teach if students are unprepared to learn. In a 2013 Faculty Focus reader survey, faculty were asked to rank their biggest day-to-day challenges. "Students who are not prepared for the rigors of college" and "Students who come to class unprepared" finished in a statistical dead heat as the #1 challenge; roughly 30% of the respondees rated both challenges as "very problematic."

Whether students arrive in your classroom underprepared (that is, their high school educational experience did not prepare them for the rigors of college work) or unprepared (that is, they are not ready to contribute and participate in your course on any given day), the way to help them is still the same.

When approaching classroom challenges, it is helpful to first identify the teaching and learning principles involved and then search for practices that follow from those principles. If you want to increase the level of engagement with underprepared or unprepared students, we have three recommendations:

Increase relevanceIncrease relevanceIncrease relevance

Students who sense a disconnect between what they are learning at college (or in your course) and their future life, as they perceive it, will never engage to the same degree as students who understand the relevant connections between their current learning and their future.

One technique that a teacher can use to increase relevance is to repeatedly ask "So what?" or "Who cares?" If the teacher struggles to answer these questions from their students' perspectives, there is little chance that the students will be able to make the connection on their own. The task of answering these questions does not necessarily need to rest solely on the teacher, though. An engaging teacher will consistently work with students to construct answers to these two questions based on what they are currently studying.


Don't just give assignments. You need to help your students understand the relevance and connection to what they are doing now, and what they hope to do in the future. This is the student's, not the teacher's, "big picture" vision. But it is the teacher's responsibility to guide their students through this process. Unprepared and underprepared students will not do this on their own, but there are numerous ways you can help. Here are a few ideas:

Ask your students to respond, in writing, to a "So what?" question as part of each assignment or major topic within your cour