Learning And Relevance

Sleeping student

Ever taken a class where one or more of the students just didn't seem interested in your presentation, where they spent more time texting on their phones or surfing the web on their computer? We all have. There are a number of reasons that this might have occurred. But one of the biggest reasons is a lack of perceived relevance by the student in what you are presenting.

Doni Tamblyn in her excellent book Laugh and Learn argues that the human brain is not like a giant sponge ready to absorb all sorts of information and knowledge thrown at it. Rather it is more like a sieve where information is either too big to fall through the gaps and is therefore retained, or information just simply passes through and falls out the bottom. According to Tamblyn one way of making information "huge", in other words to prevent it falling through the sieve, is to make the information and knowledge you are delivering personally relevant to the student.

Tamblyn poses the time honoured question: why do high school students struggle with learning multiplication tables, yet can memorise and repeat (sometimes ad-nauseam) the lyrics of popular songs? The reason is: one is more personally relevant to them than the other. The same holds true, perhaps even more, for adult learners. Tamblyn calls this "intrinsic motivation" where we personally connect with the information and give it meaning to ourselves. Learning seems to work better where learners have a way of relating it back to their own experiences. And information becomes intrinsically motivating when it increases our gain, eases our pain, entertains, or a combination of all three.

Tamblyn points out that the first two, increasing gain or decreasing pain, are the most important and should be the focus of teachers and trainers when they deliver their classes: "how will this information I'm presenting accomplish either for my learners?" Examples of increasing gain may be finding a job, getting a promotion or pay rise, while examples of decreasing pain may be getting less aggravation from supervisors, customers, or fellow employees. Whatever the benefits will be to your learners Tamblyn insists you help them become aware of them. This will help them remember your lessons better.

Okay, so how do you enhance relevance in your teaching? One simple way is to engage the learners by getting them involved in determining the content. The easiest way to do this is to ask course attendees (all of them one by one) at the beginning of the course what they intend to get out of the course and what they need or want to learn about. Do it in the first session and write down the responses somewhere you can recall them as the course progresses. This can be either a whiteboard that won't be erased between sessions or perhaps a flipchart that you can bring back to each session. As the course progresses you should mark off those items that have been covered.

According to Tamblyn this is very useful as it allows the course participants to feel that they have had some input in determining their own learning. You may need to adjust the content or the flow of your course based on what the participants want to cover but at least you should get a high level of involvement from them.

Try to have all of the items ticked off before the end of the course. If you can't do this (sometimes this occurs because the item is way off curriculum) try at least to direct the participants to where they can obtain the relevant information.

It is a good idea too to specifically single out to the person that made the suggestion when that topic or item is ready to be ticked off. They then feel that their reason for attending has been met.

Another benefit of this activity is that often you'll be able to identify participants that shouldn't be on the course and take steps to have them directed to a more relevant course (if that is possible) or work with them to achieve their individual goals.

With structured training such as for a qualification or specific certification the learners may not know what will be important for them to learn. In these scenarios try and get them to think about the job or roles where they will use that certification or qualification and then get them to think about the skills and knowledge that will be needed in those jobs and roles.

Tamblyn also suggests a learner activity called "Do It Without Instructions" that can boost participation. At the beginning of a session you get learners to try and accomplish the task without instruction. You need to give them a fixed amount of time but not too much. Call time and then give them feedback on how they went by giving them the main components of the task – you might also ask them what they think are the main components. Now have them return to the task and make any adjustments they feel are necessary.

According to Tamblyn this is based on "declarative knowledge" or knowledge that can be shared with others. The theory here is that humans learn better through trying and sometimes failing than by doing it right the first time. Peer feedback comes into play here when learners help each other figure out the task.

Often time constraints may prevent this type of activity. A work around here would be simply to verbally try and solicit the relevant steps to achieving a task from the group as you introduce the topic. You can then "test" what they have given you by working through the formal exercise. You might also ask them who would find this useful in their work – this often spurs on others into thinking how they too could use it.

Relevance in learning can't be understated. For you to have successful learners you must try and make the content relevant to them, and you must do this individually. Knowing your participants is the best way to do this and engaging with them on a regular basis is your key to success.