Communication StudiesVol. 60, No. 2, April–June 2009, pp. 130–146What is Relevant? Student Perceptionsof Relevance Strategies in CollegeClassroomsAshley Muddiman & Ann Bainbridge FrymierThe operationalization of relevance has been problematic, raising concerns about theconceptualization of relevance. The current study inductively examined relevance byasking college students to generate relevance-increasing strategies used by instructors.Responses were grouped into five categories: ‘‘Outside Course Relevance,’’ ‘‘Methodsand Activities Relevance,’’ ‘‘Teaching Styles Relevance,’’ ‘‘Inside Course Relevance,’’and ‘‘No Relevance.’’ The results support previous relevance-increasing strategiessuggested by Keller (1983) but also suggest that relevance may be an outcome of teacherbehaviors, rather than a predictor of motivation.Keywords: Learning; Motivation; RelevanceA constant battle is waged in every college class as instructors, passionate about theirsubjects, struggle to encourage often-ambivalent students to learn course material. Inan effort to win this war, some instructors search for tactics to relate class content tostudents who may not see the relevance of the course to their own lives. Past surveyresearch has found that students who perceive course content as relevant to theirneeds, goals, and interests are more motivated to study for the course and to see morevalue in the material than students whose instructors are not perceived as commu-nicating the relevance of the content (Frymier & Shulman, 1995; Frymier, Shulman,& Houser, 1996). However, experimental studies on the topic have faced difficulty inAshley Muddiman (BA 2007, Miami University) is an MA student in Communication at Wake Forest Univer-sity. Ann Bainbridge Frymier (EdD, 1992, West Virginia University) is a Professor of Communication andAssociate Dean of the Graduate School at Miami University, Oxford, Ohio. This paper was previously presentedat the 2008 ECA Convention in Pittsburgh, PA. Correspondence to: Ann Bainbridge Frymier, 160 Bachelor Hall,Miami University, Oxford, Ohio 45056, USA. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.orgISSN 1051-0974 (print)/ISSN 1745-1035 (online) # 2009 Central States Communication AssociationDOI: 10.1080/10510970902834866
Student Perceptions of Relevance 131manipulating relevance (Behrens, 1999; Frymier & Houser, 1998). This difficulty maystem from an inadequate conceptualization of relevance. In an effort to better understand what behaviors lead to perceptions of relevance,this study asks students to report strategies instructors use to make content relevantto their students’ lives. Since past research has generated strategies based onresearcher and instructor perceptions, a study examining relevance from a studentperspective may both support previous tactics for increasing relevance and illuminateapproaches that researchers have overlooked. The study’s inductive approach seeks touncover issues related to content relevance that may have hindered past efforts tomanipulate relevance in experiments. Student-generated strategies provide analternate perspective of relevance that will help researchers manipulate the conceptand instructors utilize tactics to increase the course relevance to students.RelevanceRelevance is a concept that has been defined in various ways. The current study isbased on Keller’s (1983) definition of relevance as a student’s perception of whethercourse content satisfies personal needs, personal goals, and=or career goals. Keller(1983, 1987a) discussed relevance as one component of student motivation. In hisview, students who perceived course material as related to their own needs becomemotivated to learn the course material. Keller’s (1983, 1987a) motivational modelinvolved four major components: Attention, Relevance, Confidence, and Satisfaction(ARCS). The first step, Attention, suggests that teachers must gain the interest oftheir students. Relevance, the second step, is ‘‘the learner’s perceptions of personalneed satisfaction in relation to the instruction, or whether a highly desired goal isperceived to be related to the instructional activity’’ (Keller, 1983, p. 395).Motivation, therefore, requires students to perceive that the learning situation meetspersonal needs. The third step of the ARCS model, Confidence, refers to the expecta-tions a student holds concerning the course material (Keller, 1983). Students whobelieve they have the ability to receive high marks on an assignment, for example, willbe more motivated to learn the content than students who do not believe they cansucceed in the course. The final step, Satisfaction of Outcomes, recognizes that theoutcome of the situation will influence whether the student will want to repeat thebehavior in the future (Keller, 1987b). As such, if students study extensively for anexam and receive As, they are likely to repeat the behaviors for the next exam. According to the ARCS model, relevance is enhanced by instructor communica-tion strategies encouraging students to perceive course content as meeting someunfulfilled need or goal. Keller (1983) identified strategies that fall into threecategories: personal-motive value (offer satisfaction of a particular need or motiveincluding power, affiliation, and achievement), instrumental value (current informa-tion is required to complete a future goal), and cultural value (desired goal is con-sistent with the values of cultural reference groups such as parents, organizations,etc.). Although Keller (1983) postulated that these strategies could help teachersincrease perceptions of relevance in their students, the strategies have not been
132 A. Muddiman & A. B. Frymiercompared to students’ own perceptions regarding content relevance. In anotherapproach to relevance, Weaver and Cottrell (1988) provided a number of relevancestrategies they used in their classrooms, including using dramatic situations, games,and student relationships with other students. Both of these approaches assume thatproper use of the strategies by a teacher will result in students perceiving coursecontent as relevant. Another theory that emphasizes the importance of relevance is Petty andCacioppo’s (1981, 1986) elaboration likelihood model (ELM). Petty and Cacioppo(1981) explain that people find information relevant when they expect a situation‘‘to have significant consequences for their own lives’’ (p. 81). When a person feelsthat information is relevant, that person is more motivated to think deeply, or elabo-rate, upon that information. According to the ELM, high amounts of elaboration canlead to longer lasting attitude change and information retention. When studentsperceive that course content is relevant, they may become motivated to think aboutthe material and may retain the information for longer time periods. This suggeststhat making content relevant may help students experience long-term learning ratherthan simply forgetting information after an exam. While Petty and Cacioppo (1981,1986) provide a theoretical explanation of relevance, they do not provide anyguidance on what communication strategies stimulate perceptions of relevance.Relevance and LearningEarly research on relevance indicated a connection to learning. A study of first-yearteachers found that, although the teachers used relevance strategies just 7.49% of thetime, those strategies were correlated with the amount of student on-task behavior(Newby, 1991). Recent studies have examined the ARCS approach, specifically inrelation to e-learning (Keller, 1999; Keller & Suzuki, 2004). Keller (1999) detailed asystematic instructional approach utilizing the ARCS model to highlight narrowmotivational techniques that would work effectively with a specific class. His studyalso illustrated the utility of the ARCS model in distance-learning and multiculturalclassrooms. Although Keller (1999) stressed the success of the ARCS model as awhole, he did not examine relevance strategies individually. Similarly, Keller and Suzuki (2004) reviewed a series of studies examining theARCS model in relation to e-learning settings, where students often feel ‘‘isolated’’and unmotivated (p. 230). The authors claimed that relevance was most effectivewhen course material could be connected to intrinsic goals and needs of a student.However, the conclusions drawn from the Keller and Suzuki (2004) study involvethe success of the ARCS model as a whole in increasing motivation without analyzingthe relevance stage specifically. Although these studies confirmed the effectiveness ofthe ARCS model, neither specifically focuses on relevance. Relevance as an instructional communication strategy was examined by Frymierand Shulman (1995) who developed a scale based on the work of Keller (1983,1987a, 1987b), Sass (1989), and Weaver and Cottrell (1988). The scale contained12 Likert items written to reflect teacher behaviors. Frymier and Shulman (1995)
Student Perceptions of Relevance 133found that students who reported that their instructors used several relevancestrategies (e.g., examples, relation to career goals, personal experiences, etc.) weremore motivated to study than students whose teachers used few relevance strategies.A second study led to similar results, illustrating a positive relationship between thenumber of relevance behaviors in a classroom and student empowerment (Frymieret al., 1996). Both studies demonstrated that the extent to which an instructor usedand communicated relevance behaviors in a course was related to the level of studentmotivation. Despite the relationship between relevance and motivation found in previoussurvey research by Frymier and her colleagues, this relationship was not validatedin two experimental studies that attempted to manipulate relevance by utilizinghigh-relevance and low-relevance examples. Frymier and Houser (1998) hypothe-sized that that students exposed to high-relevance and high-immediacy behaviorsby a guest lecturer in class would have greater motivation than those students whowere not exposed to the high-relevancy and high-immediacy behaviors. However,the researchers were not able to satisfactorily manipulate relevance. Frymier andHouser (1998) based the strategies used in the experiment on those recommendedby Keller (1983, 1987a, 1987b), Sass (1989), Weaver and Cottrell (1988), and Frymierand Shulman (1995). Students’ perceptions of relevance did not seem to align withthe strategies that supposedly led to perceptions of relevance. Increased motivationwas associated with high levels of immediacy only. In a second experiment, Behrens (1999) attempted to manipulate relevance stra-tegies recommended by Keller (1987b) to create high- and low-relevance conditions.Behrens (1999) presented students with transcripts of lectures containing strategiessuch as connecting content to the current, future, and past experiences of thestudents to manipulate students’ perceptions of relevance. Despite numerousattempts, Behrens was unable to satisfactorily manipulate relevance. Behrens’ resultsalong with Frymier and Houser’s raised concerns with the conceptualization of rele-vance. When students perceived their instructors as using relevance strategies, theyreported increases in motivation and learning, consistent with both the ARCS model(Keller, 1983) and elaboration likelihood model (Petty & Cacioppo, 1986); however,when researchers attempted to manipulate relevance using the same strategies, theycould not reliably stimulate relevance. Did the so-called ‘‘relevance strategies’’ reallyresult in perceptions of relevance? Was there something missing from the conceptua-lization of relevance? Were teachers doing something else that stimulated relevance?These questions are the basis of the present research. The relevance strategies presented by Keller (1983, 1987a, 1987b), Sass (1989),Weaver and Cottrell (1988), and Frymier and Shulman (1995) have been primarilydeductively developed and therefore have been from instructors’ rather thanstudents’ perspectives. Previous research has found relatively little overlap in teacherand student perceptions of teacher compliance-gaining strategies (McCroskey &Richmond, 1983; McCroskey, Richmond, Plax, & Kearney, 1985), thus relevancestrategies reported by instructors and students’ perceptions of relevance may alsohave limited overlap. Examining students’ perceptions of what makes course content
134 A. Muddiman & A. B. Frymierrelevant may bring the concept of relevance into focus, explaining why Frymier andHouser (1998) and Behrens (1999) could not successfully manipulate it, and providemore useful direction for teachers on enhancing students’ perceptions of contentrelevance. As such the current study seeks to examine relevance from the studentperspective to gain a more complete understanding of this construct and poses thefollowing research question: RQ1: What teaching strategies, tactics, and other behaviors do undergraduate students perceive as increasing content relevance of material presented in their college courses?MethodParticipantsIn order to address the research question, 184 undergraduate students were surveyed at amidsized Midwestern university. The participants included 127 women and 50 men, 72of which were first-year students, 83 were sophomores, 11 were juniors, and 11 wereseniors. Five respondents did not provide demographic information. The participantswere recruited from lower-level communication courses, in which a diverse group ofstudents were enrolled and received extra credit for their participation.ProcedureAn email containing a link to an online survey was sent to students enrolled in one ofthree introductory communication courses during the fifth week of the spring 2007semester. After responding to a consent form, respondents read the followingdefinition of relevance and answered the question at the end of the definition: When something is relevant, we perceive that ‘‘thing’’ to be related to and impor- tant to our needs, interests, or goals. Think of the teachers you had during the fall 2006 semester. What strategies, techniques, and=or behaviors did your teachers use to make the content relevant to your needs, goals, and=or interests?Participants were given no time limit and could list as many behaviors as theyrecalled from their fall 2006 courses that made the content relevant to them. Allprocedures were approved by the Institutional Review Board at the university wheredata were collected. After responses were gathered, the first stage of analysis included a coder (coderone) reading each response and unitizing the data by separating each individualtechnique and=or behavior found in the responses. This ensured that each unitizedphrase, sentence, or paragraph contained a conceptually distinct response. Anyresponse that included more than one conceptually distinct technique or behaviorwas separated to yield two or more unitized responses. For instance, when a partici-pant explained that teachers used ‘‘real-life examples’’ and ‘‘current events’’ to relatethe course content to students, this response was separated into two units. The
Student Perceptions of Relevance 135unitizing procedure yielded 542 distinct instructional behaviors used to make contentrelevant to students. A number of responses were not analyzed because they were toovague or were irrelevant to the research question. Twenty-five unitized responses(5%) were discarded because they included irrelevant information, leaving 517responses to be analyzed. Examples of disregarded responses included instructorsutilizing ‘‘ideas’’ and ‘‘gestures,’’ which were vague and did not make sense asanswers to the posted question. In a second phase of analysis, coder one used analytic inductive techniques to sortthe unitized responses into categories (see Baxter & Wilmot, 1984; Dolin & Booth-Butterfield, 1993; Vangelisti, Daly, & Rudnick, 1991). Coder one placed each unitizedresponse onto an index card and grouped the responses into conceptually similarcategories. Responses were placed into one of five categories: ‘‘Outside CourseRelevance,’’ ‘‘Methods and Activities Relevance,’’ ‘‘Inside Course Relevance,’’‘‘Teaching Style Relevance,’’ and ‘‘No Relevance.’’ The same coder further groupedthe responses within the broad categories into smaller subcategories. Subcategorieswere identified for four of the five categories. The ‘‘Outside Course Relevance’’category included 10 subcategories, ‘‘Methods and Activities Relevance’’ included 5subcategories, and ‘‘Inside Course Relevance’’ and ‘‘Teaching Style Relevance’’ eachincluded 7 subcategories (see Appendix). After coder one sorted the unitized responses into the appropriate category andsubcategory, 25% of the usable 517 responses were randomly selected with theResearch Randomizer online program to be cross-coded by two additional coders:coders two and three (Urbaniak & Ploushttp, 2007). Intercoder agreement amongall categories and subcategories was computed using Scott’s pi (1955), with pi valuesgreater than .80 indicating agreement beyond chance. Results of pi for the intercoderreliability between coders one and two was .87 and between coders one and three was.89, indicating a high percentage of agreement beyond chance.ResultsThe research question asked students to list strategies and tactics their college instruc-tors used to increase content relevance. Participants responded with 517 unitizedexamples of strategies relating course content to their goals, needs, and interests thatwere separated into five categories. The largest category (47%), ‘‘Outside CourseRelevance,’’ contained strategies that involved instructors using examples or situa-tions to draw parallels between the course material and student needs, interests,and=or desires outside of the classroom. There were 10 subcategories in the ‘‘OutsideCourse Relevance’’ group, including the three largest: ‘‘current life and interests’’(20%), ‘‘popular culture and media’’ (19%), and ‘‘future lives and careers’’ (14%).The other seven subcategories (‘‘current events,’’ ‘‘real world,’’ ‘‘personal stories,’’‘‘examples,’’ ‘‘time=place proximity,’’ ‘‘future studies,’’ and ‘‘guest speakers’’)comprised the remaining 46% of category’s responses (see Table 1). The second category, ‘‘Teaching Style Relevance,’’ consisted of strategies involvingan instructor’s personality and teaching style that made students feel the material was
136 A. Muddiman & A. B. FrymierTable 1 Results Number ofCategory responses % of CategoryOutside CourseCurrent Life and Interests 48 20Popular Culture and Media 47 19Future Lives and Interests 35 14Current Events 30 12Real World 30 12Personal Stories 18 7Examples 9 4Time=Place Proximity 9 4Future Studies 9 4Guest Speakers 7 3Total 242Teaching StyleInstructor Consideration 19 20Variety and Interest 18 19Enthusiasm and Knowledge 15 16Personalization 12 13Availability 11 12Humor 11 12Student Choice and Control 9 9Total 95Methods and ActivitiesDiscussion and Participation 32 35Applications 25 27Group Activities 18 20Visual Activities 12 13Field trips 4 4Total 91Inside CourseNote-Taking 28 34Assignments 14 17Grades 14 17Study Help 11 13Emphasizing Material 7 8Connect to Themes 6 7Current Material 3 4Total 83No Relevance 6 100Grand Total 517
Student Perceptions of Relevance 137related to their needs, goals, and=or interests. This category contained 18% of thestudent responses and was comprised of seven subcategories. Three subcategories,including ‘‘instructor consideration’’ (20%), ‘‘variety and interest’’ (19%), and‘‘enthusiasm and knowledge’’ (16%), made up the majority (55%) of the student-generated responses in this category. The remaining 46% of the responses wereincluded in four additional subcategories: ‘‘personalization,’’ ‘‘availability,’’‘‘humor,’’ and ‘‘student choice and control’’ (see Table 1). The third category, ‘‘Methods and Activities Relevance,’’ consisted of 18% of thestudent-generated responses and contained strategies that involved instructors usingteaching methods and activities in class, apart from examples and situations, thatencouraged students to perceive content as relevant to their needs, interests, and=orgoals. Two subcategories comprised over half (62%) of the responses included inthis category: ‘‘discussion and participation’’ (35%) and ‘‘applications’’ (27%). Theremaining three subcategories, including ‘‘group activities,’’ ‘‘visual activities,’’ and‘‘field trips,’’ comprised the remaining 37% of the responses in this category (seeTable 1). The fourth category, ‘‘Inside Course Relevance,’’ included 16% of the totalresponses. This category contained strategies instructors used to relate course mate-rial to students’ needs, interests, and=or goals within one specific course, as opposedto teaching methods that pertained to students’ goals in other courses, or life outsideacademia. For instance, instructors emphasized material students needed to know toreceive a passing grade on a test. Three subcategories consisted of 68% of theresponses in this category: ‘‘note-taking’’ (34%), ‘‘assignments’’ (17%), and ‘‘grades’’(17%). Four subcategories, including ‘‘study help,’’ ‘‘emphasizing material,’’‘‘connect to themes,’’ and ‘‘current material,’’ comprised the remaining 27% of thestudent-generated responses in the category (see Table 1). The final category, ‘‘No Relevance,’’ included responses stating that instructors didnot attempt to relate content to students and contained only six responses, or 1% ofthe total student-generated responses (see Table 1). All of these responses involvedthe participants stating that their instructors did nothing to make the contentrelevant.DiscussionThe goal of this research was to identify teacher behaviors that increased student per-ceptions of content relevance from the student perspective. The study succeeded inanswering the research question, since students were able to generate a large numberof behaviors their instructors used to increase the connection between coursematerial and student needs, interests, and goals. Student-generated responses bothsupported current relevance-increasing strategies and highlighted areas that may havecomplicated the manipulation of relevance in experimental research. The studyproduced four categories of strategies (‘‘Outside Course Relevance,’’ ‘‘Teaching StyleRelevance,’’ ‘‘Methods and Activities Relevance,’’ and ‘‘Inside Course Relevance’’)instructors can utilize to increase the relevance of the course material to students.
138 A. Muddiman & A. B. Frymier Some of the subcategories identified were very much in line with existing concep-tualizations of relevance. For example, the two largest subcategories in ‘‘OutsideCourse’’ relevance (‘‘current life and interests’’ and ‘‘popular culture and media’’)corresponded with Keller’s (1983) cultural-value strategy. In these subcategories,students reported that instructors related course material to ‘‘beer’’ and ‘‘fast food,’’their ‘‘lives as college students,’’ ‘‘movie clips,’’ ‘‘YouTube videos,’’ and ‘‘current tele-vision.’’ Examples within both categories illustrated how course material connectedto student culture and, therefore, the cultural value Keller (1983) described. Addi-tionally the third largest subcategory in ‘‘Outside Course Relevance,’’ ‘‘future livesand careers,’’ corresponded with Keller’s (1983) instrumental value. The subcategoryincluded instructors who explained that students will ‘‘eventually use [course]information in [their] careers’’ and encouraged students to relate ‘‘boring topics’’to ‘‘career [positions] down the road after college.’’ The correspondence betweenthe ‘‘Outside Course Relevance’’ category and Keller’s (1983) cultural and instrumen-tal values, as well as the large number of responses in the category, supported Keller’sconceptualization of relevance. Subcategories within the ‘‘Outside Course’’ category also illustrated that instruc-tors may utilize different relevance strategies, such as relevance to the past, thepresent, and the future, to relate course material to students. This may explainwhy the Behrens (1999) experiment failed to manipulate relevance: the study’sparticipants may have perceived as much relevance in the past condition, whichwas supposed to be low relevance, as in the present and future conditions. The largest subcategory of ‘‘Methods and Activities’’ was ‘‘discussion and partici-pation’’ that contained strategies encouraging students to cooperate with otherstudents and to assert their own control over the classroom. The tactics lend supportto Keller’s (1983) affiliation and power motive values. The subcategories ‘‘grades’’and ‘‘assignments’’ supported Keller’s (1983) achievement motive value by emphasiz-ing the importance of student GPAs and exam grades (‘‘grades’’), as well as the out-of-class readings and other assignments for which students were responsible(‘‘assignments’’). Since the strategies allowed students to achieve success, theyoverlapped with the achievement motive value. While many of the emergent subcategories supported the existing conceptualiza-tion of relevance, the second largest category, ‘‘Teaching Style,’’ was more in line withother instructional constructs than relevance. The strategies in the ‘‘Teaching Style’’category seem to include teacher immediacy and confirmation behaviors, which is abit perplexing. Presumably, students listed these behaviors because they perceivethese behaviors as causing relevance. Conceptually, relevance has been viewed as ateacher behavior that could be used in combination with immediacy but was inde-pendent of immediacy. Similarly, the ‘‘humor’’ subcategory comprised 12% of‘‘Teaching Style’’ and included strategies involving instructors’ use of humor andjoking to make content relevant. This subcategory is consistent with Wanzer,Frymier, Wojtaszcyk, and Smith’s (2006) research that found ‘‘related humor’’ tobe the largest category of appropriate forms of humor used by teachers. Humorhas been conceptualized as a teacher strategy that enhances immediacy (Gorham &
Student Perceptions of Relevance 139Christophel, 1990), but nothing in the conceptualization of instructional humorwould predict humor as a means of increasing relevance. Similarly, the relevance category ‘‘Inside Course’’ seemed more consistent with theconstruct of clarity than relevance. Inside Course relevance involved strategies aninstructor could use to relate course material to student goals and interests within aspecific course. The largest subcategory, ‘‘note-taking,’’ included strategies thatencouraged students to take notes during class (e.g., ‘‘PowerPoint presentations’’).These strategies overlap significantly with clarity behaviors (Chesebro, 2003; Simonds,1997). The overlap brings forth the question: ‘‘What is the relationship between clarityand relevance?’’ Does making content clear enhance perceptions of relevance? The ‘‘Teaching Style’’ and ‘‘Inside Course’’ categories conflict with the conceptua-lizations of relevance put forth by Keller (1983) and Frymier and Shulman (1995). Theteacher behaviors contained in these categories mirror immediacy, humor, and clarity.There is substantial evidence that immediacy and humor enhance the student-teacherrelationship, gaining students’ attention and motivation (Frymier, 1994; Frymier &Houser, 2000; Kelley & Gorham, 1989). However, these teacher behaviors wouldnot be expected to create connections between the content and students needs andgoals. In fact, Frymier (1994) stated, ‘‘Use of immediacy behaviors probably doesnot increase relevance’’ (p. 142). Clarity strategies are thought to help studentsorganize and understand content, but by themselves would not be expected to makeconnections between content and students goals and needs. Did students list theseteacher behaviors because they make the content more relevant or is the perceptionof relevance a by-product of being motivated and engaged in the learning process? One could argue that all information is relevant to students—certainly mostinstructors would describe what they teach as being relevant to students. Keller(1983) describes relevance as a necessary requirement for students to be motivatedlearners. However, the emergence of the ‘‘Teaching Style’’ and ‘‘Methods andActivities’’ categories suggest that perceived relevance is an outcome of effective teach-ing rather than a component of effective teaching. Perhaps when students becomemotivated to learn and are engaged in the material (a result of effective teaching),they perceive the content as being relevant. Such thinking is consistent with the moti-vation model of immediacy proposed by Frymier (1994) and the empowermentmodel proposed by Houser and Frymier (in press). These models propose thatstudent motivation is primarily a result of teacher behavior, and that motivationin turn influences student outcomes such as learning. Perceiving the content asrelevant may be an additional outcome of being a motivated learner. If it is the case that relevance is an outcome of effective teaching rather than acomponent of it, then a variety of effective teaching strategies could result inincreased perceptions of relevance by students. The previously identified ‘‘relevancestrategies’’ would need to be reexamined and redefined as teaching strategies. Animplication of this reasoning is that relevance could not be manipulated by changingthe nature of examples as Frymier and Houser (1998) and Behrens (1999) attemptedto do. These studies also manipulated immediacy (an effective teaching strategy);therefore, motivation and relevance were likely enhanced by the immediacy. This
140 A. Muddiman & A. B. Frymierwould explain why these studies were unsuccessful in manipulating relevance but stillfound increases in motivation. Such a conceptualization of relevance would indicatethat relevance would be best measured as a perception, similar to how credibility ismeasured (Teven & McCroskey, 1997). Future research needs to examine the condi-tions that result in perceptions of content relevance and address whether studentsperceive greater relevance when they are more engaged with the content.LimitationsAlthough this study provides researchers with a clearer understanding of content rele-vance, a number of limitations resulted from the methodology. First, the researchersused an open-ended survey that allowed students to produce a wide range of responseswithout limiting them to strategies suggested by previous research. The benefit of thismethodology was that it allowed the researchers to examine student perceptions,unencumbered by the researchers’ preexisting definitions of relevance. The disadvan-tage of this methodology is the lack of control in how students interpreted thequestion and what they recalled. Evidence of this is the category of ‘‘No Relevance,’’which consisted of six responses stating that an instructor did not succeed in makingcontent relevant. It is impossible to know if this category was a result of studentsbeing unmotivated to complete the survey, unmotivated in general, or truly notexperiencing any teachers in fall 2006 that used any type of relevance strategy. As is often the case, the sample used in this study was one of convenience. There-fore, the ability to generalize the results of this study is limited. The majority ofparticipants were female (127 of the 184 participants) and first-year or sophomorestudents (155 of the 184 participants). The responses these students produced coulddiffer from those generated by an equal number of males and females, or by upper-level students who have more educational experience than younger students. Futureresearch should investigate this issue by including a more diverse sample. Althoughthese questions and issues were not examined in the current study, they merit atten-tion in future research to gain a more thorough understanding of content relevance. While the battle to gain understanding of relevance continues, the present studyprovides specific categories and strategies that current instructors can utilize toincrease student perceptions of relevance. The results of this study also provide thebasis to further redefine the construct of relevance as an outcome of effective teachingand motivation rather than as a teacher behavior. Future research needs to examinestudent perceptions of relevance in relation to a variety of teacher behaviors to betterunderstand the role of relevance in the classroom.ReferencesBaxter, L., & Wilmot, W. (1984). ‘‘Secret tests:’’ Social strategies for acquiring information about the state of the relationship. Human Communication Research, 11, 171–201.Behrens, F. H. (1999). Do relevance strategies affect a student’s motivation to learn? Unpublished master’s thesis, Miami University, Oxford, Ohio.
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142 A. Muddiman & A. B. FrymierWanzer, M. B., Frymier, A. B., Wojtaszczyk, A. M., & Smith, T. (2006). Appropriate and inappropriate uses of humor by teachers. Communication Education, 55, 178–196.Weaver, R. L., & Cottrell, H. W. (1988). Motivating students: Stimulating and sustaining student effort. College Student Journal, 22, 22–32.AppendixCategories and Subcategories ExplainedI. Outside Course RelevanceThis category involves instructors using some type of example or situation to drawparallels between the course material and students’ needs, interests, and=or desiresoutside of the classroom.a. Current Life and Interests Instructors use examples, explanations, and situations to relate material to the current lives of college students and the stereotypical college lifestyle. This also includes students using their own personal stories and generational input to relate their current lives to the material. Example: Our teacher then related that to the [college] stereotype.b. Popular Culture and Media Instructors use examples of popular culture, music, or video to relate material to students. This strategy included movies, TV and Internet clips, documentaries, sports, and other popular culture references. Example: Most of my teachers would give examples about entertainment since we can closely relate.c. Future Lives and Interests Instructors use examples to emphasize how course material will benefit students in their future careers and lives. This includes instructors that give internship and job search advice or point out how students would—as opposed to how students do—use information in their lives or specific jobs. Example: Give examples of how it could=would affect us in the future.d. Current Events Instructors use examples of current news stories, articles, or issues to relate material to students. These current events could relate to politics, business, and environmental issues. This strategy does not include any type of current event quiz. Example: I had a Geography teacher last year who had us read current events for our class.e. Real World Instructors use ‘‘real-world’’ or ‘‘real-life’’ examples, situations, experiences, or comparisons to relate material to students. This strategy occurs when instructors use real life or professional scenarios for students’ benefit, without stressing how students will be able to use the material in their future lives and=or careers. Example: Other teachers using real-life examples.
Student Perceptions of Relevance 143f. Personal Stories Instructors tell students personal stories or examples, from their lives and=or careers. These differ from ‘‘real-world’’ examples in that they are directly related to the instructors, rather than examples from general life. Example: Referencing their work experience during class.g. Examples Instructors use examples to explain the information presented. This category includes student responses of ‘‘examples’’ or ‘‘metaphors’’ without any further description. Example: Another thing he did was use examples of what he was talking about.h. Time=Place Proximity Instructors relate historical course material to current situations or relate course material that takes place in locations far from students to situations in locations closer to students. For instance, an instructor may parallel the issues present in historical paintings to those found in contemporary art, or issues related to far-eastern nations to those found in a nearby town. Example: In one of my classes we discussed theatre plays from past centuries. One good thing my teacher did was to associate these plays with everyday events or ideas that we might could [sic] relate to as college students.i. Future Studies Instructors explain how material will help students learn skills that can benefit them in their future college classes, as well as in their majors or minors. Example: In my Statistics class my professore [sic] gave examples of how things would relate to senior projects. j. Guest Speakers Instructors invite outside speakers or lecturers to class to talk about how the material is relevant to their careers, classes, or life outside of college. This also includes instructors asking other people (not students in the course) to serve as examples to the students. Example: Bringing in guest speakers also helped in my business classes.II. Teaching Style RelevanceThis category includes strategies involving an instructor’s personality and teachingstyle that makes students feel that the material is related to their needs, goals, and=oror interests.a. Instructor Consideration Instructors show students that they care by making class comfortable, using infor- mal language, changing grading methods, explaining information until students understand material, giving positive feedback, relating to students, treating them as equals, and doing the best jobs they can as instructors. Example: This teacher also didn’t have a set grading scale instead the course was graded based on improvement throughout the tests.
144 A. Muddiman & A. B. Frymierb. Variety and Interest Instructors create classes that are not similar lectures each day but rather include a variety of methods to engage students. This category includes students who men- tion the mixture of methods and techniques to create variety, as well as the attempt to make the material interesting. Example: There was a mixture of lectures, readings, and visual aids in order to meet the needs of most students.c. Instructor Enthusiasm and Knowledge Instructors show students their enthusiasm and passion for teaching the material, as well as their knowledge of the material they are teaching. Example: The teachers that I have had in the past are generally enthusiatic [sic] and want to teach.d. Availability Instructors are available outside of class time, through email and during office hours, to provide students with help whenever they need it. This category also includes instructors who are always willing to provide help to students. Example: Open office hourse. Personalize Instructors take the time to learn about a class, or a particular student, and demonstrate flexibility in their classes based on their students. Example: My English teacher got to know us very closely and then designed the class around our personalities.f. Humor Instructors use humor in the form of jokes and=or stories in class. Even if perso- nal stories are noted, the humorous aspect of these strategies places them in the humor category. Example: One teacher used jokes that connected the information more to our age group.g. Student Choice and Control Instructors give students the choice of topic for assignments, which allows stu- dents to write about subjects that are important to them, and let students have control of some portion of the class, for instance by letting the students vote on decisions for the course. Example: Allowed me to choose my own research topic.III. Methods and Activities RelevanceThis category involves instructors using teaching methods and activities, apart fromexamples and situations, in class encouraging students to perceive that the content isrelevant to their needs, interests, and=or goals not related to the course itself.a. Discussion and Participation Instructors encourage either instructor- or student-led discussion, both in class and online, as well as student questions and input during lectures. Example: Discussion periods
Student Perceptions of Relevance 145b. Applications Instructors use ‘‘real-world’’ or ‘‘real-life’’ examples in problems, projects, or other applications they assign. The category includes instructors who require community service or practical work (e.g., building sets for the theater depart- ment), as well as instructors who take actions because their students would=wouldn’t need to do something in the ‘‘real world’’ (e.g., don’t need to memorize formulas, need to act professionally in class). This strategy differs from examples in that students work with ‘‘real-world’’ or professional problems rather than simply hear about them from an instructor. Example: Provided assignments that allowed us to practice for real world experience such as the mock job interview at the career services center.c. Group Activities Instructors use group activities, projects, or evaluations inside or outside of class. This strategy includes group projects, social interactions, and peer evaluations. Example: Created study groupsd. Visual Activities Instructors use visual aids, pictures, acting, or skits in class. Visual aids are not labeled as PowerPoint presentations, videos, drawings, etc., but simply as visual aids or pictures. Example: Most of my teachers chose to use visual aids.e. Field Trips Instructors take their students out of the classroom to look at locations around campus or off campus that relate to the material in the course. Example: The same professor took us to different places around campus in order to change the learning environment.IV. Inside Course RelevanceThis category involves strategies an instructor can use to make course material relateto student goals and interests within one specific course, as opposed to the teachingmethods that relate to students’ needs, interests, and=or goals outside of the class-room. These strategies involve the instructor emphasizing and explaining importantmaterial that students need to know to be successful in the class, and holding studentsaccountable for this material.a. Note-taking Instructors emphasize the important material they are covering in each class by encouraging students to take notes. This can include PowerPoint presenta- tions, lecture outlines and=or overheads, writing on a whiteboard, and telling students when to write down information. Example: PowerPoint presentationb. Assignments Students have to complete homework, reading, problems, and other projects out- side of the classroom. This strategy is not specific to ‘‘real-world,’’ practical, or
146 A. Muddiman & A. B. Frymier professional applications but instead stresses that students have to complete some type of general assignment. Example: Went over the homeworkc. Grades Instructors stress that certain material that will help students receive good grades in the class. This also includes instructors giving quizzes or exams. Example: They would also emphasize which material was going to be on the exam, which was very relevant for us because we all wanted to pass.d. Study Help Instructors hold review sessions, create review sheets and syllabi or otherwise help students learn how to best study for the course. Example: Study review sessions before testse. Emphasizing Important Material Instructors repeat, bold or otherwise make it obvious that students should learn a portion of the material, even though it is not necessarily connected with a grade or exam. Example: Repeated information or general ideasf. Connect to Themes Instructors connect specific material in class to a big picture or overall theme to show how the material all works together. Example: The teacher related the important information to each of the areas and showed how it all worked together.g. Current Material Instructors cover material in class that is up-to-date. Example: Information and course material was up-to-date.V. No RelevanceThese students commented that one or all of their instructors did not succeed inmaking content relevant to students. Example: I wouldn’t necessarily say any of my teachers from the fall semester madeanything relevant to my needs or interests.