2 Student Beliefs That Can Change Everything

We know the strong relationship between feedback & achievement. What about the one between feedback, personalization and, hence, motivation?

2 Student Beliefs That Can Change Everything

by Grant WigginsAuthentic Education

Ed note: On May 26, 2015, Grant Wiggins passed away. Grant was tremendously influential on TeachThought’s approach to education, and we were lucky enough for him to contribute his content to our site. Occasionally, we are going to go back and re-share his most memorable posts. This is one of those posts. Thankfully his company, Authentic Education, is carrying on and extending the work that Grant developed.

We know the relationship between feedback and achievement is strong. What about the relationship between feedback, personalization and, hence, motivation?

The recently-released Gallup poll on American education in which hundreds of thousands students and teachers were polled is quite revealing. Personalized learning and feedback – and, more specifically, personal recognition for work well done – matters greatly:

Among the 600,000 students who took the poll in 2013, those who strongly agreed with two simple statements were 30 times as likely as those who strongly disagreed with both to be emotionally engaged at school. Those two statements were:

1. My school is committed to building the strengths of each student.

2. I have at least one teacher who makes me excited about the future.

The Gallup folks note, however, that our current approach to teaching and testing makes it harder for teachers to “tailor their instructional approach to individual students’ needs and to ensure that the praise they offer is personal and meaningful.”

Harder, but not impossible. What good schools do, in fact, is establish a culture of engagement and learning regardless of what is happening in the wider political world. Indeed, the failure locally to control the learning culture undermines student (and teacher) engagement:

“Meaningful interactions at school drive student engagement. But they don’t happen often enough or without a purposeful effort by school leaders to provide an environment in which students’ strengths are celebrated and talented teachers work under conditions that promote their own engagement.”

This matters. Student engagement correlates highly with achievement, as Gallup found in an earlier study:

In 2009, Gallup conducted an in-depth study of 78,106 students in 160 schools across eight states…The results were dramatic. A one-percentage-point increase in a school’s student engagement GrandMean was associated with a six-point increase in reading achievement and an eight-point increase in math achievement scores.

Schools in which students were in the top quartile of average engagement results were 50% more likely to be above average in statewide reading achievement scores than schools in which students were in the bottom quartile of Gallup’s engagement database. Top-quartile schools were also 82% more likely than bottom-quartile schools to be above the state average for math achievement.

This is common sense, of course. The more you can do your work and gain helpful feedback on your work the more engaged you will be. Additional support for this idea:

From How People Learn by the National Academy of Sciences: “Feeling that one is contributing something to others appears to be especially motivating. Learners of all ages are more motivated when they can see the usefulness of what they are learning and when they can use that information to do something that has an impact on others—especially their local community.”

From John Hattie’s Visible Learning: “Motivation is at its highest when students are competent, have sufficient autonomy, set worthwhile goals, get feedback, and are affirmed by others…. Having a sense of control over one’s learning is important – it is highly related to positive outcomes…. Interest in the work is highly correlated with achievement.”

From The Role of Expectancy and Self-Efficacy Beliefs: “Teachers need to provide accurate feedback to students to help them develop reasonable perceptions of their competence but, at the same time, communicate that their actual competence and skills will continue to develop. Students’ perceptions of competence develop not just from accurate feedback from the teacher, but through actual success on challenging academic tasks.”

These findings also square with our own student surveys and with student commentary. Math is the most disliked subject in school. Why? Many students dislike it because it makes them feel stupid. No other subject in the curriculum has such a survey profile. In general, like and dislike in all other subjects reflect the interest-value of the work in the course.

Education Redesign Needed

A vital take-away from the Gallup work is that education must be re-designed for better personalization of learning and, more specifically, positive reinforcement for individual students – based on the kind of feedback discussed in my previous post, in relation to authentic work. As the survey puts it: “Gallup’s decades of workplace research indicate that for recognition to have such positive effects, it must be individualized, specific, and deserved.”You can’t just give feedback on typical tests of content knowledge and think that this will greatly improve engagement and achievement.

The key, from Gallup studies of schools nationwide, is to build education plans that match up with each student’s unique strengths. In other words, when students know what they do best and have opportunities to develop those talents, they are more motivated and enthusiastic about learning. Gallup’s research shows that more than eight in 10 students who strongly agree that their school is committed to building the strengths of each student are engaged in school.

This is a matter of curriculum and grading of work, then, not just a matter of tone and accuracy of feedback from typical tests and papers. There can’t be personalized and reinforcing learning in a curriculum with no choices, no self-assessments, no personal contracts, nor no meaningful work. There cannot be positive reinforcement in a traditional grading system that highlights knowledge deficits only. (Points subtracted rather than achievements noted.)

Engagement & Choice

When I began teaching, students could meet subject requirements in English and History through many electives in high school. Those options are long gone in most places. Student contracts and Mastery Learning were designed to highlight personal achievements rather than common deficits. Such grading systems have not in general survived the 70s either, except in college. Here is a helpful resource contianing examples of contracts for high school.

Think of the typical high school, by contrast. How often do students get to play to their strengths instead of their weaknesses? How often does the average student have an opportunity to be recognized for their contributions? How often do students get to gain the satisfaction of co-framing personal goals in a contract and meeting such goals? 30 years after Horace’s Compromise and my work with the Coalition of Essential Schools, high school looks pretty much the same, alas.

Here are the three key questions from the Gallup survey, on a strongly agree-strongly disagree scale:

My teachers make me feel my schoolwork is important.

At this school, I have the opportunity to do what I do best every day.

In the last seven days, I have received recognition or praise for doing good schoolwork.

It’s no wonder that students enjoy sports, performing arts, robotics, and other such offerings as much as they do since they get to play to strengths, help the greater good, and routinely receive some positive feedback.

Why, then, can’t –

students “major” in school as in college?

teachers make contracts with students that better balance playing to strengths and meeting course requirements?

students get the kinds of mentoring and positive reinforcement for pursuing their own work as found in graduate school, travel sports teams, and in adult workplaces where grades do not define achievement?

there be course-design guidelines that require teachers to personalize the study of an area through choices of topics/projects/problems/questions that enable students to play to talents and interests?

HS grading systems be more than just point averages focused on deficits that are silent about specific personal achievements?

Nothing in these suggestions runs counter to the Common Core or current accountability either. On the contrary, the only hope for significant advancement of engagement and thus performance is to spend each day in a joyful, focused, and collaborative school. That’s what the data say; that’s what common sense says.

As Gallup summarizes in its findings:

Students’ engagement at school may be influenced by innumerable factors largely outside a school’s control. However, there are fundamental strategies schools can focus on to dramatically raise the likelihood that students will be emotionally engaged in the classroom on any given day.

Those strategies include providing students with opportunities to discover and develop their talents, and with teachers who inspire a sense of optimism about what they can achieve with those talents.

Instructional leaders, do you get this? Or is a lack of imagination and leadership causing you to passively accept a culture of impersonal “coverage” and test-prep paranoia instead of a culture devoted to engaged learning at worthy and personalized work?

PS: I focus in this post on student engagement; the survey results on teacher engagement are arguably more depressing. I plan to address those issues in a later post.

PPS: Take 10 minutes this week to ask students the key Gallup engagement questions:

To assess levels of student engagement, the Gallup Student Poll asks students to rate the following five statements using a five-point scale, where 1 means “strongly disagree” and 5 means ‘strongly agree.’

• I have a best friend at school.

• I feel safe in this school.

• My teachers make me feel my schoolwork is important.

• At this school, I have the opportunity to do what I do best every day.

• In the last seven days, I have received recognition or praise for doing good schoolwork.

This article was excerpted from a post that first appeared on Grant’s personal blog; image attribution flickr user flickeringbrad; 2 Student Beliefs That Can Change Everything