Below we list several teaching strategies that can help students discover the personal relevance of their schoolwork—to see the work they’re doing as valuable. Importantly, we do not recommend trying to connect each and every specific lesson or concept “to the real world.” Making such connections for every lesson would be extremely time consuming. Furthermore, students are much more likely to appreciate the value of a lesson if they feel like they discovered that value for themselves.
- Ask Students to Relate Lessons to Their Lives. Multiple studies have shown that students—especially students who start out less interested in a subject—experience higher motivation and performance after describing how a week’s lessons relate to their own life, even if they only do it a few times over a whole semester (1). For a concrete example of how to do this, check out the Build Connections toolkit from the Character Lab.
- Explore the Power That Comes from Well-Developed Thinking Skills. Many students do not realize that the primary purpose of school is to train them to become effective learners—that it’s much more important to learn how to learn than it is to learn any particular concept or procedure. Across multiple studies, students became more motivated and more academically successful after reflecting on why and how developing their intellectual skills could help them lead a more meaningful life (2, 3).
In these studies, students described how the learning they do in school could prepare them to heal people, to teach people, or to build products that improve people’s lives. Students were not prompted to reflect on how the specific content they were learning would directly help other people or themselves. For example, they did not write things like, “I will need to know long division to help people because… [fill in the blank].” Rather, they were asked to describe how the general skills they were learning in school (like critical thinking, reading, note-taking, mathematical logic, etc.) would prepare them for more meaningful lives.
Exploring these ideas could be done as a class discussion or as a writing activity. However you approach it, it is important to allow students to make their own connections about how skills relate to their lives. You might scaffold them to think beyond specific content, e.g., about mathematical logic in general rather than long division in particular. But the connections to life goals must come from students. Simply telling them, “this is why you need to learn this,” is unlikely to be convincing or to change their minds.
- Respect Students’ Desire to Understand Why Lessons Are Relevant. If students ask why they have to learn something, respond earnestly and to the best of your abilities. Don’t provide shallow or insulting answers, like “because it's going to be on the test” or “because I said so.” Instead, remind them of the bigger picture—that the lesson is a chance for them to “develop their learning and thinking skills.” To the extent that you can, provide more detail about what those specific skills are or when they might be relevant, or ask students to do some research and provide their own answers. In short, treat those questions as a teachable moment and as an authentic moment for reflection and connection.
For in-depth practice recommendations, please refer to the toolkit Relate Lessons to Students' Lives, or check out the next pages in this chapter.
1. Hulleman, C. S., & Harackiewicz, J. M. (2009). Promoting interest and performance in high school science classes. Science, 326(5958), 1410–1412.
2. Yeager, D. S., Paunesku, D., D’Mello, S., Spitzer, B. J., & Duckworth, A. L. (2014). Boring but important: A self-transcendent purpose for learning fosters academic self-regulation. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 107(4), 559–580.
3. Paunesku, D., Walton, G. M., Romero, C., Smith, E. N., Yeager, D. S., & Dweck, C. S. (2015). Mind-set interventions are a scalable treatment for academic underachievement. Psychological Science, 26(6), 784–793.