Students’ Perspectives on the Meaning of Course Relevance

Reinert Center typeset_icon_2014_solid_082214by Kelly McEnerny, Graduate Assistant, Reinert Center

Imagine attending a course that seemed not to relate to your goals and showed little compatibility with your interests. For anyone who can remember furtively glancing at the clock in the back of the classroom, this exercise should be easy. Your experience would likely have involved some lack of motivation. One can argue that, when teachers make information relevant to students, they increase students’ motivation to learn. Indeed, students have commonly ranked course relevance as a top motivating factor in their learning (Sass, 1989; Weaver & Cottrell, 1988; Frymier & Shulman, 1995). But what does relevance look like in a classroom, and, importantly, what does relevance mean to students? Muddiman and Frymier (2009) asked 184 college students to produce a list of relevance increasing strategies using the prompt “what teaching strategies, tactics, and other behaviors do undergraduate students perceive as increasing content relevance of material presented in their college courses?” Several categories of strategies emerged, suggesting that students’ conceptions of relevance were broad and multifaceted. Students recounted parallels that teachers drew between course content and domains inside and outside of the classroom; they described teachers’ styles and personalities, and the methods and activities that teachers used.

The largest category, “outside course relevance” (47% of responses), referred to ways that the teacher connected course material to students’ needs, interests, and desires outside of the classroom. This category included behaviors such as sharing experiences and telling stories, using examples from media (e.g., music, TV shows, internet clips, documentaries, and sports), and referencing news stories that concerned politics, business, and environmental issues. Moreover, teachers helped students to recognize the applicability of skills learned from the course to other courses and to specific career settings. Teachers also invited guest speakers who could share insights relevant to a course topic.

A second category, “teaching style relevance,” encompassed teacher behaviors that amplified student engagement. This category consisted of behaviors such as showing consideration for students (e.g., giving positive feedback, using informal language), making use of a variety of teaching methods, showing enthusiasm, getting to know students, using humor, and allowing students a choice in the coverage of course material.

The category, “methods and activities relevance,” pertained to teaching methods and activities that extended beyond examples and scenarios. These methods and activities included discussions led by instructors and students, projects that involved applications to real word problems (e.g., community service), group activities, visual aids, and field trips.

Finally, the category, “inside course relevance,” included strategies teachers used to emphasize the importance of specific material for students’ performance in the course. These strategies included encouraging students to take notes, providing assignments, highlighting information helpful for getting good grades, holding study sessions, connecting material to larger themes, and providing up-to-date course material.

Several of the students’ perceptions of relevance were consistent with the general recommendations of experts on teaching (Ambrose et al., 2010). In their book How Learning Works: Seven Research-Based Principles for Smart Teaching, Ambrose and colleagues (2010) offered strategies for getting students to value learning. These strategies included connecting course material to students’ interests, emphasizing the relevance of course-related skills to students’ personal and career pursuits, designing real-world activities, and demonstrating flexibility.  In returning to the question, “What does relevance mean for students?” you might consider incorporating any number of these strategies into your course design process, while keeping in mind that some strategies may agree more with a given teaching style than others. You may find that your new approach motivates students to seek understanding of course material, as well as gain insight into their own experiences.


Ambrose, S. A., Bridges, M. W., DiPietro, M., Lovett, M. C., & Norman, M. K. (2010). How learning works: Seven research-based principles for smart teaching. John Wiley & Sons.

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.

Muddiman, A., & Bainbridge Frymier, A. (2009). What is relevant? Student perceptions of relevance strategies in college classrooms. Communication Studies60(2), 130-146.

Sass, E. J. (1989). Motivation in the college classroom: What students tell us. Teaching of psychology16(2), 86-88.

Weaver, R. L., & Cottrell, H. W. (1988). Motivating students: Stimulating and sustaining student effort. College Student Journal.

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