Promoting Relevancy in the Classroom through Practical Exercise
by John Beasley
How to engage our students’ intrinsic motivations is especially relevant to my discipline, Military Science. We use PowerPoint a great deal, and the material often consists of facts that, while important, are sometimes less than engaging. How can we make the lessons engrossing?
While I shy away from fully embracing utilitarianism (I am idealistic regarding the value of higher education) I believe we should connect each lesson either to current events or to our students’ future careers. I use as many opportunities as organically present themselves to relate material to events in the real world, past or present. Doing so defeats the often heard refrain: “Why are we being taught this? I'll never need this in real life!” Demonstrating the material’s utility early is paramount, since students’ attention spans decline quickly when they think a topic will be of no use to them.
I particularly like the practical exercise for increasing retention by developing students’ intrinsic motivation. It requires student participation. And it’s well understood that greater engagement brings greater retention. The Army defines a practical exercise as a “hands-on application…giving the student the opportunity to acquire and practice skills, knowledge and behaviors necessary to perform the training objective successfully.”
One of my favorite practical exercises explores the Defense of Rorke’s Drift. I give the students a brief background on the British conflict with the Zulu people in the late 1800s. Then, I place them into this particular battle (memorialized in the 1964 movie Zulu), and place them in command, giving them the same situation and supplies as the original commander. Over the course of the hour, the battlefield develops, forcing students to make decisions and then to justify those decisions to their groups, to their class as a whole, and to me as an instructor and mentor.
Since the size of my classes range from somewhere between fifteen to twenty students, I tend to break them into groups of threes and fours; enough to ensure that everyone is heard and that no one is allowed to disappear into the background. While appointing a leader isn'’t necessary, I do insist that they come to a consensus before having one group member act as spokesman to the rest of the class.
The exercise raises questions of tactics, techniques, and procedures, both then and now, with students arguing about which group came closest to the solution proven in battle, and sparks lively debate about the feasibility of different courses of action. When it comes to developing and evaluating courses of action, Cadets frequently look to the Army Values; a standard of behavior we strive to inculcate within each person who enters service. In the case of the exercise, practically applying concepts such as Loyalty, Duty, Respect, Selfless Service, Honor, Integrity and Personal Courage; how does that affect your desired course of action? The conflict itself isn't the focus here; certainly many suitable engagements exist within the sphere of possibility. If anything the background of the battle serves only to clarify the type, design and capability of the equipment available to them.
The results I’ve seen on examinations evidence the practical exercise’s effectiveness, increasing students’ ability to demonstrate mastery. What’s more, the ability to work through a problem, to come to a rational conclusion and to defend it to their peers in a short amount of time are certainly skills we want in future United States Army leaders.
So, with an understanding as to what skills I seek to have them improve by the end of semester, I incorporate practical exercises to support individual lessons. While this is by no means always easy, and certainly some lessons lend themselves to practical exercises better than others, I certainly believe in the ability of the practical exercise to improve student engagement and retention to lesson material while developing those intrinsic motivators, or “buy in” within the class as a whole.