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Helping Learners Make Connections

Learning is all about making connections (Cross 6). In other words, what students learn depends on their ability to connect it to something they know. Furthermore, how much students learn is largely determined by what they already know about a subject (Barkley, Cross, and Major 12). To that end, engaging students in activities that help them identify prior knowledge is valuable. It allows the instructor to clarify any misconceptions, and makes it easier for students to make connections as they learn new material. The following activities, particularly helpful on the first day of class, can be used to help students reveal what they know about a subject.

  1. Problem Posting
    On the first day of class, or when introducing a new topic, pose a question such as "What do you know about this subject?" or "What do you think a __________ (i.e., nurse, electrician, teacher, etc.) does?" Have students take a few minutes to jot down their thoughts and then ask volunteers to share one or two things they have written. Continue asking for "something different" until everyone who wishes has an opportunity to share. Use their responses to address course goals and clarify any misconceptions (McKeachie 24).
  2. Future Employer
    Ask students to list a set of skills (either generic or based on a career representative of the discipline) they think future employers will look for (Miller, Groccia, and Wilkes 22). Follow up in the same manner as Problem Posting above.
  3. Course Concept Mapping
    In small groups (no more than five students), "ask students to map out an important course concept such as "How do we learn about the past?" (for a history course) or "What is art?" (for an art appreciation course)." Ask groups to report out and refer to their maps to address course outcomes, topics, course organization, etc. (Barkley, Cross, and Major 32).


Cross, P. K. Learning is About Making Connections. Mission Viejo: League for Innovation in the Community College, 1999. Print.

Barkley, Elizabeth F., K. Patricia Cross, and Claire Howell Major. Collaborative Learning Techniques: A Handbook for College Faculty. San Francisco: Jossey, 2005. Print.

McKeachie, W.J Teaching Tips: Strategies, Research, and Theory for College and University Teachers. Lexington: D.C. Health, 1994. Print

Miller, Judith E., James E. Groccia, and John M. WIlkes. "Providing Stucture: The Critical Element." New Directions for Teaching and Learning 67 (1990): 17-30. Print.

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