Connect When Possible to Students' Experience and Interests

One can think of student learning as separate or connected. Students can understand material well from a course without that learning affecting their perceptions, values, or actions. A sociology professor reported giving back exams on which students had displayed excellent comprehension of the concepts of prejudice and stereotypes. Walking through the student union later that day, he heard one of the best students in that class telling a racist joke.

Learning is best done when a connection between the learner and the curriculum exists. The more the content is disconnected from the experience students bring, the greater the burden for the teacher who has to make the connection. Strategies for connecting student learning include:

  • Starting with the students' experiences and worldviews;
  • Making connections between the utility of the course material and students' future work and life in the USA ;
  • Making connections with current events;
  • Foster connections with other students' experiences.

Starting with the students' experiences and worldviews
White students often equate prejudice and discrimination, for example, with the experience of people of color. Using concepts such as social identity and culture, all students at various points in their life experience prejudice, and in some parts of their identity they are or have been an outsider. Many white students at UW-Whitewater come from working/lower middle class backgrounds. While they may be the beneficiaries of white skin privilege , in other aspects of their life they do not feel advantaged.

Make connections between the utility of the course material and students' future work and life in the USA
Many UW-Whitewater students come from small towns and rural areas with little diversity. The demographic makeup of the United States and in particular Wisconsin is changing; in the 2000 Census, 28% of U.S. residents identified themselves as persons of color, and one in nine persons living in the United States was born in another country. An understanding of demographic realities and the increasing degree of interconnectedness between the United States and other nations can enhance students' appreciation of the value of learning the perspectives of others.

Make connections with current events
When course concepts are applied on an ongoing basis to current events, both the current events and course material can be understood more clearly. A proposal for immigration reform, for example, can be viewed through multiple lenses: the demands of the job market (there would be six million unfilled jobs if all undocumented workers were expelled), the dependence of Mexico and Central American countries on dollars sent back from workers in the USA , and the day-to-day experience of undocumented workers.

Foster connections with other students' experiences
One UW-Whitewater faculty member teaching diversity courses states that he regularly hears from students at the end of the course "I always thought everyone else thought pretty much like me." When students have the opportunity to get to know each other, they can discover unexpected similarities and differences in experiences and perceptions. Faculty members should not rely on or expect students of color to educate their peers. However, when students feel comfortable sharing their experiences, unplanned learning can occur:

  • An upper middle-class African-American student stating that other students assume that she is on financial aid because of her race, and she gets quizzical looks when she gets into her small SUV;
  • A white student relating her experience growing up in a single-parent household and going to high school where all her friends had more money than she did;
  • A light-skinned Hispanic student talking about going to a large urban mall and hearing a racial epithet directed at her.

In all those instances, other students listened with rapt attention and many commented on their classmates' experiences in written work. Students had been exposed not to a disembodied text or set of facts but the life of someone they knew. Especially when relating negative incidents, the concepts of oppression, prejudice, and discrimination became more "real" to their fellow students.