Making science topics relevant to students’ lives increases interest and performance

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Duh!

That students are more interested, and hence perform better, when they are motivated to learn something sounds not terribly surprising. But did you know that you can actually increase motivation by making the students write about the relevance of the topics you are teaching?

In the study “Promoting Interest and Performance in High School Science Classes” by Hulleman and Harackiewic (2009), 262 high school students taught by seven science teachers were randomly assigned one of the following tasks, to be conducted periodically throughout the semester: either to summarize the content of the lessons, or to write about the usefulness of the course material in their own lives.

At the end of the school year, the authors of this study found that the grades of students writing about the relevance of the material to their own lives were on average a full grade point higher than those of the students only summarizing the material. This effect was especially large for students with low expectations of performing well in class.

Yes, this was only one study on a limited number of high school students and those results are not directly transferable on every other course. But they seem significant enough to warrant considerations in the way we plan our courses. Writing more always seems to be a good idea (at least in the field I teach in). But if tweaking the writing assignment just this tiny little bit can have such an effect on learning outcomes, why not just tweak it and make students think about the relevance of course content in their lives?

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