Carnegie Mellon University

Eberly Center

Teaching Excellence & Educational Innovation

Step 3: Explore Strategies

Explore potential strategies.

Students in studio-oriented programs aren’t motivated in non-studio courses.

Students don’t see the relevance of the material to their studio practice.

Students may have difficulty seeing how the material in non-studio courses (e.g., art history, architectural history, dramaturgy) will help them in their studio courses or creative practice, even if the value and relevance of the material is obvious to the instructor. Students may particularly discount the value of readings and speakers from other fields (e.g., history, engineering, anthropology) if they do not see the connection to their own work. If this is the case, their motivation to work hard in non-studio courses is likely to be low.


Link your content directly to students’ studio work.

When students can clearly see how the material in non-studio courses can inform their creative practice, their motivation is likely to increase. Try to make this connection explicit by finding out what’s going on in students’ studio courses (e.g., by asking students or colleagues teaching those courses), then highlighting links between studio and your own course material. For example, in an art history course, you might point out how a technique students are learning in studio had its genesis in an 18th-century artistic movement students are studying in your course. In an architectural history course, you might note how the work of an architect students admire was shaped by specific cultural or political experiences you will be exploring. It isn’t necessary to point out all these links yourself; it can be more powerful to require students to make the connections themselves by asking questions like: "Based on what we’ve been studying about gender and social class in ancient Greece, what historical nuances could you bring to the directing and staging of Lysistrata"?

Link your content directly to students’ intended professions.

Show students how historical and cultural perspectives can help them in their professional lives as artists by describing how you’ve benefitted from these perspectives in your professional life. Or invite colleagues or graduates of your department to come do the same. For example, a designer might explain to students how she uses ethnographic methods in the creation of her own designs. An actor might talk about how he uses historical research to understand the mindset of a particular character. Also highlight the practical value of domain-general skills students will gain in your class (e.g., writing, oral communication, and research). For example, you might explain how strong written and oral communication skills help students articulate their vision in grant proposals and job interviews, or how often research comes into play in the work world. You might also validate the importance of research and communication skills by enlisting data from employers about skills they look for in job applicants.

Invite studio instructors to your class and visit theirs.

Ask colleagues who teach studio courses to come talk to your students about how the non-studio material relates to their studio classes. You might want to provide these colleagues with specific questions or issues to address so that the links between studio courses and your content are clearly apparent (e.g., explain how attention to historical detail could inform a particular studio assignment). If your colleagues are amenable and you feel comfortable doing it, attend studio critiques and provide your input. This models for students how contextual (e.g., historical, cultural) knowledge adds depth to or illuminates different facets of an artist’s work. A healthy exchange between studio and non-studio faculty helps to validate the importance of the non-studio perspective to students who might otherwise be skeptical.

Use stories to illustrate the creative and practical importance of the material.

Share stories with students that show how the material from your class adds new dimensions to creative expression. These stories can come from your own professional experiences or those of your colleagues. For example, you might pique students' interest in human factors research by telling about how your designs for a veterans’ hospital were informed by intensive observations of hospital interactions. Or you might explain how a fellow dramaturg’s insights into a period play led to a fundamentally different dramatic interpretation. Also consider telling "fail" stories that show students how lack of grounding in the material you teach can impede performance: stories of actors who blew important auditions because they badly misunderstood the historical context of particular plays, job candidates at architectural firms who revealed themselves to be embarrassingly ignorant of key architectural styles and movements, artists who were unable to describe their own work in relation to larger theories and trends. These sorts of stories can help to alert students to the hazards of defining their professional skill set too narrowly.

Assign reflective exercises.

Ask students to reflect on what they’re learning and why it matters. This helps them see value in material they might otherwise not appreciate. For example, one instructor asks his students to e-mail him every week about something they learned that week in class. On the last day of class, he hands back their full set of emails, which gives them a tangible record of what they’ve learned and a sense of accomplishment. Some instructors give students a few minutes at the end of class to respond to a reflective prompt. Others ask their students to write reflective entries on class discussion boards. Reflective prompts tend to work best when they are fairly specific and purpose- or application-oriented. In other words, rather than asking "What did you learn?" you might ask, "What did you learn from this set of readings that might inform your work as an [artist/performer]?" If you assign a small point value (e.g., 1-2 points) for each reflective exercise, you raise the extrinsic value of the assignment and motivate students to do it. By engaging in regular reflection about how the material connects to their own lives and work, they will be more likely to appreciate its intrinsic value as well.

Use prior knowledge assessments strategically to motivate the material.

Students’ motivation may be low if they think they already know your subject and have nothing to learn. It is sometimes helpful to give them an ungraded prior knowledge assessment at the beginning of the semester, in which you identify the content areas from your course and find out what students know in relation to that content. For example, you might show students slides of famous buildings and see who can identify the architect, period, etc. Or you could ask students to write down everything they know about Roman politics relevant to the staging of Julius Caesar. Tasks like this – in addition to giving you insight into students’ prior knowledge – can quickly reveal to students that they don’t know as much as they’d like to, which can motivate them to want to learn more. Prior knowledge assessments can also be paired with corresponding final assessments or backward-looking reflective exercises to highlight to students what they have gained in your course.

Articulate your expectations and explain your rationale.

Explain the types of tasks you have assigned in your class and why you think they are valuable. Don’t assume their value is self-evident! Art students, for example, may not understand why they should have to write. Music students may not see the point of participating in discussions. Explain to them why you expect them to push themselves in these areas (where they may lack confidence) by spelling out the specific skills they gain by doing so, such as the ability to think and respond quickly, argue a position or interpretation, or disagree respectfully. Another way to highlight the value of the tasks you assign is to ask students to explain the rationale themselves, e.g., "Why do you think I want you to write a paragraph about each of the readings? Is this just busy work, or is there something you gain from doing this?" Students may internalize the reasoning better if they have to articulate it. And if they perceive the value of an activity that is difficult for them, they will be more motivated to persist despite discomfort.

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