Relevance: the secret to motivating student learning

In a 2008 article published in Active Learning in Higher Education Kember et al. (9(3):249-263)  found that one of the most important means of motivating student learning was to establish relevance.  The authors interviewed students from 9 undergraduate programmes at 3 different universities in Hong Kong, to charaterize 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 instrinsically 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.

Students pointed to four methods for establishing relevance:

1. Discussing how theory can be applied in practice

2. Making a link to local cases

3. Relating subject matter to ‘everyday’ applications

4. Discussing and finding applications in current newsworthy issues and events.

Likewise, Wieman (2007) recommended that students be provided with intentional and explicit opportuntities 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.”

Intuitively, I think that we would all agree with these findings, but how many professors actually take the time to reinforce, through their daily teaching practices, the importance of providing students with opportunities to establish both personal and real-world relevance.  Based on my personal learning experiences,  many instructors told me why the material was relevant, but few actually provided the time and resources necessary to assimilate this degree of understanding on my own.  By actively solving relevant problems, exploring current case studies, and discussing local and newsworthy events through peer interaction, debate and dialogue, relevance can bring theory to life, and provide the motivation necessary to inspire deep and sustained learning in higher education.


Kember, D., Ho, A. and Hong, C. 2008. The importance of establishing relevance in motivating student learning.  Active Learning in Higher Education 9:249-263.

Wieman, 2007. Why not try a scientific approach to science education. Change. Sept/Oct: 9-15.

Eric Muzur

Eric Mazur’s Confessions of a Converted Lecturer is a MUST SEE for everyone with an interest in improving higher education.  Spoken with simple, humble elegance, this Harvard physics Professor offers some poignant advice on how to shift the classroom focus from teaching to student learning.   Mazur has transformed his classroom teaching practices to encourage continuous engagement and peer interaction, such that students are provided with opportunities to assimilate information and construct their own meaning.  “Education is no longer about information, it is about teaching students how to USE information.”