Showing real-world connections and involving students in activities that inspire creative applications are strategies grounded in both constructivist theory and theories of motivational design. Constructivist theory (3) says that learners should engage in authentic and situated activities within a community of learners so that they can make connections between existing knowledge and new content. Keller’s MVP (Motivation – Volition – Performance) model (4) focuses on creating conditions that emphasize the utility of instruction for current and future uses, and linking content to students’ prior experiences, needs, interests, and motives. These conditions promote voluntary, self-regulatory behaviors that enhance learning and performance with subsequent intrinsic motivation that increases students’ perceptions of the value of the subject matter and their desire to learn more about it. Combining the theories and translating them into practical, relevant, classroom experiences requires the use of varied active learning strategies. For example, use case studies, simulations or individual/group problem solving exercises; include interaction with experts; and ask students to apply new knowledge to familiar and to new situations. Such activities can demonstrate not only how, but why the content, classwork, and assignments are important and useful.
Case studies and simulations offer students the opportunity to be actively involved in solving real-life, open-ended problems that have potential for provoking extensive research, discussion among and between classmates and teacher, contributions from career and life experiences, and critical thinking (5). Another relevant activity is student interviews of guest speakers, whose credibility is enhanced by their experience in the trenches. Avoid the typical protocol of having the speaker simply arrive, speak, answers questions, and leave with little preparation or follow-up from the students. Make this a more active learning experience by defining students’ roles in learning from the visitor. Before the speaker’s visit, have students learn more about the topic. Have each student prepare a list of questions, share those questions in small groups, and select a set of them to be posed by a student-selected panel. After the presentation, have the panel interview the speaker. All students should be making notes both during the speaker’s presentation and during the panel discussion. After the speaker leaves or before the next class, have students reflect upon the guest’s thoughts and connect these to the session’s objectives, students’ experiences, and the implications for upcoming course topics. Applying new knowledge, especially in relevant and meaningful situations where the impact of the activity is visible and tangible, is perhaps the most powerful way to demonstrate the importance of course content. It is not always obvious which situations students will find “relevant and meaningful.” It can be helpful to ask your students about their personal and professional interests. The answers can inform subsequent assignment designs. Alternatively, giving students the freedom to select problems of personal relevance that connect to course content can satisfy their desires for autonomy, an ingredient in intrinsic motivation (6). This strategy also demonstrates to students, the relevance and importance of outside class assignments, and when students value the time they spend preparing for class, their ratings of teacher and course go up because the relevance of their work is demonstrated and linked to learning (7).
Other approaches include the use of content with emotional impact; presenting conflicting evidence and opinions, and connecting ideas across disciplines. For example, brain and learning research (8, 9) has shown that emotion and learning are strongly linked simply because the sequence of brain functions first filters new information through centers that involve emotional responses. The objective is to get students’ attention and engagement. Introducing ideas using stories, drama, humor, demonstrations, media, simulations, or role playing can capture the opportunity to quickly engage students, and following up with the presentation of conflicting ideas can continue that engagement at a deeper cognitive level. Demonstrating implications and applications of the ideas further emphasizes that content exists to be used in practical and important ways.
Involving students in the kinds of activities described above helps address the issue of content relevance, or significance, in your classroom. Demonstrate to students that what they are learning can be applied, and that as they find ways to use knowledge to create new ideas, plans, operations, or designs they are building important repertoires of high-level skills. Content becomes relevant not only because there is a link to real world situations, but because it can be the key to effective, enhanced performance not only in the classroom, but in the workplace. If students understand that they can use the knowledge and skills they have gained to better themselves and the lives of those around them, they will feel a sense of empowerment and will be motivated to learn.