Why Understanding Students’ Lived Experiences Is Essential to Student Success

December 15, 2021

By Dr. Patrese A. Mason

Students are more than race, ethnicity, ability, age, sexual orientation, family structure, and class. They have layers of lived experiences that directly impact their success in life and academia. For many students, their life experiences are just as much a piece of their educational framework as their in-class experiences. Sometimes, even more so. 

Teachers have an ethical responsibility to pull from students’ prior knowledge and experiences to enrich learning in the classroom. Lessons that include references to popular media and current events keep students engaged and provide enhanced opportunities for student learning rather than simple memorization. 

This is especially true when it comes to cultural references. Culturally Responsive Teaching, a form of pedagogy that calls for educators to incorporate relevant cultural references in all facets of the learning process, holds some of the answers to this dilemma. This goes beyond simply being knowledgeable about a new TV show and calls for educators to understand the students in their classrooms truly. 


Why Lived Experiences are Important 

To improve the quality of education students receive, we must intentionally seek to understand students’ lived experiences. It is not enough to brush up on cultural references every few months. Educators should seek opportunities to learn more from their students and identify creative ways to bring that learning into the curriculum to impact student lives and educational outcomes.

There are five key reasons why incorporating lived experiences into the curriculum is essential:

  1. Moves progress toward actualizing educational equity.

It is no secret that inequality exists in the education system, and schools with greater diversity feel this more deeply. Often, classroom cultural references are designed with the majority in mind and very rarely do students with diverse backgrounds see or hear themselves in the lesson. So, in an attempt to fit in and “do better,” students with diverse backgrounds will turn away from their culture, believing it will help them become more successful. However, a recent study shows that the opposite is true. Students who attempt to fit in with the majority often feel confused and frustrated, leaving them in academic peril. 

  1. It helps close the opportunity gap.

For years, educators told students and their families that they were dealing with a ‘performance gap,’ which was easy to blame the student rather than the institution. However, this trend is fading, and a new theory is emerging – it is not about a performance gap; it is about an opportunity gap. Students from poor and low-income families do not have the same educational resources and opportunities as students from more affluent families. One way to help close this opportunity gap is to give students from all backgrounds a chance to engage with their learning by creating adaptable lessons for students from various cultural backgrounds.

  1. Increases self-awareness about students’ non-educational barriers that may impede academic and life success.

One of the best ways to help students succeed is for educators to learn about the boundaries to educational opportunities. One of these boundaries is the lack of awareness educators have around their students’ lived experiences. By incorporating these experiences into the classroom, educators learn about their students in more profound ways and provide a rich learning environment for everyone in the room. 

  1. Demonstrates the need for a holistic or whole child approach in serving students. 

In the past, learning has been teacher-centered. The teacher was the all-knowing expert, and the student was simply a vessel waiting to be filled with knowledge. Education has moved away from this model and is beginning to adjust to student-centered instruction. In this model, students are seen more as active participants in their learning experiences, with their own thoughts and ideas to share with their peers. With this perspective in mind, it’s crucial to create a curriculum that incorporates various tools, strategies, and techniques, giving your students a better chance at achieving their full potential. 

  1. Varied learning experiences bolster student success. 

While it can be intimidating to move away from traditional teaching methods, research shows that various learning strategies enhance learning. Being able to apply something to one’s real life, to build on one’s previous knowledge, is much more effective than committing something to memory. Without connection, the memorization of a fact holds no meaning. It does not matter if a student remembers that E=MC² if they do not know what E or M or C represents.  


How to Implement Lived Experiences into Curriculum 

Educators have a lot to contend with, especially when it comes to the demands from the institution. Luckily, incorporating diverse experiences is relatively simple and gets easier over time. Here are a few tips:

  1. Surveys

A great place to start would be to send out a survey at the end of the year with questions about various topics. These topics can spread from popular culture to their understanding of technology. After you collect their responses, spend some time researching the things that you are unfamiliar with, such as TV shows or video games. Doing this at the end of the year gives you the summer to assess and incorporate their interests into your lessons. 

  1. Current Event Check-Ins

There is always a current event that students are thinking about. Opening up a brief period once per week to discuss their thoughts and emotions on the topic allows them to open up and let you into their world. Their insights might inspire additions to future lesson plans. 

  1. Journaling

Encourage students to keep a journal and ask them to share their thoughts. Provide regular prompts, give them space to write down their responses, and ask them to share consistently. Find ways to relate their responses to their coursework. 

These are just a few simple examples for pulling student learning into your lesson plans. Educators and policymakers who seek to incorporate students’ diverse experiences into their curriculum demonstrate that they value educational equity and student success. These leaders are the forerunners of schools and are well-positioned to impact children’s lives significantly and thus the world. 

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Dr. Patrese A. Mason,

The Superintendents’ Chief ConsultantTM

Dr. Mason is the creator of 5DMASONMODELTM, the Balanced & Brave CEOTM academy, and CEO of an educational consultancy, coaching, and international speaking firm. Learn more at www.DrPatreseAMason.com.







  1. Brown University. Culturally Responsive Teaching | Teaching Diverse Learners. (n.d.). Retrieved November 18, 2021, from https://www.brown.edu/academics/education-alliance/teaching-diverse-learners/strategies-0/culturally-responsive-teaching-0. 
  2. Carter, P. (2017, September 12). It’s The opportunity gap, stupid. Stanford Center for Opportunity Policy in Education. Retrieved November 18, 2021, from https://edpolicy.stanford.edu/library/blog/793. 
  3. Sheets, R. (1999). Relating competence in an urban classroom to ethnic identity development. In R. Sheets (Ed.), Racial and ethnic identity in school practices: Aspects of human development. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.