Learning Outside the Box

How do we get our students excited about class material? How can we encourage students to apply class concepts to new and unique situations? One avenue for increasing student motivation and encouraging students to make connections between course material and the “real world” is through co-curricular activities. By co-curricular activities I mean any experiences that happen outside of class but complement the classroom learning experience. In my classes¹ this includes: speakers, on and off campus talks or events, course-related films, and theatrical performances.²

To various degrees, these activities encourage students to view course material in new ways and demonstrate that they can apply course material to different scenarios. Because these activities are independent of the course, the connections students make will be entirely their own. Whereas during a lecture or class discussion I may point out connections; in these scenarios, the students are making the connections on their own. To do so requires a solid understanding of the course material, which they demonstrate in making the application in their reflections.

When used effectively, co-curricular activities can provide opportunities for, at a minimum, two of the four stages of the experiential learning model (Kolb, Brock & Cameron 1999): concrete experience and reflective observation. Concrete experiences are those that are personally relevant to the students and “engage students’ minds and emotions” (Brock & Cameron 1999, 252). Further, I require the students to write reflection papers. I ask that these reflection papers go beyond summarizing the event or film and explicitly connect the event or film to class concepts.

catinboxCo-curricular activities that demonstrate the “real world” relevance to class concepts can increase student motivation and engagement. By hearing from practitioners, students can begin to see class concepts and seemingly abstract theories come to life. For example, my students meet with NGO activists working on increasing women’s political participation in developing countries. The students are often surprised when the NGO speakers talk about how electoral systems influence the work they do. One student reflected:

Learning about women’s representation in class and then meeting with women who work on the subject was an interesting way to apply our class knowledge to the real world. It was exciting to understand the electoral systems that our hosts spoke about and to be caught up with the research behind the issue.

Students are often interested in understanding how class concepts apply in the “real world”. And, in fact, demonstrating relevance is one way to foster enthusiasm and intrinsic motivation for our subjects. Taking advantage of talks around campus, identifying relevant movies, or inviting guest speakers can provide students opportunities to experience class concepts in different ways.


¹My primary appointment is in GWU’S Women’s Leadership Program which includes a 1-credit weekly symposium event. It was through this requirement that I began to see the benefits of co-curricular activities.  Since then, I’ve been more deliberate about incorporating these opportunities in all of my classes.

²Of course, location matters.  We are lucky to be in Washington, DC and events and speakers are easy to find.  That said, with technology (i.e. Skype) and taking advantage of campus events, location should not be a barrier to incorporating co-curricular activities to any class.

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