Education researchers are beginning to validate what many teachers have long known -- connecting learning to student interests helps the information stick. This seems to work particularly well with math, a subject many students say they dislike because they can’t see its relevance to their lives.
“When I started spending time in classrooms I realized the math wasn't being applied to the students’ world in a meaningful way,” said Candace Walkington, assistant professor in the department of teaching and learning at Southern Methodist University. She conducted a year-long study on 141 ninth graders at a Pennsylvania high school to see whether tailoring questions to individual student interests could help students learn difficult and often abstract algebra concepts.
Researchers studied a classroom using Carnegie Learning software called Cognitive Tutor, a program that has been studied frequently. In the study, half of the students chose one of several categories that interested them -- things like music, movies, sports, social media -- and were given an algebra curriculum based on those topics. The other half received no interest-based personalization. All the problems had the same underlying structure and were meant to teach the same concept.
Walkington found that students who had received interest-based personalization mastered concepts faster. What's more, in order to ensure that learning was robust, retained over time, and would accelerate future learning, she also looked at student performance in a later unit that had no interest-based personalization for any of the students. “Students that had previously received personalization, even though it was gone, were doing better on these more difficult problems as well,” said Walkington.
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She also found that struggling students improved the most when their interests were taken into account. “We picked out the students who seemed to be struggling the most in Algebra I and we found that for this sub-group of students that were way behind the personalization was more effective,” Walkington said. Specifically, the study tested students’ ability to turn story problems into algebraic equations -- what’s called algebraic expression writing.