Designing for Relevance: Creating Quests That Engage Students

Students learn better when their coursework is relevant to their own lives. Quest Forward Learning builds relevance into courses and quests, incorporating active participation in, and connection to, one’s own learning. In traditional education models, relevance often comes at the end—after you have learned something, you learn its real-life applications. Relevance must instead be established at the beginning, to frame content and foster student interest. Relevance cannot be forced or artificial; students should be given the tools to understand how something is or could be relevant to their own experiences. At times, relevance can be established on a greater structural level—a course framework that groups content by relevant themes—or from individual quests and topics. In both situations, schools using Quest Forward Learning in both the US and Tanzania have seen how relevance can be easier to sustain if students are excited about the discoveries they make while engaging with and completing their quests. The following Relevance Guidelines, as set forth by OE Chief Learning Officer Ray Ravaglia, will help quest designers internalize relevance as they further develop the Quest Forward curriculum.

1. Relevance puts learning into context. Relevance can apply to a student’s environment, interests, or plans for the future. Relevance shows the connection between the student’s personal goals and what they are learning. The closer the connection, the greater the relevance.

1.1. We are relevant to ourselves. One way to be relevant is to start with and return to the student’s personal ideas and relationships. Students must be able to assess themselves and their progress.

1.2. The world around us is interesting and can be used to establish relevance. Incorporate elements of student environments into quests to help them connect the information to their own lives. Consider the processes that naturally fill us with wonder—for example, the creation of mountains—and use these examples to encourage learners to pursue information on their own.

1.3. Our social relationships and dynamics are naturally engaging. Cite examples of social interaction that students can see, like their relationships with friends and family, to help them connect with quest material

2. The more knowledge a student gains about a subject, the less effort it takes to convince him/her of its relevance. When a learner first encounters something, we need to be very clear about why the learner is learning about it. As students progress through a subject, they need less and less extrinsic motivation to see its relevance. This is because it is the nature of knowledge to want to deepen itself.

3. When a student is introduced to something new, the reward for that learning must be very immediate and relevant to their lives. In other words, it must contain a more obvious and engaging hook to draw them in. Once that basic understanding is created, less outside motivation is required to promote further learning.

4. Even if a subject is naturally relevant to students’ lives, its importance should still be focused on and framed in an interesting way. Remember: We all have feet, but that doesn’t mean we want to learn about them!

5. A subject should be relevant in both the long and short term. Telling students that they should learn about rocks because someday they may become a mineralogist isn’t enough to keep them engaged in the present moment. Ask them, also, to look at the rocks on which they stand, engaging them enough to eventually become that mineralogist.

6. To make a quest or an activity engaging, make sure that what student are learning is meaningful to the student (i.e., interests them). For example, we cannot just say that “You want to be a doctor, and medical school requires that you complete a calculus course; therefore, you should find calculus relevant, as well as all the math leading up to calculus.” That reasoning could result in a student deciding that he or she does not want to be a doctor after all. As another example, it is not enough to say, “This quest is relevant because it will help you do better in school.” There is a chance that the individual student does not value or engage in school, and therefore, will lose the relevancy. The quest will become engaging by incorporating the learner’s real world-experiences and interests–what happens in their own day-to-day lives.

7. The unnecessary presence of celebrities does not make a quest relevant. Faraja Nyalandu explaining something boring does not alone make it interesting.

8. Disrespecting the potential of students weakens relevance. Don’t underestimate or talk down to students; they will act as they are being treated. If they feel they are being treated like children, they are likely to act like children. We need to treat them like students and expect them to rise to the occasion.

9. The aimless and unprepared weakens relevance. Anything that is incorporated into a quest must be incorporated in a manner that seems natural. Application of Quest Forward Principles must be done in a manner that flows naturally from the topic being investigated. If I am told to go and perform a task, it should be clear to me what I am supposed to be gaining from doing so, and why that is a thing I wish to gain.

10. The experiences of surprise and discovery enhance relevance. The everyday world can be made relevant by revealing hidden truths about it. A seemingly boring thing can be made to feel relevant if it quickly shows something unexpected, especially if what is revealed seems clever. Even the most overused stories can seem new and interesting when told in a clever way.

11. Relevance requires context and focus; too much choice is just as bad as no choice. The choices given to students should be appropriate for each individual student’s journey through the curriculum and their individual development level. Without some focus and guidance, students will be overwhelmed and relevance will be lost.

12. Once established, relevance continues through practice, but tends to lessen over time. A student may explore classical music and decide that he or she wants to play the piano. After several weeks of practice, however, the student may decide that the piano is not actually that interesting. It is important to balance the experience of practice with a continued joy of discovery and with the broader goals of relevance remaining as a consistent objective.

13. Narrative support, context, and other stage-setting are relevant in a broader context. Relevance can come from context, provided that the context is clear. If something is setting the stage, we can accept it, only if we understand that it is setting the stage for something we are looking forward to.

14. Just because you like it does not make it relevant. Most designers and instructors are affected by expert bias; as a quest designer, you already know enough about your topic to see why it is interesting. (To use a television metaphor, you know that the first season is slow, but that it is worth it because the second season is so great.) This does not make something relevant. Relevance requires that this fact be effectively communicated to the students and that it be done so in a way that makes the students want to invest the effort required. 

15. Skills, skills, skills. Knowing that something advances a skill does not give it instant relevance. Gaining a skill should be used in activities that students will find relevant, and not in activities that parents or teachers will think are relevant. (For example, as a student I might think, “Knowing that a statistical technique will improve my results in my fantasy football league is more relevant than knowing that it will help me on a national exam.”)