CTL Blog

R is for Realities

February 14, 2011 | 3 Minute Read

When I begin a new class, I find it useful to understand students’ realities.  In other words, to understand how they might use the information from the class in their professional lives.  If I were teaching in an undergraduate setting, it would not necessarily be clear how students might use the information in their professional lives because very few would be certain of what their professional lives would be.  In contrast, in a graduate setting in which many students view life through a very applied lens, like a school of public health or most of the entire medical campus, many students are returning professionals or otherwise have a pretty good idea of what their professional lives will be. Students rightfully want to know how what I am teaching them can be directly applied to what they are already doing or are going to be doing in their jobs in public health and medical care.  Gathering information about students’ motivations for learning in General was part of understanding General variation that I discussed in an earlier entry.  Gathering information about students’ motivations for a specific class is part of this step on realities.  If a student has a direct application of the material to their professional activities, then, even if the student is generally looking to pass tests and earn a credential, the student may be more willing to engage.  In contrast, if a student is generally a person who loves to learn but sees no way in which he or she would ever use the information from a particular class, the student would be less engaged.

Understanding student realities can also facilitate providing examples.  I don’t use only nursing examples when I am addressing nurses in a classroom, but I am certainly more inclined to do so.  I don’t use only health administration examples in classes in which I have a lot of students who are earning Masters of Health Administration degrees, but I am more inclined to discuss a hospital or health insurance example.  Similarly, when I have a large group of MPH students, I’ll make sure to include examples of public health economics or economic evaluations in public health settings. 

Beyond professional activity differences, what are other areas of realities that are of concern to me?  Some students are not from the United States.  While they may find applications from the United States health care system to be interesting, they are also interested in knowing things that are specific to their own countries or at least to countries that are more like theirs.  Even within the United States the reality has changed greatly over time.  Lecturing about a chapter in a text book that describes an out of date reality may be an interesting historical use of economics but does not provide students with direct insight about the world today. 

In addition to planning for the course in the first place having an awareness of students’ realities allows me to better plan for questions that may be asked.

Finally, there is the question of how to apply this information.  One example came from a health economics class.  I shared with students some information on how a particular health care system had responded to a shortage of some pharmaceuticals for pain control and anesthesia.  The article seemed rather concerning, so I thought that an interesting reality application would be to use economics to interpret the events in a letter to the editor.  I gave students the opportunity to structure their letter in ways that would reflect their reality.  The students were allowed to choose from a number of different perspectives (e.g. physician leadership, patient advocacy, or hospital administration) and then were asked to discuss the most relevant economic points.  I’m not sure whether each student chose the perspective closest to his or her own reality or tried a bit of role playing in their response, but it gave the students an opportunity to shape the assignment to their own realities and that is the best I think I could do in that situation.