We’ve all heard our students ask the question, “When will I ever use this in the real world?” And honestly, it’s a great question–one that we should all spend more time thinking about.
Research shows that relevant learning means effective learning, and that alone should be enough to get us rethinking our lesson plans. The old drill-and-kill method is neurologically useless, as it turns out. Relevant, meaningful activities that both engage students emotionally and connect with what they already know are what help build neural connections and long-term memory storage.
“Long lists of vocabulary words that don’t have personal relevance or don’t resonate with a topic about which the student has been engaged are likely to be blocked by the brain’s affective (or emotional) filters,” writes neurologist and former educator Judy Willis.
“The traditional building block curriculum, which devotes substantial parts of initial courses to basic theory, could demotivate students if they could not see how the theory was applicable to the discipline or profession.”
Plus, says Willis, it’s necessary for learners to attach a new piece of information to an old one, or it just won’t stick. The brain stores information in the form of neural pathways, or networks. If a student acquires new information that’s unrelated to anything already stored in his brain, it’s hard for the new information to get into those networks because it has no scaffolding to cling to. Effective teaching helps students recognise patterns and put new information in context with the old–a crucial part of passing new working memories into the brain’s long-term storage areas.
Students need a personal connection to the material, whether that’s through engaging them emotionally or connecting the new information with previously acquired knowledge. Without that, students may not only disengage and quickly forget, but they may also lose the motivation to try.
Often, “the learner’s emotional reaction to the outcome of his efforts … shapes his future behaviour,” write cognitive neuroscientist and educational psychologist Mary Helen Immordino-Yang and Harvard doctoral candidate Matthias Faeth in Mind, Brain, and Education: Neuroscience Implications for the Classroom.
In other words, if a student doesn’t believe a particular activity is interesting, relevant, or within the scope of his capabilities, it’s probably not going to sink in.
Another article interviewed 36 undergraduate students about aspects of the teaching and learning environment which motivated or demotivated their study. It was found that students were motivated by a teaching environment characterised by eight main elements. This article reports in detail on the element of establishing relevance, as this seemed very important to the interviewees. The interviewees found that teaching abstract theory alone was demotivating.
Relevance could be established through showing how theory can be applied in practice, establishing relevance to local cases, relating material to everyday applications, or finding applications in current newsworthy issues.
Without relevance, important concepts may seen unnecessary.
“The traditional building block curriculum, which devotes substantial parts of initial courses to basic theory, could demotivate students if they could not see how the theory was applicable to the discipline or profession,” the authors write. “The problem could be alleviated by a course which revealed a curriculum map showing the application of basic material in more advanced courses, or by early periods of exposure to professional practice in professional programmes.”
“Professional programmes faced a double-edged sword with respect to relevance in that it could be established by demonstrating that material was relevant to a future career. However, students could easily become demotivated if they could not see the relevance of theoretical material, since they had chosen a professional programme in the expectation that it would prepare them well for their future career.”
So how can we make learning more relevant, exactly? Below are a few ideas to help you get started.
Defining Personal Relevance
“From my educational experiences 23 years as a student, 10 years as a public school teacher, and currently as a university teaching assistant, ” says educational psychologist Robin Roberson, “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.”
But relevance is a difficult concept to examine. 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 Roberson’s personal library, only one mentioned relevance but did not define it.
“From my educational experiences 23 years as a student, 10 years as a public school teacher, and currently as a university teaching assistant, ” says educational psychologist Robin Roberson, “I am convinced that relevance is one of the most important aspects of teaching and learning.”
“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.
Simply put, when a teacher provides relevance for a student, the teacher conveys his or her intentions to the student by tapping into that student’s cognitive need to make sense of the world.
“Many attempt to add relevance to otherwise uninteresting content by focusing efforts on creating interest,” Roberson says. “They do this by adding in anything that draws attention, like flashy digital presentations, humour 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, humour or who won/lost the game, but they will not remember the content.”
So, no matter how disinteresting content may seem, once students have determined that the content is worth knowing, it will hold their attention and engage them.
“I am not saying that flashy presentations, humour 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.”
Personal Relevance in Practice
In a 2008 article published in Active Learning in Higher Education Kember et al found that one of the most important means of motivating student learning was to establish relevance. The authors interviewed students from 9 undergraduate programs at 3 different universities in Hong Kong, to charaterise the teaching and learning environments that best motivated student learning.
Establishing relevance was the most prominent and often cited student response. Relevance is a key component to intrinsically motivating student learning. By establishing both personal and real-world relevance, students are provided with an important opportunity to relate the course subject matter to the world around them, and to assimilate it in accordance with their previously held assumptions and beliefs. Relevance is a key factor in providing a learning context in which students construct their own understanding of the course material.
In the study, students pointed to four methods for establishing relevance:
Discussing how theory can be applied in practice
Making a link to local cases
Relating subject matter to everyday applications
Discussing and finding applications in current newsworthy issues and events.
Likewise, Wieman (2007) recommended that students be provided with intentional and explicit opportunities to discuss, for each topic covered, why this topic is worth learning, how it operates in the real world, why it makes sense, and how it connects to things the student already knows.
TO BE CONTINUED NEXT POST
Cited From: opencolleges.edu.au