Students may enroll in your course for a number of reasons. Some may need your course credit as a prerequisite to upper-year classes. Others may hold a genuine interest in your subject matter. And then there are the ‘non-majors’ who may enroll for the sake of checking a box on their transcript. So how do you ensure these particular students aren’t just going through the motions and see real value in your course? We’ve rounded up five proven ways to keep non-majors engaged and excited throughout the semester.

→ 45+ interactive classroom activities to keep every student energized and engaged

1. Understand student interests and motivations

At the start of the term, conduct an informal survey to get to know your students. You might ask students about their academic goals, their major, what they’re most interested in learning about in your class and areas of personal interest beyond your course. If a formal survey isn’t your preferred method, consider using classroom icebreakers such as “what’s one thing you want to better understand when this course is complete?” to get students thinking through what they want to get out of your class. 

Educators know that meaningful learning begins by listening to students. Elizabeth Sargent, Biology Lecturer at Georgia Southern University, is among the professors who cultivate a learning environment where students are active participants. “My topics are static, but the examples we use change every semester based on what students want to learn and what’s relevant to their lives and career paths,” Sargent says. You might also consider polling students on where they see themselves five years from now and use these findings to incorporate relevant readings, media snippets and case studies into your syllabus that reflect their career ambitions.

2. Put relevance front and center

You might be teaching Communications to a group of Engineering majors. Or perhaps Biology to a room full of Nursing majors. In either case, emphasizing the relevance and applicability of your field can help promote a deeper level of engagement. It’s likely that your course assessments may already help students improve upon their research, creativity and communication skills in one form or another—skills that will help students land a successful career. Do your best to connect the dots between the value of what students are learning and its usefulness in both upper-year classes and outside of school.

Bringing in stories from your field that are unfolding in real time is a great way to keep non-major students engaged. Take a page out of Derek Weber’s book. Weber, a Professor of Biology and Microbiology at Raritan Valley Community College, teaches 300 students per semester, many of whom are future allied health majors and come from Nursing, Medical Technology and Nutrition backgrounds. For Weber, keeping a diverse student body like this immersed in their learning begins with incorporating case studies into his lab manual that students cared about. “I set out to make Microbiology more clinically relevant by bringing in stories from the field,” Weber says.

3. Ensure students build upon their hard and soft skills

Skill-based learning may be having a moment in academia. Increasingly, educators are realizing that skill building is one of the most effective ways to help students transition from the classroom to the workplace. You could potentially adjust your syllabus to include what skills students should have developed (or refined) after completing the task.

This principle also involves supporting students in choosing a meaningful career path. Consider spotlighting a handful of past students who now hold successful careers and how your course contributed to their success. Additionally, you may use Top Hat’s interactive polls and discussions to crowdsource potential careers for students in your discipline. Non-major students will be given an opportunity to see the roles their peers want to pursue, creating time to reflect on their own career trajectory as well.

4. Invite guest speakers to your class

“This course is essential to your success.” It’s a statement that could be perceived as biased when non-major students hear it from you. Instead, students may be more likely to engage with those who have similar backgrounds or areas of interest. You might ask a successful alum (bonus points if they were a non-major student) to share how they applied parts of your course to their upper years or to their current job. Be sure to allocate plenty of time for Q&A, giving students a chance to ask questions related to their career ambitions and the process of interviewing and finding a role today. It may also be helpful to have a few questions in your own pocket to guide the conversation as necessary. Students should leave the session with a fresh perspective on the many career paths available to them, and at the very least, a new contact to add to their professional network.

5. Highlight campus services and supports

Keeping non-major students engaged doesn’t just start and end in your classroom. There’s a vibrant campus environment that can help students sharpen their skills in different areas and promote leadership early on. Encourage students to get involved in campus life, whether joining student council, various clubs, or writing for your institution’s newspaper. These extracurricular activities will help non-major students expand their CV and form lasting connections in the broader campus community. Be sure to alert students to your campus’ career office to get guidance and identify potential gaps in their experience they may need to address to land their ideal job. Doing so early on and encouraging them to iterate on this process will ensure they make the most of their courses and all the opportunities for personal growth campus life has to offer.

Keeping non-major students engaged largely involves the same techniques you may use to appeal to the majority of your cohort. With an emphasis on career readiness, relevance and skill-building, you’ll be well on your way to keeping every student alert and motivated in your course.

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