By Chris Hulleman, Motivate Lab Director & Associate Professor of Education at the University of Virginia

Student learning is influenced by a complex mixture of psychological, emotional, cognitive, environmental, and other factors. When surveyed about the most significant barriers to student learning in classrooms, 90% of middle school teachers cited students' lack of perceived value for the material as among the top three. In addition to making class more engaging for students, research suggests that encouraging students to find value in what they’re learning can lead to better performance on tests, and more interest in the topic.

This sounds straightforward, but unfortunately, simply stressing the importance of what students are learning can, in fact, lead to unintended negative consequences. According to several studies, telling students that math was an important skill for their future actually decreased interest in learning for the students who were least confident in their abilities. So, if talking about the value of what they're learning can, sometimes and for some students, backfire, how can instructors effectively address students' lack of perceived value?  

Is it possible to increase student motivation by helping (not telling) students to see the importance of the content in their own lives (i.e., increasing utility value)? My research in expectancy-value theory suggests that it is possible to influence students' beliefs in the relevance and utility of class content, and further, that teachers can do this without any time-consuming or expensive curriculum changes.

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Expectancy-value theory

As its name suggests, expectancy-value theory posits that motivation can be influenced by a combination of two factors: expectancy and value. 

Expectancy describes whether a student expects to succeed. If a student asks, “Can I do Algebra? Will I be able to pass this class?” and can answer “yes” to both questions, they have high expectancy. If a student answers, “I’m terrible at Algebra. I’ll never pass this class!” they have low expectancy.

Value describes how much the student values the content or task. It is the student’s assessment of, “Is this important or worthwhile?” If they enjoy Algebra and see how it will help them in life, then they have high value. If they find Algebra boring and irrelevant, they have low value. According to this framework, if a student has low expectancy or low value for the topic, then motivation will be low. If a student has high expectancy or high value, motivation will increase.

Testing the theory

Over the last several years, my colleagues and I have designed several studies to test if is is possible to increase students’ value without telling them directly why coursework was important. One of these studies involved integrating two writing assignments into a semester-long college psychology class. Students were randomly assigned to either summarize a topic they were studying (control group) or write a letter to someone they knew explaining a topic and how it might be relevant (value group). Students who wrote how psychology related to their lives enjoyed class more and found later material to be more relevant to their lives. These changes led to increased interest and performance in the course at the end of the semester (i.e., they liked it and wanted more of it). The effect of the intervention was more powerful for students who weren’t doing well in the course (based on first semester exam scores).

We then replicated the same study with over 262 students from 19 science classrooms taught by 7 teachers across two high schools. Students completed an average of four essays over the course of a semester. The results, once again, showed that students with high value (i.e., those who wrote about the relevance of science material to their lives) were more interested and performed better than those in the control group.

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Students with low expectancy experienced the biggest boost in performance, earning 0.8 more GPA points than their counterparts in the control group. In addition, the intervention reduced the black-white achievement gap from 1.22 GPA points in the control group to 0.42 GPA points in the utility group, a reduction of 65%.

Currently, we are running similar studies -- incorporating expectancy, value, and other learning mindset constructs -- with students in community colleges math courses to test how expectancy-value theory holds in this context and for different types of students. 



Helping students find value in what they are learning is a key component in increasing motivation to learn. Teachers are a key resource for helping students discover how learning relates to their lives. Designing homework or class assignments that encourage students to connect classwork to their personal life can lead to enhanced learning.

Thanks to Rachel Young and Teresa Hulleman. 

A version of this blog post was originally published on Medium.