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Making Learning Relevant: How contextualising your English resources improves student motivation and retention

Many of the great movies and novels of our time begin with an establishing shot or a massively dense opening line. The incredible skyline shot at the beginning of Jonathan Nolan’s The Dark Knight, the unforgettable utterance as we begin our journey with Guy Montag in Farenheit 451 “It was a pleasure to burn.” Or perhaps the underwater point of view shot which introduces us to the world of Jaws. Providing context and establishing meaning first, is the foundation of curiosity. Sure, we never knew what we were in for as the blood slowly filled the oceans of Spielberg’s classic, but we were gripped by the possibilities offered in that first shot.

As English teachers, we may not have the time and resources to devise an international best-seller or blockbuster on our commute, but we can tap into the neurology of our students in order to increase the relevance of what we are teaching them. Being considerate of our establishing shot or contextualising the introduction to new material, will help it ‘stick’.

Reticular Activating System

The Reticular Activating System (RAS) is getting a lot of attention in the education world lately due to the significance it has on creating relevance. Think of the RAS as a net formed from things which are important to you. Once the net is formed it catches all related ideas and builds up to form a fabric of meaning. A good example of this is when you are thinking about buying a certain brand of car, seeing them everywhere now? Our good friend RAS is helping you to create relevance and meaning to that idea.

In the classroom, this is particularly useful to know. If our students aren’t automatically catching the information we fling at them in their ‘nets’ then the learning doesn’t stick. Establishing and contextualising content first, ideally over a period of time, building suspense, dropping hints, linking the ideas to their current life experiences increases the likelihood that it will embed in their RAS when we finally present it to them.

In practice this means that we need to be considerate of our resources. What is the overarching significance which we want to link our resources to? What is going to get our students to activate their RAS when they experience this content? Can I contextualise this resource and shape it so that it will be easily connected to meaning by my students? This approach changes how we should choose resources. Instead of evaluating content on an individual basis, we are grouping many sources to form a cohesive and meaningful whole.

Motivating through relevance

In a 2008 study published in Active Learning in Higher Education, it was found that establishing relevance was the most cited response from students when asked what motivates them to learn the most. The study suggests four strategies to help establish relevance:

  1. Discussing how theory can be applied in practice
  2. Making a link to local cases
  3. Relating subject matter to everyday applications
  4. Discussing and finding applications in current newsworthy issues and events.

In her article on Informed Ed, Saga Briggs, unpacks this methodology and elaborates on providing what she terms ‘Utility Value’ she wisely suggests;
“Utility value provides relevance first by piquing students telling them the content is important to their future goals; it then continues by showing or explaining how the content fits into their plans for the future. This helps students realise the content is not just interesting but also worth knowing.”

One of the important takeaways here, is that we have an abundance of high quality resources available to us. However, as tempting as it might be to set and forget; in the English classroom especially, we need to create a narrative which resonates with our students. This requires us to mould and utilise resources in a cohesive, contextual and related manner.

​Kember,D (2008) The importance of establishing relevance in motivating student learning, Hong Kong, Sage Publications
Briggs,S. (2014) How To Make Learning Relevant To Your Students, Open Colleges, Online (Accessed 4/9/18) Reticular Activating System: Definition & Function,, Online