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The Importance of Connecting Academic Concepts to Real Life Scenarios

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Students of all ages are constantly pestering their teacher with the questions of, “Why do I have to learn this?” and whining while they say, “I’m never going to use this in real life!”  There has always been a questionable link between the relevancy of the material to a student and that student’s motivation to study and understand the material.  A team of researchers from James Madison University and the University of Wisconsin-Madison set out to test the motivation of undergraduate students when it comes to subjects that don’t pertain directly to their major. 

This idea of showing students how material connects to real life situations is called relevance intervention.  The researchers hypothesized that students with a poor history of motivation would benefit from relevance intervention and be more motivated to do their work.  They came up with a two part experiment that involved a laboratory setting and an actual class.  Both pieces of the study involved undergraduate college students.  The first study took place in a lab setting where the researchers taught a group of 107 students a new method for solving simple math problems.  Then they had the students split into relevance and control groups.  The relevance group was given a short writing assignment to talk about how the math activity could relate to life and the control group was given a writing assignment that had no connection to the math activity.  After the writing activity, the participants were given several math problems to complete and the accuracy of the answers as evaluated in respect to the relevance group and control group.  
In the second part of the study, the researchers went to an introductory psychology class of about 350 students.  On the second day of class, the students were asked their opinion of psychology and if it was interesting to them.  A few weeks later, before the first test, the students were asked what value they placed on the content in regard to its relevance toward their future career.  Three months later, close to the end of the semester, they were asked their interest level in psychology and the relationship between the content they learned and their future careers.  The interest and motivation levels were measured in numerical scales, with lower numbers indicating less interest.  In both studies, it was found that direct relationships existed between the perceived value of the content and the interest and motivation of the student.  The more a student understood how the material would affect their lives or their future career, the more interest they had in that subject and their motivation to do well was higher.
This study provides evidence to teachers that students need to have a real life connection to the material that they are learning.  It isn’t enough to tell a student to learn something because they have to.  The researchers also found that students that were expected to have lower motivation benefited the most from having a connection made from the material to their lives.  This is a great tip for teachers when they are trying to encourage students that aren’t as driven in their academic course work.  One of the main points that future researchers could change is to try a similar experiment on younger students.  Since this study only involved undergraduate students, it doesn’t allow the assumptions made to connect to elementary students.  Arming educators with these simple facts can allow them to reach a new level of engagement from their students.

Hulleman, C. S., Godes, O., Hendricks, B. L., & Harackiewicz, J. M. (2010). Enhancing interest and performance with a utility value intervention. Journal Of Educational Psychology,102(4), 880-895. doi:10.1037/a0019506.

By Abby Glembocki
NC State Pre-Service Teacher

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