The Office of Faculty Development

Connecting Student Learning to Their Experience

When instructors can connect their course content to students’ lives and experiences, it enriches and enhances learning. As humans, we learn by connecting new ideas and knowledge to previously held knowledge, and this includes our personal lives and experiences. Not only can we connect with students as people, but we can help them grasp the concepts of our curriculum by drawing them into the learning in this way. 

According to Virginia Tech’s Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning, “Prior knowledge refers to what a learner already knows before learning new information. That is, it's the information and educational context already present before new instruction. Prior knowledge is important as it serves as a foundational building block for new knowledge. Activating prior knowledge helps students see the connections between previous learning and new instruction, builds on what students already know, provides a framework for learners to better understand new information, and gives instructors formative assessment information to adapt instruction.”


    Activating Prior Knowledge. Center for excellence in teaching and learning: Virginia Tech. in new window)

    Pandolpho, B. (2021, March 31). Connecting content to students’ lives to boost engagement: To effectively collaborate and problem-solve, students need to develop a greater understanding of themselves and others. Edutopia. in new window)

    Chapter 5: Connecting to students' lives. Pressbooks. in new window)

    Supiano, B. & Fischer, K. (2023, February 23). Connecting in the classroom and beyond: Faculty members are struggling more than ever to reach their students. Emphasizing human connections in the classroom is a key success strategy. The chronicle of higher education. in new window)


    Ready to start connecting your curriculum to students’ lives? Here are some ideas and strategies to get you started:

    Reflection: Students come into our classrooms with experiences from throughout their lives. One way to tap into these memories is to ask students to reflect on a topic from a personal standpoint. Ask students how they see a class concept or idea showing up in their world or in their community (family, work, life at Chico State, etc). You can also ask students what they already know about the topic, and give them time in class to write anything that comes to mind, encouraging them to reflect on past learning or experiences. For example, you might ask them how science concepts show themselves outside of the classroom and encourage students to pull from their personal lives, and then discuss their thoughts together as a small group. 

    Forecasting: Forecasting asks students to make a prediction based on information they already know. Prior to a lesson, demonstration, or simulation, pose a question to students but leave the ending open (or answer unclear). Ask them what they think will happen and why (here is where prior knowledge comes into play). After the lesson, revisit the question and see if responses/predictions have changed (Virginia Tech).

    Current Events: Connecting a class concept to current events is another great way to help students access prior knowledge and connect the idea or lesson to their lives. Whenever possible, utilize current trends or recent events (from the news, local or national) to make connections and deepen understanding. Even better, ask the students what they have heard about the topic recently! For example, taking a recent story about climate change and having students connect it to philosophy, business or criminal justice. 

    Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion: If you’re looking to connect with students in a DEI space, ask them to reflect on how the concept or topic shows itself in different communities (race, class, gender, and others). From Edutopia, “Curriculum that's culturally responsive and grounded in identity work is relevant and engaging, as it helps students better understand not only their own history and truth but those of others. Students can read and analyze class texts with the purpose of learning about other people’s lives, joys, and struggles as a way to build empathy for those around the world who may be (or may just seem to be) very different than they are… in order to interact, collaborate, and problem-solve peacefully with different kinds of people, students need to develop a greater understanding of themselves and others.”