“Why Are We Doing This?” Establishing Relevance to Enhance Student Learning

Students frequently wonder and sometimes ask, “Why are we doing this? Why do I need to know this? Why are we spending so much time on this? Why do we have to do this busywork?”

When students don’t see the connection between the content and activities of the course and their future lives, they question what’s happening and what we ask them to do. Research confirms that perceived relevance is a critical factor in maintaining student interest and motivation. It also contributes to higher student ratings on course evaluations.

Three straightforward practices can help faculty establish the relevance of course content and activities: faculty should 1) regularly share and discuss the learning outcomes of the course; 2) clearly tie those learning outcomes to the required activities and assignments; and 3) orient students at the beginning of each class period by discussing the “What, Why, and How” of that day.

Learning outcomes–in the syllabus and during class discussions. Clear learning outcomes are the foundation of a learning-centered syllabus and a basic tenet of all instructional design. Many faculty now include course learning outcomes in their syllabi. Outcomes help clarify what students will know and do when they complete the course. Moreover, faculty should do more than just list the learning outcomes. They should also clearly and frequently discuss the relevance of the outcomes with students. Students need to know why the knowledge and skills identified in the learning outcomes are important in their future lives.

Link assignment descriptions and learning outcomes. Most faculty do not regularly tie the assignments described in the syllabus to the learning outcomes. Faculty may think that the links are obvious to students, but that’s not always a valid assumption. Every assignment should be clearly defined in terms of how it should be done, and each assignment should be clearly justified by answering questions such as “How does this assignment relate to the course outcomes? How will this assignment help fulfill them? What should the student be able to know or do better after completing the assignment? Why was this assignment chosen to achieve the learning outcomes?” When students understand what the assignments are helping them accomplish, they see the assignments’ utility and find the work more meaningful.

Establish relevance at the start of every class period. Some faculty members present an outline of the day’s material on the board or in a PowerPoint. This is a useful practice that can aid student note taking, but students are even more motivated when the day’s content and activities are placed in the context of the course and their lives. Kicking off class with a simple orientation that answers three questions—What? Why? and How?—can get students on track, motivate them, and help them put the day’s content and activities into context.

  • What? What are we doing in class today? What questions will we try to answer? What concepts will we address? What questions will we answer? What activities will we do?
  • Why? Why are we studying this? How are today’s content and activities tied to the course learning outcomes? What should I know or be able to do after today’s class? How can the information and skills be used in everyday life?
  • How? How are we going to address the content? Will we use lectures? Activities? Discussions? How will different learning styles be accommodated?

When students understand clearly the value, purpose, and procedures for course activities and the logic by which teachers arrived at their design, they are more likely to see the value of what they are being asked to learn and consequently will participate more fully in the course.

Excerpted from “Establishing Relevance.” The Teaching Professor, 24.5 (2010): 1.