One approach to interest students is to focus lessons on topics they are interested in – but this demands a lot of our time, while undermining the purpose of education: helping students to learn new and hard things that they may only appreciate after they have mastered them. In this column I want to share the intriguing work of Judith Harackiewicz, who has spent years trying to increase students’ interest in science and maths.

One study asked students to conduct a brief writing assignment at the end of a unit. They were told to “apply this topic/concept to your life, or to the life of someone you know. How might the information be useful to you, or a friend/relative, in daily life? How does learning about this topic apply to your future plans?” A student who hoped for a career in medicine described the value of a biology topic, another explained how their relatives could use a mathematical technique they had learned. Students who completed the writing assignments gained higher grades, and those with low expectations of success in science showed greater interest after the assignment (compared with a control group, who simply summarised what they had learned in the topic).

Hulleman, C. and Harackiewicz, J. (2009). Promoting Interest and Performance in High School Science Classes. Science. 326(5958), pp. 1410-1412

Later, the researchers tested ways to help parents to encourage their children to study maths and science. They sent parents three magazines, with titles such as Making Connections: Helping Your Teen Find Value in School, and provided access to a website on the choices students had ahead. The resources had information about the importance of maths and science in daily life and careers and ways to talk to teenagers about this. Parents were interested: more than 80 per cent accessed the website and reported using the resources to talk to their children. This approach increased parents’ perceptions of the value of maths and science and changed the conversations they had with their children: the result was that students chose to take more science and maths courses in their last two years at school (again, compared with a control group who did not receive the magazines or website).

Harackiewicz, J., Rozek, C., Hulleman, C. and Hyde, J. (2012). Helping Parents to Motivate Adolescents in Mathematics and Science : An Experimental Test of a Utility-Value Intervention. Psychological Science. DOI: 10.1177/0956797611435530

A third study looked at how students responded to different ways of presenting the value of a maths technique. Students with high confidence accepted explanations of the importance of the technique, but students with low confidence found them demotivating – possibly because this increased their worry that they would be unable to master them.

However, when students were given explanations of the importance of a technique and then encouraged to generate their own examples of how it could be useful to them, all students gained confidence, while less-confident students also saw the approach as more useful, more interesting and achieved better results. The researchers also tested what kind of examples were more motivating, and found that students with low confidence responded better to examples from daily life, rather than those from future careers: if a student has already decided not to pursue a maths-related career, an example of a career demanding maths might encourage them to switch off, rather than work harder.

Canning, E. and Harackiewicz, J. (2015). Teach It, Don’t Preach It: The Differential Effects of Directly Communicated and Self-Generated Utility–Value Information. Motivation Science 1(1), pp.47–71.

Harackiewicz’s work suggests that showing students, or their parents, why what they are learning is of value, and providing time for them to generate their own summaries of these ideas, can increase student motivation and achievement.