When I first started teaching as a graduate student, I was assigned courses that students notoriously dreaded. First, I taught a writing lab for our research methods course, where students learned about APA formatting and wrote a research paper. After that, I taught Statistical Methods. In both courses, students routinely complained that the skills taught in these courses didn’t apply to them. They didn’t want to be researchers that conducted experiments, ran data analyses, and then wrote up findings in a manuscript. So why should they take these classes seriously?
My first day of class has been largely geared towards these students: the students who hate math and don’t plan on writing up a research project ever again. In an attempt to avoid lulling students to sleep with the mundane syllabus lecture (cue Charlie Brown’s teacher), I start the first day of class by telling students what I want them to get out of my course. I highlight key job skills that they can learn, and show them real job announcements that require for those skills. I emphasize how things learned in this course will prove useful in not only future courses, but also their everyday life. The first day of class is my time to prove to students that their course is about so much more than just APA formatting or calculating a correlation.
For research methods, I emphasize the writing skills they will develop. I pull up job announcements that call for applicants with strong oral and written communication skills. I give an anecdote about my significant other who works in law enforcement, and how his writing skills distinguished him from his coworkers, and opened up career and promotional opportunities for him. Does he write research papers? No. But he does write clear and concise reports that lead his superiors to put him on specialized tasks, allowing him to network with other departments and agencies. While many students won’t go on to be researchers writing manuscripts, almost all of them will be tasked with preparing reports or writing memos and emails in their career.
For statistical methods, I emphasize both job skills and everyday skills. Similar to my research methods class, I pull up job announcements that call for applicants with data analysis skills, experience with Excel, and the ability to interpret statistical findings. I emphasize positions that my students, upon completion of the class or their BA/BS, would be able to apply for. Beyond that, one of my main goals for the class is to turn students into critical consumers of news media. I show them graphs and article blurbs that use questionable or misleading statistics. The ever present topic of “fake news” is an excellent way to make statistics relevant and useful for students.
It’s worth mentioning that in addition to these skills, I also highlight how both courses are stepping stones to graduate programs. However, since many students don’t go on to graduate school, I choose to focus on the real-world applicability of my courses. Students who aren’t going into graduate school are often the ones that need the extra motivation to succeed in the course.
I don’t spend the entire first week emphasizing the real-world applicability of the courses. Key topics from the syllabus and course structure are always discussed on the first day of class. I also dive into course content by the end of the class, or on day-two. However, emphasizing the applicable skills that they can gain from the course is by far the most impactful thing I do in the first week.
Written by Karly Schleicher