Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Motivate the WIIFM Student with a Learning Audit Assignment

A teacher's heart sinks when she hears, "Why do I need to know this stuff?" halfway through a course.
Anticipate Questions and Prepare for the WIIFM Student

The "What's-in-it-for-me?" student requires an answer to that question even before the first lecture begins. Faculty, be prepared.

As a faculty member, how many times have you heard, "Why do I have to know this stuff?" or "This is a waste of my time? I'm never going to use this, anyway." Each and every time you've heard that sentiment, you've heard the cry of the "What's-in-it-for-me?" (WIIFM) student. No matter how many times you emphasize the importance of the subject matter or learning objectives in class, in one-on-one meetings, or in the syllabus, these students are a tough sell. As you know, many leave your course – on a daily basis – unmotivated to learn and still questioning the course's relevance.

Shifting the Onus of the WIIFM Paradigm

We teach our students to ask good questions, and with the onslaught of media students have to wade through on a daily basis, they are ever-increasingly becoming more careful consumers of information. We cannot fault them for inquiry. So, instead of combating these WIIFM questions, faculty need to re-establish the student's role as a student. When a student asks "What's in it for me?" the only answer that might satisfy that student will be a personal answer. Instead of second-guessing the personal goals of each and every student, faculty can encourage students to think about their own goals, expectations, and learning, by assigning learning “audits” throughout a term or semester.

Definition of a Learning Audit

Defining the learning audit is tricky. At its best, it’s a term that inspires only an analogous-metaphorical understanding. At its worst, it’s a term that inspires only accountants and economists. Yet, an understanding is necessary if effective assignments are to be built around the concept, regardless of the name any given instructor might use for the assignment.

The learning audit, in pedagogical-speak, is an assessment tool the faculty can use to make courses more applicable to changing generations of students. It’s a way to collect indirect data about what the students know or can do in any given subject area.

The learning audit, in more practical terms, is a written assignment in which the students have an opportunity to tell the instructor what they already know, what they want to know, and how what they want to know can apply to their lives in the future. Instead of faculty supplying the answers or assuming the answers to these questions, the students take full responsibility for the course’s perceived value.

Requirements for a Learning Audit Assignment

Simply offering each student an opportunity to brag about what he or she already knows and allowing each student to set goals for the course might be enough to inspire motivation throughout a term. Usually, however, a more stringent set of requirements is, well . . . required.

When assigning the learning audit, please keep these tips in mind.

  • First, a learning audit must happen throughout a term in order to truly be effective. The first day, at midterm, and at the end of the course are suggested. Students’ answers will change as the course progresses.
  • Second, the students must be given carefully constructed, open-ended questions that allow for exploration without allowing for “throw-away” answers, such as “I haven’t learned anything and I will never use this information.”
  • Third, assignments must be returned to students with comments in a timely manner, so they know their goals are valid and have been recognized.
  • Most importantly, faculty must remember that these are valuable assessment measurements, but they are only valuable when used to continuously evaluate a course and make changes as necessary.

There are many ways to conduct a learning audit, many ways to use the information, and many ways to handle the WIIFM student. Hopefully, however, the idea of the audit you introduce in your class will remain with the students, so they will be able to continue to evaluate knowledge and skills on a personal level throughout their academic careers.

Copyright Amy Lynn Hess. Contact the author to obtain permission for republication.
Originally published Oct 3, 2011 by Amy Lynn Hess.


  1. Looking back, I think I am one of those WIITFM students. Always questioned about the significance of algebra or probability. If only my teacher back then answered that question using this guide, then maybe I would have put more effort into liking and learning those subjects.

    1. It's never too late, but it sure is easier to learn something when it's presented, isn't it!? I did the same thing in a few of my courses, and now I could kick myself.