People learn best and fastest what they have a motivation to learn. Teenagers do whatever is required of them to learn to drive a car and to use their complex smartphones -all without imposed deadlines, printed syllabi, or homework assignments to give the process any structure. Passing an exam in a university course and getting a degree is poor as a motivator because the motivation is disconnected from the subject material itself. Instead, there must be a reason to learn the thing itself. (The more focused application that students exhibit in the graduate programme compared to those doing undergraduate study is due largely to the greater motivation and purpose that graduate students have.)
My main objective as a teacher, therefore, is to stimulate a desire to learn the syllabus that I am delivering and that desire comes from my demonstrating the relevance of the syllabus to their lives. The process begins with the design of the syllabus itself . Regretfully, some of our colleague lecturers simply funnel to the students what is in the textbook exactly as it is in the textbook. The problem is that the text book, more often than not, was written to motivate students living in a different place with different collective experiences.
The aim, therefore, when I construct a course is to find a way to provide the students with a relevant syllabus to begin with. So the quest for relevance begins even before the first class with the choice of syllabus. Topics that are of only peripheral relevance to circumstances in which the students live are eliminated or diminished in importance and replaced by more relevant ones. For example, the standard level I syllabus in economics spends a great deal of time on macroeconomic fluctuations, involving changes to aggregate demand in the belief that output will happily cooperate. This is appropriate to an economy in which the most important event is the business cycle. But long run economic growth is more relevant in a developing economy and so in my course it is elevated to a position of greater importance in the syllabus. As a result of this approach, the syllabus seems more relevant from the beginning.
On the first day of class, the opening topic of discussion is the relevance of economics to their daily lives, with a demonstration of its power in helping to understand what is going on around them. The presentation includes many questions that bear directly on their experiences and that they are to expect the course to answer.Amongst other questions, we raise the following : (1) Why is the incidence of crime so high? (2) Why are there more girls than boys in the classroom, and (3) How can economic policy raise their standard of living?
As the course unfolds, the search for relevance takes the syllabus to the personal circumstances of the students by including examples and applications that reflect their direct experiences. Asymmetric information is exemplified by the route taxis they are familiar with while monopoly power is applied to Vybz Kartel's music. The concept of the real rate of interest is applied to loans from the Student Loan Bureau while that of diminishing returns is used to help them to allocate their limited study time across different courses.
Further, every lecture has to provide a motivation for the students to pay attention for that particular class. Consequently, every class begins with a list of questions that will be addressed by that day's material. Every sub-topic is capped with an example or application. And every class ends with a hopefully satisfying recap of the main learnings of the lecture. This is intended to make it explicit that new learning has occurred, so the student walks out of the room feeling that the time was well spent. 'This should be motivation to return for the next class.
The attention to relevance also includes subtle visual cues. If the imagery of the textbook and therefore of the course is of blond-haired people in snow-covered settings, the student may wrongly but reasonable question the relevance of the theories contained therein to his own circumstances. The imagery and iconography that I use in my slides and handouts are of identifiably local places and reflect the ethnicities of Caribbean people (or are at least of indeterminate ethnicity) Examples of the custom designed icons(variously representing workers, consumers, or market participants) used for the illustrations on my slides are shown.
In all of these ways, the economics syllabus is presented as being relevant to them and directly useful- both practically and intellectually. The course is about the students themselves and their circumstances. The syllabus enlightens events around them and solves puzzles they may or reasonably could have. The objective in all of this is not necessarily to produce better grades. Rather, the objective is to create interest and motivation, and perhaps even passion for the subject. That is the measure of success. But I do hope that the interest and motivation will result in better grades.
The effort to motivate learning by demonstrating relevance and usefulness is complemented by other elements to achieve better learning outcomes.
1. Where in the world are we? Students easily get distracted from a course when they lose their place in the syllabus. They may understand the particular topic being covered at the moment, but are unclear how it fits into the whole. AS a result, they may understand the trees but lose sight of the forest. To allay that concern, the syllabi for my courses are designed to appear as coherent structures with a natural logic rather than just a disconnected collection of models and theories. Further, each lecture begins by placing the current lecture in the context of the immediately preceding ones and in that of the larger syllabus.
How am I doing? Learning is facilitated by feedback, so, within the constraint of resources, there are early and frequent assignments and quizzes. This lets the students know from early in the term whether their efforts are adequate. It is particularly helpful for the students in the first year since it obligates them to engage the material from the first two weeks of the term. This year, for example we were able to administer five 1 minute quizzes every few weeks even though the course had an enrollment of nearly 1200 students in six streams - a logistical accomplishment.
The same principles of motivation and relevance are behind the innovations that I bring to the classroom to increase student engagement.
While the range of supplementary material for the economics syllabus is vast, there remain a few topics that are either always poorly executed or are sufficiently different for the case of small developing countries that existing material, largely published in developed countries, is inadequate. In the absence of good supporting material to assign. I create my own. I have posted two youTube videos and written two original treatments as replacements for their corresponding chapters in the assigned textbook. (The replacement chapter on Economic Growth accompanies).
All the content for my two level 1 courses are accompanied by illustrations and animations on Powerpoint slides so that both spatial and verbal learners can access the material in their preferred ode. (A sample animation to illustrate the gains from trade accompanies)
Every opportunity is sought to break up the monotony of the lecture format to reduce boredom and improve the classroom experience. Guest speakers, videos, classroom games, props and in one instance, free giveaways are all part of the arsenal of engagement and monotony interruptions.
The idea is, simply, to motivate the students to want to learn. After that, it is hoped, the want will drive everything else.