What’s in it for me? Why should I bother learning this?
When students enter the classroom, these questions are on their mind, and are usually unspoken. They linger in the background, and they will subtly undermine our efforts to make lessons enjoyable if students are unable to see the relevance of what we teach them. The degree to which students vocalize these questions depends on the subject. Just ask a math teacher. Making the effort to address these questions, answering the why before we approach the how to, is time well spent.
Teachers can discuss the ‘what’s in it for me’ (WIIFM) questions as a faculty, department or grade team, brainstorming for a particular subject or topic. What is in it for the students? How will they benefit from learning what we are trying to teach them? By focusing on the benefits, students will hopefully see the point of what they are learning. Like a good salesperson, we highlight the benefits not the features. To differentiate between the two, try putting a ‘so what?’ at the end of your explanation. If you fail to answer the so what?, try to rethink the WIIFM. Here are three examples:
“Arithmetic stirs up him who is by nature sleepy and dull and makes him quick to learn and shrewd.” (Plato on math)
“Studying English literature at school was my first step towards mental freedom and independence.” (Ian McEwan on English)
“The farther backward you can look, the farther forward you are likely to see.” (Winston Churchill on history)
Through marketing our subjects and putting together a list of WIIFMs to display in classrooms, teachers can build intrinsic motivation. Allow the students to come up with a list of their own. Their answers might surprise you. In discovering their own WIIFMs, students who previously seemed incapable of learning and unmotivated and apathetic towards school, can find what motivates them. A light is switched on in their heads, giving a better understanding of what drives them. The road ahead is a little clearer.
The answers will encourage a greater fascination with the subject, a sense of its relevance to life and the world, a feeling of accomplishment in mastering it, and a calling to it. Ideally, they will spark thinking and prompt students to start asking some of life’s big WIIFM questions: Where do they want to go? Who do they want to be? How is what they’re doing in school going to get them there?
And in the end, isn’t that the point.