Designing focused discussions for relevance and transfer of knowledge

“When am I ever going to use this?” is a question more commonly asked in grade school classrooms than in undergraduate and graduate school ones, but instructors in higher education often consider the relevance and transferability of their course material nonetheless. To ensure that her course content is relevant and useful to students’ lives, Jane Mansbridge centers class material around transferable, real-world takeaways. In this video, she describes how by doing so, she gives her students “tools” she hopes they will take with them forever.


Jane Mansbridge, Charles F. Adams Professor of Political Leadership and Democratic Value

Student Group



Harvard Kennedy School of Government


Democratic Theory

Group Size

~30 students

  • Be clear in your objectives. Articulate the skills and knowledge students will need for success in your course and in future study. Plan backwards to ensure a structure for students to build necessary component skills.
  • In your planning, consider the “tools” students can take away from course content. Beyond exposure to the major thinkers in a field, consider what transferable skills students might use with any material.
  • Aim to build connections between your content and your students. Content that students see as personally relevant is more likely to stick with them. Help facilitate those connections by knowing your students’ backgrounds and tailoring instruction accordingly.
  • Physics education researchers have established the importance of linking physics to the life of students as a way to promote student learning (Park & Lee, 2004; Whitelegg & Parry, 1999)
  • Chamany and colleagues argue that using the history of biology is one way of infusing relevance in undergraduate biology education. Although biology researchers know that scientific research does not happen in a vacuum, biology is often taught as a set of facts to be memorized and without any social context. Integrating social context into the biology classroom can be one way to connect biological content to social issues. The introduction of social issues introduces a dimension of biology that may connect with students and help make biology more relevant (2008).  
  • According to Rogoff, information embedded in a “set of meaningful relationships” it is easier to recall (2003, p. 244). Lattuca and colleagues argue that real-world examples create meaningful contexts that can help students learn more effectively (2004).