Make Real World Connections to Course Material

Students are more engaged and interested in a subject if it is clear how the information they are learning is relevant to the world around them. By emphasizing current work and leading voices in the field, demonstrating how the coursework is applicable to other fields, and by showing students how material relates to current topics outside of academia, you can encourage student interest

Key takeaways from educational research:


Bringing realistic problems into the classroom setting involves several key components (see What is authentic learning?)


Using relevant problems from outside of the classroom, motivates students in the classroom (see Improving student motivation through real-world examples)


Connecting to the real world can involve students’ immediate interests, community interests, or interest in significant world events (see Empowering students with choice)


What is authentic learning?

Problems outside of the classroom are complex – they often do not have a clear answer and require us to think creatively, work together, and combine multiple information sources to make an informed decision. The goal of ‘authentic learning’ is to achieve this complexity within the classroom. This approach equips students with critical thinking skills to prepare them for life outside of the classroom.

Several core elements define authentic learning activities. The activity should:

1. Mimic problems encountered in the professional field

  • Activities should have real life relevance and reflect the general interdisciplinary nature of professional situations.

2. Use open-ended prompts

  • Using ill-defined problems allows students to tackle multiple perspectives, interact with a variety of sources, and struggle through a substantial task to synthesize a solution

3. Require student collaboration

  • Many real-world problems are solved in teams, by constructing an activity that includes this aspect students have the chance to build their communication skills.

4. Empower students to follow their own interests

  • When possible, building flexibility into course, such as providing several topic options or methods to solve a problem, gives students a sense of control

For further reading check out these sources:

Authentic activities and online learning, by Ron Oliver, Janice Herrington, and Thomas Reeves: Defines ten components of authentic learning activities

Authentic learning: what, why, and how?: A breif description of authenitc learning and how to implement it in the classroom 

ABLConnect on Authentic Learning​​​​​​​: A more detailed summary of authentic learning research 

Improving student motivation through real-world examples

Students learn best when they are motivated by curiosity and the desire to solve problems (known as intrinsic motivation) as opposed to being motivated to get good grades (known as extrinsic motivation). We can help intrinsically motivate our students by providing them with tasks that carry real life relevance and are challenging.

By providing real-world applications of course content, students no longer ask questions such as “what is the point of this” or “when am I ever going to need to know this”? Rather they can see how what they are doing realistically encompasses problems professionals in the field encounter.

Student motivation is also increased when tasks are properly difficult: too easy tasks are boring, while too difficult tasks can leave students frustrated. Many real-world examples provide challenging, yet attainable, problems for students. These tasks are often naturally interdisciplinary which can stimulate students to make connections between multiple sources and topics, counteracting student boredom and redundancy in course content.

Lastly, real-world examples often provide students with a personal connection to course content. This emotional investment can be driven by an individual’s background, community outreach, or interest in world-wide events. Providing students with emotional connection to material, has been shown to physically increase students brain activity in key regions required for learning.


For further reading check out these sources:

The Derek Bok Center for Teaching and Learning: A in depth look at research on student motivation 

Vanderbilt's Center for Teaching: Strategies for motivating students

To help students learn, engage the emotions: More on emotional connection to course material from the New York Times

Empowering students with choice

Many real-world examples have open-ended problems with several potential outcomes, providing students an opportunity to follow their own interests and gain a sense of control in their learning. Problems might involve multiple steps, a variety of methods that could be applied, or several viewpoints that must be synthesized to find a solution. An additional benefit of including many viewpoints and/or different sources is that students can begin to understand useful information from irrelevant information, learn the nuances of a field, and compare/contrast competing ideas. 

Students are more likely to deeply learn when they are interested in course material. When possible, give students a choice to follow their curiosity (referred to as inquiry-based learning). This includes being flexible in allowing students to pick which topics they research as well as allowing students the choice of which methodology to apply to a given topic. Giving students choice allows students to gain a sense of control in their learning (sometimes called student agency), which further improves motivation and learning.


For further reading check out these sources:

Inquiry-base learning: An approachable review of several different higher education research studiesInquiry based learning- a guide for teachers: Breaks inquiry-based learning into four phases A dive into the definition of student agency 

Example activity types

Making Real World Connections to a Crouse Material can be worked into a variety of activity types! Here are just a few examples:


Field Trip: A field trip takes students out of the classroom and places them in the heart of the course material. It allows them to fully immerse in the concepts they learned in the classroom. Allow students to follow their own curiosities while on a field trip to motivate student learning.


Case Study: A case-study is an excellent way to highlight a current problem in a field. Making cases relevant to today’s society helps students engage with material in a more concrete way.


There are also ways to Make Real World Connections to a Course Material in unexpected activity types.


Lecture: A guest lecture from a current expert in the course material can help bring the course material to life. It demonstrates that material is still relevant and shows students how to apply the material to cutting edge situations. It is also beneficial if the guest lecturer is a young professional, early stage faculty, or from an underrepresented minority to help all students visualize themselves in that role.