Show & Tell: A Video Column / Research in Translation - ASCD
Skip to main content
ascd logo

May 1, 2021

Show & Tell: A Video Column / Research in Translation

Translational researchers gauge how research plays out in real schools.

Instructional Strategies
Show & Tell: A Video Column / Research in Translation thumbnail

The world has been watching the development of vaccines that can curb the devastating impact of COVID-19. Basic science research moves forward so it can positively impact human health through translational research. The path from lab bench to patient bedside is accomplished through the tireless work of translational researchers. They design evidence-based studies that translate data from medical research such that medical workers can make timely decisions about care and prevention.

Educational research follows a similar trajectory. Often, practices, approaches, or strategies deemed helpful through experiments initially performed in psychology labs make their way to the classroom. As a key part of this process, translational researchers track and gauge the application of these ideas in a variety of conditions. The result, ideally, is educators' use of sound evidence-based practices.

Much of the work the two of us do is translational research in education. Our interest is in taking the findings of rigorous studies and putting them into play in various conditions. Here, we'll look at the complex interplay between motivation and relevance, two theoretical constructs that are crucial to learning. What does the educational science say on these concepts? What does that message look like when translated to classrooms?

Motivation Theory

The motivation of learners has long been a point of interest for educators, who are always looking for ways to move away from extrinsically based motivational techniques like points and grading. The overall evidence of success for compliance-based motivation isn't good. More important, a heavy reliance on outside factors, especially negative ones such as reprimands, inhibits deeper learning.

Motivation theories vary somewhat but converge on several important points. In 2020, Wigfield and Koenka analyzed motivation theories and sought to identify elements all the theories had in common. The first is that the focus of motivation should be on strengthening the learning context rather than "fixing" the student. A second point of agreement is that the social environment, especially positive relations between and among teacher and students, shapes a learner's motivation. A third is that motivation is fluid, not static. It is influenced by the learner's internal judgments ("Can I do this?") and external factors, especially a clear sense of what success looks like.

Applying Motivation Theory

In our work at Health Sciences High, we see effective teachers enact these principles daily. High school biology teacher Nadiya Daoud invests in a supportive classroom climate and helps learners acquire positive internal judgments regarding science work. "Science is about taking measured risks to test an innovation," she said. "I have to interrupt the misconception that science is memorization."

Ms. Daoud emphasizes the role of effort, rather than just intelligence, in students' success. "Many students say, ‘I'm not good at science.' When you start talking to them, what you really hear is that they think they're not ‘smart,' whatever that means." She begins the year with a questionnaire about how students see themselves as learners and budding scientists and follows up with activities that make clear no one is born a "smart scientist." The class discusses science failures that eventually led to breakthroughs. When students' labs don't go as planned, she has them reflect on what they learned from this, noting, "I call these ‘My Favorite Almosts,' and we problem solve as a class."

One more tool in Ms. Daoud's motivation kit is herself. She describes herself as a "warm demander," a term first coined by Kleinfeld in 1975 to describe teachers who couple high expectations with caring. "When they mess up, I ask them ‘What's your next step to fix this?' " she explains. "If they need help thinking through the hole they find themselves in, I'm there . . . to help them take action."

Theories About Relevance

Relevance is an important dimension of motivation and, it should be noted, is in the eye of the beholder. While definitions vary across relevance theories, most circle around the importance of personal meaningfulness in what is being learned. Priniski and colleagues analyzed different relevancy theories in 2018, including those that draw on principles of goal setting and self-determination through choices. Their review of existing research on relevancy led them to develop a framework that represents a continuum, from least to most, of how relevant a learning experience is for an individual:

  • Personal association is a connection to the memory of an experience the student values, such as enjoying a story set in the Grand Canyon in reading class because she recalls appreciating learning about layers and erosion in science class. It's an indirect association—but not especially relevant compared to the next two parts of the framework.

  • Personal usefulness is drawn from the belief that what students are learning will help them achieve a personal goal. A student might read about cars because she wants to help her dad fix up an old vehicle.

  • Personal identification, which draws on learning about one's identities. The implications here are broad, especially in considering the use of culturally relevant approaches. Achieving this level of personal relevance is more challenging across a classroom, which is why opportunities for choice allow students to reach higher levels of relevance.

Applying Relevance in a Lesson

In the video accompanying this column, you'll see 4th grade teacher Sara Ortega in the Chula Vista Elementary School District in San Diego use key principles of relevancy. After her students have finished discussing their reading about a boy who's interested in ballet but concerned about what his classmates will think, she discusses their asynchronous assignment for the week, which involves a number of choices of possible projects that will allow students to demonstrate their understanding. Her students choose how they'll take action in their own lives, as Ms. Ortega asks them: "What does this text inspire you to do?"

Researchers, All

The bridge from theory to practice in education is an essential one. But it really is bi-directional. Educators play a crucial role in applying theories in a variety of contexts. Successes and questions resulting from these applications in turn inform researchers about refinements and revisions. We are all translational researchers.

Watch the Video

Watch a 4th grade teacher apply principles from research on relevancy for an asynchronous assignment.

<!--<iframe src="" style="position: absolute; top: 0px; right: 0px; bottom: 0px; left: 0px; width: 100%; height: 100%;"></iframe>-->


Kleinfeld, J. (1975). Effective teachers of Eskimo and Indian students. The School Review, 83(2), 301–344.

Priniski, S. J., Hecht, C. A., & Harackiewicz, J. M. (2018). Making learning personally meaningful: A new framework for relevance research. Journal of Experimental Education, 86(1), 11–29.

Wigfield, A., & Koenka, A. C. (2020). Where do we go from here in academic motivation theory and research? Some reflections and recommendations for future work. Contemporary Educational Psychology, 61, 1–9.

Want to add your own highlights and notes for this article to access later?