Carnegie Mellon University

Eberly Center

Teaching Excellence & Educational Innovation

Why do students ask me to give more examples?

International faculty member, CMU-Pittsburgh

Students consistently complain on my course evaluations that I don’t offer enough examples and applications. I wasn’t initially sure what they were asking for or why. In my country, instructors teach concepts and theorems. We don’t use a lot of examples in class, nor do we necessarily point out the practical applications of what we’re teaching. We expect students to wait until they get to higher-level courses to learn about applications or else go out and find them on their own. Students back home never seemed to have a problem with this. But here in the U.S. they do. My course evaluations are low, and I know the department chair isn’t happy.

I discussed this issue with a colleague from my country who has been teaching in the U.S. for many years. She told me that students here expect instructors to show how even highly theoretical material relates to the real world. She said that U.S. students are used to learning through examples and are taught to reason from the concrete to the theoretical rather than the reverse. She said U.S. students are very pragmatic, and want to know immediately why the material is useful. While I don’t think it would hurt for students here to learn more patience, I also recognize that in my country, education is sometimes too theoretical; in fact, employers sometimes complain that university graduates can’t apply what they know. So when I’m planning my lectures now, I ask myself: Why does this matter? Why should students care? Considering these questions helps me identify the practical value of the material and highlight it to students. I’ve also worked to incorporate more examples to illustrate key principles and give students practice applying what they know. It’s not easy for me, since I never saw this style of teaching modeled in my own education, but I’m trying.

Other strategies

  • Collect examples, analogies and applications that illustrate course concepts and explain their real-life relevance. Ask your colleagues (in and outside academia) for suggestions, use Internet resources, or ask students to generate examples themselves (e.g., “Where might you use this model in the context of soil mechanics? Can you think of any everyday applications for this negotiation principle?”). Over time you will develop a set of go-to examples to incorporate into lectures.
  • Find online videos of U.S. instructors (through iTunes university, MIT online, TED lectures, etc.) and watch them to get a feel for the style of U.S. undergraduate classroom teaching. Observe how different instructors use examples to explain concepts and point out their real-world significance. Pay particular attention to the language instructors use to introduce examples. Gradually incorporate some of the teaching approaches you observe into your own teaching. The Eberly Center and Intercultural Communication Center in Pittsburgh can help you develop an approach that works for you.
  • Prioritize your material to identify what material is essential versus non-essential, and make room for more examples and applications. When you incorporate examples, you may lose some breadth, but you will gain depth, which contributes to learning and retention.

For help brainstorming or adapting strategies to your own teaching context, contact the Eberly Center in Pittsburgh, the Eberly Center in Qatar, or the Intercultural Communication Center in Pittsburgh