It’s an age old question. Students of all ages have been taught (against their will) seemingly “useless” information for generations and have always struggled to relate to most subjects outside the classroom. This is an innate problem with today’s education system in the sense that a lack of relevance causes students to simply learn facts and regurgitate them without ever grasping a full understanding of the topics. But what needs to change in order to make subjects like Algebra, Chemistry and Physics more relevant in students’ lives? The truth of the matter is that change can (and should) really come from all fronts. If students, teachers and parents alike make a conscious effort to make lessons more relevant and engaging, we can create a culture in which students are passionate about learning even the driest of subjects because they know how it relates to them and how it can benefit them in the future.
Educator Robin Roberson defines relevance as the perception that something is both interesting and worth knowing. This is one of the most vital steps in education, but can also serve as a tough obstacle for many teachers in classrooms full of unmotivated students. That being said, educators everywhere should be on the front lines of the movement to make school relevant. It creates an environment where students expect to know how the subject will relate to their lives rather than assuming they don’t relate at all from the beginning. Thankfully, there are tested tools and activities that can be employed to aid in the creation of this environment. Two motivational tools to pique student interests are large pieces of the relevance puzzle and can reach a variety of students: utility value and relatedness.
Utility value is a tool that is academic by nature and latches on to the future goals of your students. Know a student who wants to be an engineer one day? Physics may be a dry, uninteresting subject to the average student, but to a student with career goals in engineering, physics will be both inherently interesting and used tremendously over the next several years. Point this out to students that have expressed interest in certain career paths, and make sure they know that it’s great to be interested in certain subjects (even when the average student dreads them). Tell them how each lesson would apply to the engineering field and how they would use the knowledge throughout their career. It transforms the information to very interesting and worth knowing. Utility value takes students that already have a knack for something and turns that knack into a passion.
We know what you’re thinking: if every student could just know what their future goals are and state their interests, your job would be infinitely easier. For those students who aren’t meeting you halfway, there’s the relatedness tool. Showing your students you can relate to them is an inherent need in education, as it helps to form a trusting relationship between you and your students. If they know you keep them in mind throughout your lesson plans, they feel like the information is more catered to them and, in turn, they are more likely to listen and engage in what you have to say. Find out what non-academic interests your students have and find ways to relate to them through your teaching. This involves finding ways in which your subject relates to the non-academic world, which is really the bread and butter of relevance in education.
There are several examples that we pull from in this infographic, but always look for creative ways to relate to your individual students. Do your biology students not understand why they need to dissect a frog? Point out the similarities between the anatomies of frogs and humans. While we can’t dissect humans, frogs are very similar, and this is one of the best ways to get an in-person glance at our physiology. If they ever have a surgery, they can think back to what they learned in the dissection lesson and ask smart questions to educate themselves on the goings-on in their bodies. Have a student in your English class that struggles to see the purpose of developing their writing composition skills? Put it in a real world scenario for them. While they may not end up as a journalist or lawyer, chances are they may need to file an insurance claim at some point in the future. If they can’t string two well thought out sentences together, they may not get the resolve in their case that they deserve.
In order for the relatedness tool to really work, you have to get to know your students and their interests. Two activities that Roberson has employed over the years have helped immensely in relating to her students and promoting engaging and interesting lessons with them. The first is an in depth class introduction session at the beginning of each term. She uses this as a time for her students to share a few things about themselves, where she can learn what their interests are (both academic and non-academic) as well as any goals they have for the future that can be used to relate with them in future lessons. She also uses this as an opportunity to tell her students about herself, helping to establish herself as an approachable presence in and out of the classroom. The second tool is utilized alongside assigned reading assignments throughout the duration of her class. Students are assigned to specific readings to be completed before each class, and are assigned to write a one to two page reflection paper on each reading. In these compositions, they are to draw parallels between the assigned passage and a personal experience that they have had in the past. This helps her students to understand the passage more deeply and form relevant connections between the subject matter and their everyday lives. She reads each reflection before the next class session and uses some of the anecdotes in class discussions, helping to even further deepen her students’ understanding of the subject matter and keep a congruent, conversational tone in the classroom.
It is definitely apparent that teachers can do a lot to keep their students interested in the subject matter they are presenting to them. While teachers can bend over backwards in efforts to increase classroom engagement, students and parents must take the initiative as well for the culture we seek to fully come to fruition. Students and their parents know student interests more than anyone else. Make sure that students are being vocal about their interests in and out of the classroom to their teachers. Continually ask how a lesson can be applied to real world scenarios. Keep pushing teachers to draw parallels for students, and they’ll keep pushing students to grasp them and fully understand why they should pay attention. It won’t work if it’s just the teachers putting in all the effort to reach their students. The culture of academic engagement comes from a series of moving and working parts in which each party is actively pursuing a relevant learning experience. No matter who you are, it starts with you. Put forth the effort and begin to see the change happening.