Here are a few tips for making learning engaging and personally relevant, according to Willis, Faeth, and Immordino-Yang:

1. Use suspense and keep it fresh.

Drop hints about a new learning unit before you reveal what it might be, leave gaping pauses in your speech, etc; all this can activate emotional signals and keep student interest piqued.

2. Make it student-directed.

Give students a choice of assignments on a particular topic, or ask them to design one of their own. “When students are involved in designing the lesson,” write Immordino-Yang and Faeth, “they better understand the goal of the lesson and become more emotionally invested in and attached to the learning outcomes.”

3. Connect it to their lives and what they already know.

Taking the time to brainstorm about what students already know and would like to learn about a topic helps them to create goals — and helps teachers see the best points of departure for new ideas. Making cross-curricular connections also helps solidify those neural loops.

With no reference point and no intrigue, say Willis, Immordino-Yang, and Faeth, information is fairly likely to go in one ear and straight out the other.

Two additional ways to provide relevance for students are with utility value and relatedness:

4. Provide utility value.

Utility value answers the question, “Yeah, but what am I gonna use this for?” Utility value is purely academic and emphasises the importance that content has for the students’ future goals–both short-term and long-term. 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 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 realise the content is not just interesting but also worth knowing.

5. Build relatedness.

Relatedness, on the other hand, answers the question, “What this have to do with me?” It is an inherent need students have to feel close to the significant people in their lives, including teachers. Relatedness is seen by many as having non-academic and academic sides.

The non-academic side of relatedness emphasises the relationship the instructor has with students: students need to feel close to their teachers and are more likely to listen to, learn from, and identify with the ones they like. 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 emphasises helping students see how current learning relates to their own knowledge and experience and their future learning. Students recognise 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 courses that will help them choose or achieve their career goals. Relevance is exceptionally important to students who are required to take lessons they did not choose, such as general education courses.

Relevance can help students realise 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.

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