Tag Archives: relevance

Strategies for Helping Students Motivate Themselves | Edutopia

I (Clare) found this interesting article on Edutopia. I thought it would be of interest to educators especially since it is the beginning of the school year. Strategies for Helping Students Motivate Themselves | Edutopia

Consider using autonomy, competence, relatedness, and relevance as practical classroom strategies to reinforce the intrinsic motivation students need for making the most of their learning.

Editor’s Note: This piece was adapted from Building a Community of Self-Motivated Learners: Strategies to Help Students Thrive in School and Beyond by Larry Ferlazzo, available March 21, 2015 from Routledge.

My previous post reviewed research on extrinsic and intrinsic motivation, and described the four qualities that have been identified as critical to helping students motivate themselves: autonomy, competence, relatedness, and relevance.

In this post, I’ll discuss practical classroom strategies to reinforce each of these four qualities.


Providing students with freedom of choice is one strategy for promoting learner autonomy. Educators commonly view this idea of choice through the lens of organizational and procedural choice. Organizational choice, for example, might mean students having a voice in seating assignments or members of their small learning groups. Procedural choice could include a choice from a list of homework assignments and what form a final project might take — a book, poster, or skit.

Some researchers, however, believe that a third option, cognitive choice, is a more effective way to promote longer-lasting student autonomy. This kind of cognitive autonomy support, which is also related to the idea of ensuring relevance, could include:

  • Problem-based learning, where small groups need to determine their own solutions to teacher-suggested and/or student-solicited issues — ways to organize school lunchtime more effectively, what it would take to have a human colony on Mars, strategies to get more healthy food choices available in the neighborhood, etc.
  • Students developing their own ideas for homework assignments related to what is being studied in class
  • Students publicly sharing their different thinking processes behind solving the same problem or a similar one
  • Teachers using thinking routines like one developed by Project Zero at Harvard and consisting of a simple formula: the teacher regularly asking, “What is going on here?” and, after a student response, continuing with, “What do you see that makes you say so?”


Feedback, done well, is ranked by education researcher John Hattie as number 10 out of 150 influences on student achievement.

As Carol Dweck has found, praising intelligence makes people less willing to risk “their newly-minted genius status,” while praising effort encourages the idea that we primarily learn through our hard work: “Ben, it’s impressive that you wrote two drafts of that essay instead of one, and had your friend review it, too. How do you feel it turned out, and what made you want to put the extra work into it?”

But how do you handle providing critical feedback to students when it’s necessary? Since extensive research shows that a ratio of positive-to-negative feedback of between 3-1 and 5-1 is necessary for healthy learning to occur, teachers might consider a strategy called plussing that is used by Pixar animation studios with great success. The New York Times interviewed author Peter Sims about the concept:

The point, he said, is to “build and improve on ideas without using judgmental language.” . . . An animator working on Toy Story 3 shares her rough sketches and ideas with the director. “Instead of criticizing the sketch or saying ‘no,’ the director will build on the starting point by saying something like, ‘I like Woody’s eyes, and what if his eyes rolled left?” Using words like “and” or “what if” rather than “but” is a way to offer suggestions and allow creative juices to flow without fear, Mr. Sims said.

“And” and “what if” could easily become often-used words in an educator’s vocabulary!


A high-quality relationship with a teacher whom they respect is a key element of helping students develop intrinsic motivation. What are some actions that teachers can take to strengthen these relationships?

Here are four simple suggestions adapted from Robert Marzano’s ideas:

1. Take a genuine interest in your students.

Learn their interests, hopes, and dreams. Ask them about what is happening in their lives. In other words, lead with your ears and not your mouth. Don’t, however, just make it a one-way street — share some of your own stories, too.

2. Act friendly in other ways.

Smile, joke, and sometimes make a light, supportive touch on a student’s shoulder.

3. Be flexible, and keep our eyes on the learning goal prize.

One of my students had never written an essay in his school career. He was intent on maintaining that record during an assignment of writing a persuasive essay about what students thought was the worst natural disaster. Because I knew two of his passions were football and video games, I told him that as long as he used the writing techniques we’d studied, he could write an essay on why his favorite football team was better than its rival or on why he particularly liked one video game. He ended up writing an essay on both topics.

4. Don’t give up on students.

Be positive (as much as humanly possible) and encourage a growth mindset.


Have students write about how they see what they are learning as relevant to their lives. Researchers had students write one paragraph after a lesson sharing how they thought what they had learned would be useful to their lives. Writing 1-8 of these during a semester led to positive learning gains, especially for those students who had previously been “low performers.”

It is not uncommon for teachers to explicitly make those kinds of real-life connections. However, research has also found that this kind of teacher-centered approach can actually be de-motivating to some students with low skills. A student who is having a very difficult time understanding math or does just not find it interesting, for example, can feel threatened by hearing regularly from a teacher how important math is to his or her future. Instead of becoming more engaged in class, he or she may experience more negative feelings. These same researchers write:

[A] more effective approach would be to encourage students to generate their own connections and discover for themselves the relevance of course material to their lives. This method gives students the opportunity to make connections to topics and areas of greatest interest to their lives.

What other strategies do you use in the classroom to reinforce any of these four critical elements of intrinsic motivation?

Source: Strategies for Helping Students Motivate Themselves | Edutopia

How to Use Current Events in the Classroom

Discussing current events in the classroom was always my favourite part of the day as a student. Having the opportunity to express my opinions on world issues and hear others’ opinions was important. During other parts of my day, talking about world issues was usually reserved for the adults in the room.


Discussing events happening outside of the school made me feel like were we were part of something larger than our classroom; we were part of the larger global community.

The New York Times put together a wonderful list of 50 ways to incorporate current events into the classroom. I have included the link to all 50 suggestions below. I have also highlighted some of the suggestion in which I have had great success or am keen on trying out in the classroom.

  1. Compare News Sources:Different papers, magazines and websites treat the news differently. You might have students compare lead stories or, via theNewseum’s daily gallery, front pages. Or, you might just pick one article about a divisive topic (politics, war, social issues) and see how different news sources have handled the subject. 
  1. Analyze Photographs to Build Visual Literacy Skills:On Mondays we ask students to look closely at an image using the three-question facilitation method created by our partners at Visual Thinking Strategies:What’s going on in this picture? What do you see that makes you say that? What more can you find? Students can participate in the activity by commenting in our weekly “What’s Going On In This Picture?” moderated conversation.
  1. Say What’s Unsaid:Another option is assigning students toadd speech and thought bubbles(PDF) to a Times photograph to communicate something they learned by reading an article.

Link to all 50 suggestions:



Reading for Relevance AND Fluency

In the past, I (Clive) have posted about the need to teach for relevance. When recently re-visiting two of Richard Allington’s wonderful books on reading instruction – What Really Matters for Struggling Readers (2006) and What Really Matters in Fluency (2009) – I was impressed with his discussion of the link between relevance and fluency in reading. In his view, there are at least 4 instructional causes of reading difficulties:

  • Texts are too difficult
  • Texts are not interesting enough
  • Insufficient time is given for actual reading (as distinct from studying reading strategies)
  • Reading is interrupted for instructional reasons

Because of these factors, students don’t do enough reading to become fluent. Teaching reading strategies is important, but a balance is needed. Allington says:

[To increase their] store of at-a-glance words, readers need to consistently and repeatedly read a word correctly. [This requires] a lot of accurate reading…struggling readers [should] read at least as much as the achieving readers at their grade level. (2009, p. 38).

He cites what he sees as “one of the greatest failures of the [U.S.] federally funded Title I remedial reading and special education programs: Neither program reliably increased the volume of reading that children engaged in” (2006, p. 43). In fact, the amount of reading was often reduced.

But struggling students won’t read very much – either at school or at home – if texts are uninteresting to them. This is where relevance comes in. According to Allington, if we want students to read a lot they must see the point of reading. But if we force them to read books they aren’t interested in and bombard them with reading strategies, along with “comprehension” tasks that just require them to recall and retell, they may never realize that reading has a point. He comments:

I fear that we will continue to develop students who don’t even know that thoughtful literacy is the reason for reading. (2006, p. 116)

So relevance is valuable in two ways: it helps students learn about “life” and the real world, and it helps them learn how to read.




I saw the movie Philomena and was blown away by it. The story is powerful, the acting strong, and the direction very subtle. In the movie the main character, Philomena, is sent to a home for unwed mothers run by Catholic nuns who arrange for her son to be adopted by an American family.  50 years later she decides to search for her son. Having gone to Catholic elementary and secondary school, I was quite interested in the “Catholic aspect” of the movie That aside, I felt that the movie addressed so many issues which I think that we should be addressing in schools. As Clive noted in an earlier blog post about relevance, including popular culture in our curriculum can allow for discussion of issues which students face. This movie raises questions about power (institutional power), societal norms, religion, and relationships. When do we forgive and forget? When do condemn and expose? When should we question the power of religion? When should we keep a secret? Who has the right to decide what is “right”? After the movie my book club  and I had a spirited discussion of some of the dilemmas that Philomena faced, the decisions that the nuns made (in whose interests were they made), and the relationship between Philomena and the journalist who helped her.  I highly recommend the movie (it requires two hankies) and would love to hear your views of the movie. Should a movie like this be included in our secondary school curriculum? Clare

Teaching for Relevance

Many teachers in our longitudinal study have stressed the importance of relevance in learning. In re-reading Jane Austen’s novels recently I’ve noticed a similar concern. In Mansfield Park especially, she wrote at length about young people whose schooling gave them knowledge of ancient Roman emperors, the river systems of Europe, and the plots of classical plays but little understanding of society, human nature, or how to live. The relevance of schooling today is in danger of declining with the current emphasis on teaching a narrow band of knowledge that’s easily identified and tested. Clive BeckClive photo2