Helping students find relevance
By Robin Roberson
As instructors, we’ve all heard these commonly asked questions, “Yeah, but what am I gonna use this for?” or “What’s this have to do with me?” These are questions often asked by students who must take a class but initially do not find the content worthy of their time or effort. When they ask a question like this, they are not necessarily looking to be disruptive; often they are looking for relevance.
From my educational experiences — 23 years as a student, 10 years as a public school teacher, and currently as a university teaching assistant — I am convinced that relevance is one of the most important aspects of teaching and learning. I know that as a student, the content I found most relevant was the easiest to learn, so as a teacher, I believe it is my job to help students see the relevance in content they may not find inherently interesting. I know that if I do this, my students will engage in class and be motivated to work outside of class.
Relevance is a difficult concept to pin down. It is mentioned in the education literature, but usually as an aside and seldom with an explanation as to its nature or structure. In an informal survey of the six educational psychology books in my personal library (i.e., I checked their extensive subject indices), only one mentioned relevance but did not define it (Ormrod, 2006). Based on my experiences, I define relevance as the perception that something is interesting and worth knowing. When a teacher provides relevance for a student, the teacher helps the student perceive these two things. This aligns relatively well with the theory of relevance found in the related area of cognitive science. Wilson and Sperber (2004) put forth this theory in the mid-80s which posits: “…utterances raise expectations of relevance not because speakers are expected to obey a Co-operative Principle and maxims or some other specifically communicative convention, but because the search for relevance is a basic feature of human cognition, which communicators may exploit.” While this may sound somewhat Machiavellian, all it means is that when a speaker (teacher) provides relevance for a listener (student), the speaker conveys his or her intentions to the listener (teaching/learning) by tapping into the listener’s cognitive need to make sense of the world. Relevance is important to teaching and learning because it is directly related to student engagement and motivation (Frymier & Schulman, 1995; Martin & Dowson, 2009).
Returning to my definition, relevance is the perception that something is interesting and worth knowing, notice that it has two parts (1) interest and (2) worth knowing. Many attempt to add relevance to otherwise uninteresting content by focusing efforts on creating interest. They do this by adding in anything that draws attention, like flashy digital presentations, humor or games. These may attract the attention of students, but, if the content that follows is not substantive or well explained so that students find it engaging and worth knowing, then their attention will likely wane. The students will remember the flashiness, humor or who won/lost the game, but they will not remember the content. In a teaching/learning setting, relevance should draw and hold students’ attention. No matter how disinteresting content may seem, once students have determined that the content is worth knowing, then it will hold their attention and engage them. I am not saying that flashy presentations, humor and games are useless in a lesson; I am saying that if those are used, they need to lead to learning about content that is relevant.
Two basic ways to provide relevance for students: utility value and relatedness
Utility value answers the question “Yeah, but what am I gonna use this for?” Utility value is purely academic and emphasizes the importance that content has for the students’ future goals — both short-term and long-term goals (Ormrod, 2006). For example, physics tends to be less than fascinating to your average student, but for a student who wants to be an engineer, physics is interesting and can also hold great utility value. Utility value provides relevance first by piquing students’ interest — telling them the content is important to their future goals; it then continues by showing or explaining how the content fits into their plans for the future. This helps students realize the content is not just interesting but also worth knowing.
Relatedness on the other hand, answers the question “What’s this have to do with me?” Relatedness is an inherent need students have to feel close to the significant people in their lives, including teachers (Ryan & Deci, 2000). Relatedness is seen by many as having nonacademic and academic sides. The nonacademic side of relatedness emphasizes the relationship the instructor has with students. Integral to this side of relatedness is the understanding that students need to feel close to their teachers and are more likely to listen to, learn from and perhaps identify with the ones they like (Ryan & Deci, 2000). Students come to value what a likeable instructor says, seeing it as something worth learning because the instructor sees it as something worth knowing. This is why genuine enthusiasm expressed during instruction is important; it shows students how important the content is to the instructor. Helping support this relationship is the academic side of relatedness that emphasizes helping students see how current learning relates to their own knowledge and experience and their future learning. Through the years I have learned that students recognize how much effort it can take to provide relevance, and they see the effort expended on them as care. Students often respond to this perceived care by caring about the teacher and what he or she teaches. Relatedness provides relevance to students first via the developing relationship between teacher and student — this piques students’ interest in what the teacher has to say. Relevance then helps students see that the content is worth knowing by showing how it fits into their current and future frame of reference.
As instructors, one of the most important things we do is provide relevance for students. It gives them a context within which they can develop into engaged, motivated and self-regulated learners. Relatedness is important to students of all ages, while utility value tends to gain importance as students become older and choose classes that will help them choose or achieve their career goals. Relevance is exceptionally important to students who are required to take classes they did not choose, such as general education courses. Relevance can help students realize how useful all knowledge can be. Fulfilling students’ need for relatedness, showing them how seemingly unrelated content fits together and then into their own scheme of things, and giving students real reasons why today’s content will be useful to them later on are all good ways to provide relevance for students. You can help them discover that what you teach is actually interesting and worth knowing.
Activities to help students find relevance
In this article I listed two ways instructors can provide relevance for students: relatedness and utility value. In class, relatedness is the primary method I use to provide relevance for my students; interestingly enough though, by using relatedness, I am also able to provide utility value for many of them. I hope you find these activities helpful in your quest to provide relevance.
Relatedness activity: Class introductions
It sounds silly, but taking time out on the first day of class to learn a little bit about your students and let them learn a bit about you can make a big difference. Knowing why they took your class; what they do in their spare time; and what their goals, aspirations and dreams are can provide insight into how to relate class information to them (e.g., interest or utility value) for the rest of the course. On the flip side, telling them similar things about yourself lets students know you are human and approachable — the first step to achieving relatedness.
Relatedness activity: Student input
Whether during discussion or in written form, having students relate their own perceptions and experiences to the current topic is a great way to provide relevance. In my classes, as in many of yours, students are supposed to read before coming to class. To enforce this, I have my students write a one- to two-page reflective essay on their reading that is due before class. What I ask them to do, which may be different, is reflect on a personal or vicarious experience and explain how the experience relates to the reading. By providing relevance in this way, it helps students to process information on a deeper level. Student reflections can also provide fodder for class discussion, so I make sure to read the reflections before class. Discussing with students how their experiences relate to the topic allows you to clarify their understanding or correct their misunderstanding. It also can stimulate related comments and responses from other students. I do caution that you check with students before using their reflections in an open forum and that you not allow individual students to monopolize the discussion time.
Frymier, A.B., & Schulman, G.M. (1995). “What’s in it for me?” Increasing content relevance to enhance students’ motivation. Communication Education, 44, 40-50.
Martin, A.J., & Dowson, M. (2009). Interpersonal relationships, motivation, engagement, and achievement: Yields for theory, current issues, and educational practice. Review of Educational Research, 79, 327-365.
Ormrod, J.E. (2006). Educational psychology: Developing learners (5th ed.). Upper Saddle River, N.J.: Pearson Education, Inc.
Ryan, R.M., & Deci, E.L. (2000). Self-determination theory and the facilitation of intrinsic motivation, social development, and well-being. American Psychologist, 55, 68-78.
Wilson, D., & Sperber, D. (2004). Relevance theory. In L. R. Horn & G. Ward (Eds.), The handbook of pragmatics (pp. 607-632). Oxford: Blackwell.
About the Author
Robin Roberson is a doctoral candidate at the University of Oklahoma. Her research interest is the teacher-student relationship. Roberson has taught students from first grade through 12th grade in her 10 years as a public school teacher. Currently she is a teaching and research assistant in the Department of Educational Psychology.