Local relevance: A key factor in learner engagement and motivation

Written by Chelsea Petersen
Katherine Fourie and Jana Eicher
May 3, 2021

In recent years, the topic of ‘local relevance’ has gained increasing attention in the field of education (Albrecht and Karabenick, 2017). But what exactly is ‘local relevance’ in education, and what value does it contribute to the learning experience?

Local relevance in education

To answer this question, let’s begin by considering hypothetical examples of a high school learner and a college student in South Africa.

Nathier is in his matric year at a school in South Africa. Because he wants to become an entrepreneur, he has chosen business studies as one of his subjects. However, his prescribed textbook was published in the United States – so, although it covers the necessary theory, the case studies are relevant to the American context. Nathier finds it difficult to relate to these examples: in particular, he struggles to understand how these concepts apply to his own experiences in South Africa. Because he can’t relate to the content fully, Nathier becomes demotivated, and eventually loses interest in the subject, which impacts his grades negatively.

Then, there’s Sihle, a first-year marketing student at a local college. Much like Nathier, Sihle also finds herself struggling to relate to the course content entirely. Because some of her prescribed marketing textbooks were published in England, the examples and case studies pertain to the United Kingdom. As a result, Sihle likewise begins to lose interest in some of her modules and performs poorly during exams.

While these are both simplified examples, they highlight the importance of using locally relevant material in education. Regardless of who the intended audience is, the relevance of the content to the target group should be a key consideration. This idea is well supported by research. There is significant evidence to suggest that a learner’s level of engagement with their instructional material is influenced by whether the content is relevant to their individual context (Pisarik and Whelchel, 2018; Filgona et al., 2020; and Belet, 2018). Additionally, research indicates that locally relevant materials can improve the learning experience overall (Filgona et al., 2020; and Aronson and Laughter, 2016).

This article will unpack the broader concept of relevance in the educational context. This will be followed by an overview of the benefits that educators can derive by using locally relevant learning materials in the classroom, as well as some recommendations for educational content developers.

Defining ‘local relevance’

In the context of education, ‘relevance’ describes learning experiences that are applicable to the personal aspirations, experiences or interests of learners, or which relate to problems or challenges encountered in the real world (The Glossary of Education Reform, 2013; and Albrecht and Karabenick, 2017). From this perspective, learning experiences can have either personal relevance or life relevance.

Personal relevance, life relevance, local relevance

Personal relevance relates to the idea of personalised learning – a strategy that involves tailoring learning experiences to meet learners’ unique needs (Raudys, 2020). Life relevance arises when learning materials are explicitly related to real-world experiences or contexts. In this article, we explore local relevance as an extension of both personal and life relevance – in other words, as a means of personalising learning materials.

Locally relevant material can be defined as content that is specific to the geographic region or community of the target audience, and relates to the real-world contexts in which students find themselves (Penn Graduate School of Education, n.d.). To illustrate, think back to the examples of Nathier and Sihle. These learners are more likely to relate to examples centred on familiar, local businesses, than they are to ones based on unfamiliar companies abroad (Kember et al., 2008; and The Glossary of Education Reform, 2013).

But why is this the case, and how do locally relevant learning materials affect the learning experience?

How locally relevant materials impact the learning experience

As suggested earlier, locally relevant content can improve the learning experience overall – specifically, by allowing learners to understand the content through their own frames of reference. And, when learning material has relevance to their lives, learners are more motivated to engage with it.

Motivation

A study by Kember et al. (2008) aimed to identify motivators for learning in a group of students located in Hong Kong. These students had been using Western textbooks for their studies, and were interviewed about their experiences. In analysing the factors that influence student motivation, the researchers identified relevance of learning as a key motivating aspect (Kember et al., 2008). In other words, the students were more motivated to learn when the content was relevant to their lives – and, conversely, they were less motivated when the content lacked relevance.

Memory, knowledge acquisition and retention

Educator and neurologist Judy Willis (in Bernard, 2010) has also provided compelling arguments in favour of using locally relevant learning materials. Specifically, when learners are able to connect new information to their pre-existing knowledge, their neural pathways are strengthened, and improvements are seen in their long-term memory (LTM) storage capacity.

Put simply, if learners can relate new information to something that they are already familiar with, then the new information will be remembered and understood more effectively. This is associated with the strategy of activating prior knowledge as a means of acquiring new knowledge, and also forms part of the scaffolding process (Merrill, 2002; Albrecht and Karabenick, 2017; Pappas, 2017; and Theall, n.d.).

Real-world application

When learning materials are locally relevant, they help learners to recognise the practical value of the content and how it applies to their real-world contexts (Theall, n.d.). Studies on student engagement and motivation have made similar findings, concluding that effective learning materials should draw on learners’ cultural backgrounds and personal experiences, and also provide them with exercises that have real-life application and meaning (National Research Council and Institute of Medicine, 2004: 94; and Albrecht and Karabenick, 2017).

Other learner benefits

Finally, locally relevant content is associated with the following overall benefits (Aronson and Laughter, 2016):

  • Increased interest in the content
  • Enhanced ability to engage in discourse around the content
  • Increased confidence in assessment and test-taking
  • Higher self-esteem

Based on this, the benefits of local relevance in education are clear. So, what does this mean for educational content developers and learning designers? How might they go about creating locally relevant materials?

Creating locally relevant learning materials

Contextual considerations

Titone et al. (2012) conducted a case study on creating culturally relevant instructional material in Eswatini. The study found that reading materials donated by the United States improved learners’ broader educational opportunities; however, their overall educational needs were only being met in a limited capacity. This was attributed to the material’s lack of local relevance. The study concluded that, in order to create locally relevant material, it is necessary to consider the perspectives of others – in this case, the learners. This means developing an understanding of who the learners are and the contexts in which they find themselves.

Everyday life

Based on their research in Hong Kong, Kember et al. (2008) have recommended various means by which content can be made locally relevant; for example, by relating topics to everyday life and current events, or by applying theories to local issues and contexts. Because local issues and everyday life differ across cultures and geographic locations, it is essential to consider the target audience for whom the materials are being created. Once there is an understanding of the intended target audience, the specific backgrounds of the learners can be reflected in the materials in a variety of ways. This can be as simple as incorporating local statistics or data, current events, community organisations or case studies into the content – regardless of the topic or subject field being studied.

Conclusion

Turning our attention back to Nathier and Sihle, we can see how locally relevant content would benefit them and their classmates:

Instead of having to use a textbook created for the American context, Nathier would benefit from content that focused on the South African business sector. For instance, when covering the impact of legislation on business, a South African textbook would focus on local legislation and include discussions on demands for redress and equity. His American textbook, however, approached the topic from an entirely different perspective, resulting in a suboptimal learning experience that lacked relevance. Similarly, in the case of Sihle, instead of learning about brands and audiences based in the UK, a South African textbook would focus on local brands, and on audiences that are representative of the South African population.

To ensure that learners have a meaningful learning experience, educators and content developers should aim to understand the unique needs, interests and contexts of their target audience. This will equip them to use and/or create materials that are relevant to the learners’ real-world experiences. As we have seen, local relevance improves learner motivation, enhances knowledge acquisition and retention, aids memory, and increases overall interest in the content – ultimately improving their engagement with the learning materials. And, when learners have a familiar frame of reference for engaging with the content, they understand new information more effectively – enabling them to apply it to the real world in a more meaningful way

Did you know that EDGE’s Digital CourseBooks are created with the needs of South African students in mind? As such, they’re packed with locally relevant content – including examples, activities and case studies, as well as e-learning multimedia such as quizzes, interactions and videos.  

Learn More_ about our Digital CourseBooks here.

References

Albrecht, J. R. and Karabenick, S. A. (2017), ‘Relevance for Learning and Motivation in Education’. The Journal of Experimental Education 86(1): 1–10.

Aronson, B. and Laughter, J. (2016), ‘The Theory and Practice of Culturally Relevant Education: A Synthesis of Research Across Content Areas’. Review of Educational Research 86(1): 163–206.

Belet, M. (2018), ‘The Importance of Relevance to Student Lives: The Impact of Content and Media in Introduction to Sociology’. Teaching Sociology 46(3): 208–224.

Bernard, S. (2010), ‘Science Shows Making Lessons Relevant Really Matters’. Edutopia [website] <https://www.edutopia.org/neuroscience-brain-based-learning-relevance-improves-engagement> accessed 15 November 2020.

Filgona, J., Sakiyo, J., Gwany, D. M. and Okoronka, A. U. (2020), ‘Motivation in Learning’. Asian Journal of Education and Social Studies 10(4): 16–37.

Kember, D., Ho, A. and Hong, C. (2008), ‘The importance of establishing relevance in motivating student learning’. Active Learning in Higher Education 9(3): 249–263.

Knowledge and Human Development Authority [website] ‘Good Practice Guide: Localising the curriculum’. <https://www.khda.gov.ae/CMS/WebParts/TextEditor/Documents/UQAIBLocalisingtheCurriculum-English.pdf> accessed 16 November 2020.

Lynch, J. (2017), ‘How Relevant is Relevance to Teaching?’ Medium [website] <https://medium.com/@quixotic_scholar/how-relevant-is-relevance-to-teaching-414653b8f975> accessed 19 November 2020.

Merrill, M. D. (2002), ‘First principles of instruction’. Educational technology research and development 50(3): 43–59.

National Research Council and Institute of Medicine (2004), Engaging Schools: Fostering High School Students’ Motivation to Learn. Washington, D. C.: The National Academies Press.

Pappas, C. (2017), ‘Merrill’s Principles of Instruction: The Definitive Guide’. eLearning Industry [website] <https://elearningindustry.com/merrills-principles-instruction-definitive-guide> accessed 16 November 2020.

Penn Graduate School of Education [website] ‘Creating Locally Relevant Content’. <https://cbmp.gse.upenn.edu/creating-locally-relevant-content> accessed 15 November 2020.

Pisarik, C. and Whelchel, T. (2018), ‘Academic Relevance: College Students’ Perspective’. International Journal of Teaching and Learning in Higher Education 30(1): 26–35.

Raudys, J. (2020), ‘7 Personalized Learning Strategies and Examples’. Prodigy [website] <https://www.prodigygame.com/main-en/blog/personalized-learning> accessed 24 November 2020.

The Glossary of Education Reform [website] (2013), ‘Relevance’. <https://www.edglossary.org/relevance/> accessed 15 November 2020.

Theall, M. ‘Related course material to real-life situations’. IDEA [website] <https://www.ideaedu.org/idea-notes-on-instruction/related-course-material-to-real-life-situations/> accessed 24 November 2020.

Titone, C., Plummer, E. and Kielar, M. A. (2012), ‘Creating Culturally Relevant Instructional Materials: A Swaziland Case Study’. International Education 42(1): 22–42.

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