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'When Are We Going to Use This?' Strategies to Help Students Find Relevance in School Work

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When students see school work as a series of isolated problems, disconnected from real-world challenges and their personal interests, they can grow disengaged and disinterested in classroom work.

But researchers have found that the opposite is also true: Students who see relevance and purpose in what they are learning are more motivated and more willing to persist and master challenging concepts.

And the same researchers who've made those discoveries have also developed strategies to help students identify a personal connection to what they are learning in the classroom and, hopefully, a reason to be more motivated about school. I recently spoke with Chris Hulleman, director of the Motivate Lab at the University of Virginia, about these strategies and how teachers can start using them.

Relevance Is Personal

It's important for teachers to allow students to find their own meaning in their school work, Hulleman said. That's a personal process, and their responses may vary significantly.

Teachers shouldn't assume they know what students will find significant on the front end, he said, and they shouldn't assume that their students will relate to things that make concepts relevant to adults.

"Resist the temptation to lecture," Hulleman said. "You're trying to get students to discover the personal meaning for themselves. Teachers can give examples from their own personal lives, but just as an example."

A math teacher may answer the question of "When are we going to use this?" by relating how she used a geometry lesson about calculating surface area in her home remodeling project, Hulleman said. "But how many of these students A. have a house and B. care about remodeling a house?"

Rather, students may find their own sense of relevance in lessons that connect to their personal interests, their families, their communities, or a sense of wanting to do good, he said.

Students may be more interested in learning algebra if they see that it can help them compare cell phone plans to find the best value. Or a student who is interested in becoming a doctor may be more motivated to learn about concepts like cellular biology if he or she understands how those lessons will help in the treatment of future patients.

Or, as I wrote recently, some rural Arkansas students were motivated to learn and perfect 3D printing and modeling after they met a duck who only had one foot and needed an artificial limb. Those students were motivated by a desire to help the community member who rescued the duck and by the obvious, real-world applications of what they were learning, their teacher said.

Helping Students Find Purpose in Class Work

Hulleman and his fellow researchers have developed some simple interventions that teachers can use to help students find their own sense of meaning and relevance.

Build Connections, offered through the University of Pennsylvania's Character Lab, offers middle school and high school teachers a "playbook" and a simple worksheet. In one column, students list their interests. In another column, they list concepts they're learning in class. Students then brainstorm ways items in the two columns connect and use their thoughts to complete prompts. Click here to see an annotated example of the exercise. Teachers can prepare their students by reading testimonials from former students about how they used classroom work in their lives.

The strategy builds on Hulleman's previous research, which found students who expected to struggle in science class actually scored higher when they completed regular reflections about how they could use what they were learning in the real world. Click here to see the worksheet researchers used in that study. 

Hulleman noticed the same thing with some of his former psychology students as they took a challenging statistics course that he taught, which was a requirement for earning a psychology degree. Most of the students had selected the major because they wanted to help people, not learn about how to analyze data, he said. So he helped connect the two ideas by having students write letters to friends and loved ones, explaining how they would use what they were learning in their future careers.

"The connections need to be personal and specific," Hulleman said.

That means students need to zero in on specific math concepts, like slope or finding the area of a triangle, rather than trying to write about the purpose of math class as a whole. And they need to be equally specific about the life experience they connect it to—like picking a skateboarding ramp rather than skateboarding in general.

And it might take a few tries for students to find meaning in the exercise, Hulleman said.

"Students are going to need varying levels of support," he said. "Don't be discouraged if it doesn't work the first time."

Here's a video about Build Connections that was produced by the Character Lab.

Photo: Getty Images


 Related reading on student motivation:

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