Providing a real-world purpose for learning

By Heather King - June 2011


Westbroek, H. B., Klaassen, K., Bulte, A. & Pilot, A. (2010). Providing students with a sense of purpose by adapting a professional practice.International Journal of Science Education, 31(5), 603–627.

This study explores an important question for all educators: how can we help students find meaning and application in what they are learning? The authors argue that students have to foresee how each activity is going to contribute to a specific context-based purpose that they themselves are motivated to reach.

A majority of the students still do not find learning science meaningful, in spite of altering the existing curricula, the instruction materials design, and considerable efforts by educators to connect concepts and content to situations in reality. The authors reason that in order for an activity to be meaningful, a student has to have a reason or motive for doing it. A motive comprises a desire and a belief: a desire to achieve a goal, and a belief that the activity will enable such a goal to be reached. Thus, if we want students to work purposefully on a task, educators must firstly help them to see what the task promises to contribute to a particular purpose. The authors acknowledge that this is in essence the basic principle of all good science teaching. However, they maintain that their approach goes further in that it aligns the student perspective with the aims of the course designer/instructor.

The authors note that in professional practice, professionals have an understanding of how their activities will achieve a particular purpose. Thus, if students were to value the purpose of the practice, they would be interested in learning how professionals achieve it. To test this hypothesis, they developed an activity in which they sought to explore whether students would acquire a sense of purpose (and thus participate in the learning) if they understood how the means would lead to the end. The activity comprised the monitoring of water quality and involved students aged 14 to 15 over four 50-minute and two 75-minute lessons.

The research defines the nature of the activity in full and notes that the step-by-step approach did enable students to engage well with the content. The authors assert that their findings prove that “it is possible to provide students with a sense of purpose by establishing functional means–end relationships in an instructional version of a practice” (p. 622). However, their analysis was limited to “yes/no” answers focused on whether the students were successful in their efforts to complete a structured task. The analysis did not, however, capture the level of student motivation.

In short, for ISE professionals, it is the premise behind this study that is of prime interest, rather than the instructional design itself: How can educators design learning experiences that highlight the importance of scientific knowledge for addressing real-world issues, but that also help students to understand the generalisability of [often abstract] content matter. Moreover, how do you make such an experience engaging?

The authors appropriately claim that it has become increasingly popular to develop so-called “authentic” instructional sequences that mirror professional practices. But they also note that the use of authentic contexts does not automatically increase student engagement: while some students may initially be excited by the opportunity, rarely do learners have the access – either physical or intellectual – to the full range of procedures employed in professional contexts. Moreover, they argue that in many context-based projects, students fail to understand how the scientific content taught for the particular context may be applicable to other procedures or aspects of science learning.

The authors argue that for learning activities to be purposeful for students, the challenge is to balance the students’ interest in and understanding of the function of an activity with the instructor’s educational goals. In other words, if learners understand the purpose behind an activity, they will find it meaningful. Whether they will also be motivated by the activity is much less clear and, indeed, the authors call for more research in this area.

Further research and discussion is needed to explore student attitudes toward long-term learning of content from an instructional sequence, whose purposes are made clear to students in the hope of enabling them to remain motivated in their participation.