Increase Relevance, Increase Motivation to Learn

Broad Topic: Instructional Design

Narrow Topic: Establishing Relevance

Sarah, a teacher, talks about the importance of making learning relevant for learners.

How many times have teachers heard the question, “What’s the point of learning this?” How many times have you sat in a workshop asking yourself, How will I ever use this? or Why should I make the effort to learn this?

According to the Expectancy-Value Theory of Motivation (Wigfield & Eccles, 2000) when one (1) believes in their ability and expects to succeed and (2) values the potential outcome, motivation increases. Relevance is an essential aspect of motivation (Keller, 1987). Increasing relevance increases motivation (Frymier & Shulman, 1995). Increasing motivation increases achievement (Steinmayr et al., 2019).

Keller (1983) articulated behaviors that teachers may use to increase content relevance. The categories include: goal orientation (demonstrating how the content is helpful in meeting future goals), motive matching (considering learners’ motives in the delivery of content), and familiarity (aligning the content with learners’ experiences and interests).

Relevance oriented behaviors by a teacher have been shown to positively influence learners’ motivational state as separate from one’s motivational traits (Frymier & Shulman, 1995). By enacting certain behaviors, teachers have the potential to increase learners’ motivation.

So how can a teacher increase a learners’ perception of relevance?

Of course this question has many complexities associated with it. First, the social aspect, while not typically the first thing a teacher thinks about to add relevance, is an important factor. “Relatedness,” as part of Self-determination Theory, a student feels in the classroom among the students and between her/himself and the teacher impacts perceived relevance (Ryan & Deci, 2000).

Second, authentic activities tend to increase a perception of relevance because learners see the connection to their own lives (assuming the authenticity stems from something in their lives or their interests). Reeves et al. (2002) describe ten design characteristics of authentic activities and cites the corresponding research basis for each.

Third, Knoster and Myers (2020) identified four broad categories of teacher strategies, tactics, and behaviors that college students listed as being used by instructors to increase content relevance: teaching style relevance, outside course relevance, inside course relevance, and methods and activities relevance.

  • Teaching Style Relevance — clarity, enthusiasm, humor, consideration, availability, immediacy, credibility, congeniality, input, personalization, variety, self-disclosure, and justice
  • Outside Course Relevance — current life and interests, personal stories, real world, future lives and interests, popular culture, examples, other classes, current events, and guest speakers
  • Inside Course Relevance — study help, grades, organization, accessibility, assignments, note-taking, reminders, accentuation, pacing, and resources
  • Methods and Activities Relevance — discussion and participation, visual aids, technology, in-class activities, group activities, applications, and fi eld trips

How to increase…

A sense of relatedness
Teaching Style Relevance
Outside Course Relevance
Inside Course Relevance
Methods and Activities Relevance

Characteristics of Authentic Activities


Frymier, A. B., & Shulman, G. M. (1995). “What’s in it for me?”: Increasing content relevance to enhance students’ motivation. Communication Education, 44(1), 40–50.

Keller, J. M. (1983). Motivational Design of Instruction.pdf. In C. M. Reigeluth (Ed.), Instructional-design theories and models: An overview of their current status.

Keller, J. M. (1987). Development and use of the ARCS model of instructional design. Journal of Instructional Development, 10(3), 2.

Knoster, K. C., & Myers, S. A. (2020). College student perceptions of frequency and effectiveness of use of relevance strategies: A replication and extension. Communication Studies, 71(2), 280–294.

Ryan, R. M., & Deci, E. L. (2000). Self-determination theory and the facilitation of intrinsic motivation, social development, and well-being. The American Psychologist, 55(1), 68–78.

Steinmayr, R., Weidinger, A. F., Schwinger, M., & Spinath, B. (2019). The importance of students’ motivation for their academic achievement—Replicating and extending previous findings. Frontiers in Psychology, 10, 1730.

Wigfield, A., & Eccles, J. S. (2000). Expectancy–Value Theory of Achievement Motivation. Contemporary Educational Psychology, 25(1), 68–81.

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