How to Talk to Students About Why STEM Matters

We know that learning STEM is useful, but how do we get that across to students?

Posted Sep 06, 2017

COD Newsroom/Flickr
Source: COD Newsroom/Flickr

Anyone who has taught STEM at any level has encountered this situation: You’ve just finished your brilliant demonstration of how neurons communicate, or experimental design, or pluralistic ignorance, when a hand languidly rises up at the back of the classroom.

"Why do we need to know this?"

At first, you want to cry out, "Because the world is beautiful and science is the closest we can come to embracing that wonder!" And then your cynical side indignantly thinks, "Because it’s on the test." Unfortunately, neither of these responses is likely to persuade this student, nor all of the other students thinking the exact same thing, that they should consider your teaching important. So how do you approach this deceptively complex question? And does it even matter?

This may seem self-evident, but convincing STEM students that what they’re learning in class has value is very important if you want them to improve their performance and continue to study STEM. To this end, Dr. Judith Harackiewicz, professor of psychology at the University of Wisconsin, has developed a technique known as a utility-value intervention that can increase students’ grades and interest in STEM. In one experiment, 262 high school students taking ninth grade science wrote monthly essays either summarizing recent course content or considering how that content was useful in their own lives. At the end of the year, students who initially did not expect to be successful in STEM and wrote about the value of science had significantly higher interest in STEM than control students and showed better class performance by over half a grade. Dr. Harackiewicz and her colleagues replicated this intervention in a college classroom: introductory psychology students who wrote two utility-value essays demonstrated increased interest in psychology and a stronger inclination to major in psychology, especially those students with lower mid-term grades.

So if you want students to care about your class, have them write a few essays about how this material is relevant to them. Sounds too easy, right? Well, follow-up studies have revealed some specific guidelines for how to frame a utility-value intervention depending on the type of student you want to motivate. As mentioned above, the key differentiator appears to be how successful a student believes they can be in STEM. Students who are performing poorly, have low expectations of their success, or who simply don’t see themselves in a STEM field, react differently to a utility-value intervention than students who are high-performing, self-confident, and have a strong STEM identity. So what does the research say about motivating these two types of students to participate in STEM?

Self-generated versus other-generated utilities. In the above studies, students were not told how STEM is relevant to their lives, but rather wrote about it themselves. Allowing students to self-generate ideas for how STEM is useful appears to be most effective for motivating those who lack confidence. For example, college students who wrote about the personal relevance of a newly learned mental math technique solved more multiplication problems using said technique than students who were simply told it was useful. In fact, telling students with low confidence that the technique is useful undermined their performance. Thus, providing STEM students with the opportunity to actively consider the utility of new material seems essential for increasing their interest and performance in STEM. Writing their thoughts down may be especially important in order to leverage the “saying-is-believing” effect, in which getting people to convince themselves of an idea is often far more powerful than attempting to persuade them. More advanced STEM students, however, may be more receptive to hearing from experts, like you, about why these lessons are valuable for them to learn.

Everyday versus career utility. Often when answering students’ questions about why they need to know something, we get wrapped up in career utility: How this lesson matters for the next class in the STEM sequence, graduate school, or some far-off profession. But notice that in these studies students wrote about how new material is personally relevant. Focusing on the practical, everyday value of STEM appears to be crucial for motivating struggling students. For example, college students with low STEM confidence who were told the relevance to their day-to-day lives of the mental math technique mentioned earlier, believed it was more useful and had more confidence in their ability to master it than students told that it was relevant for their future career. Thus, along with allowing students to self-generate STEM utilities, having them to focus on personal relevance seems to be more motivating. Advanced STEM students, however, will be increasingly interested in what their classes mean for their future career as they become more and more dedicated to a life in STEM.

Short-term versus long-term utility. This final consideration extends from the last point about everyday utility, but is worth discussing on its own. Students who lack confidence in STEM likely feel stressed and self-conscious when they try to understand new material and earn a passing grade. Negative emotions tend to focus people on the short-term as they seek to remedy the source of their distress. Thus, asking these students to think about long-term utility, even outside of a career, will likely be ineffective. Similarly, these overwhelmed students are unlikely to envision themselves in STEM years from now—maybe not even a semester from now—so any efforts to engender a long-term outlook will likely be in vain. But once you have successfully used self-generated, short-term, and personally relevant utility-value interventions to help increase their confidence, these students will become ready to talk about how learning STEM can benefit them both personally and career-wise in the years to come.

Especially exciting about utility-value interventions is the prospect that they could help address performance gaps in STEM among women and underrepresented groups. In a study of college students taking introductory biology, a utility-value intervention boosted performance across the board, but especially among first-generation, underrepresented minority students, who benefited by over half a grade. This type of intervention may help these students tap into their communal goals for participating in STEM, which should increase their likelihood of pursuing a STEM major and career. Other research by Dr. Harackiewicz’s group has suggested that utility-value interventions are important for motivating young women starting off in STEM, but further studies are necessary to determine whether and how best to leverage these techniques among this population.

So the next time you’re faced with the question Why do we need to know this?, think about who’s asking that question, as well as who’s listening to the answer. If you’re talking to students still gaining confidence in STEM, it may be time to encourage some reflection about the near-term, personal relevance of what you’re teaching. Lacking that opportunity, you can frame your lessons around how this knowledge can impact your students’ lives right now. Then, as these students become more confident in STEM, you can transition to sharing ways these lessons will help them in their future lives and careers.


Canning, E. A., & Harackiewicz, J. M. (2015). Teach it, don’t preach it: The differential effects of directly-communicated and self-generated utility-value information. Motivation Science, 1(1), 47-71.

Harackiewicz, J. M., Canning, E. A., Tibbetts, Y., Priniski, S. J., & Hyde, J. S. (2015). Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 111(5), 745-765.

Higgins, E. T., & Rholes, W. S. (1978). “Saying is believing”: Effects of message modification on memory and liking for the person described. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 14, 363-378.

Hulleman, C. S., Godes, O., Hendricks, B. L., & Harackiewicz, J. M. (2010). Enhancing interest and performance with a utility value intervention. Journal of Educational Psychology, 102(4), 880-895.

Hulleman, C. S., & Harackiewicz, J. M. (2009). Promoting interest and performance in high school science classes. Science, 326(4), 1410-1412.