By LeAnn Nickelsen, M.Ed.
The idea of effort gets a lot of attention. We worry about how much effort our students are showing, hope they’ll show up ready to exert effort and try various tools or strategies to increase their effort. But what really is effort in the context of school? How does interest play a role in effort? And what can we do to model, mold, and enhance it?
“Effort has to do with how much work you’re putting into something. A great achievement can also be considered a great effort.” (Vocabulary.com)
Bottom line, effort is a student’s response to try something challenging or to productively keep going when one’s emotional state of mind says to quit or when the struggle is real.
Would you like to see more academic effort from your students? There is so much competition in students’ minds right now, both positive and negative: spring is in the air, students finally have the opportunity to be more social with their peers, students are coming back for in-person school for the first time, the excitement of summer break approaching… alongside family and personal stressors that we might not even know about. All of these things could definitely decrease students’ academic efforts.
Dr. Carol Dweck, Gregory Walton, and Geoffrey Cohen (2011) said that “academic tenacity” is the “type of motivation that students carry with them in the form of mindsets and skills.” Academic tenacity is not a “fixed setting” in students’ minds. Instead, it can be promoted by teachers using specific, intentional tools and strategies. What little actions can you plan throughout your daily lessons to enhance and sustain student effort? You’re about to get a whole list in this article!
We want our students to respond to these academic struggles with productive thinking and actions versus total frustration and giving up. Have you ever noticed that when you are highly interested in a learning task or project, and it starts to get challenging that you use many tools to figure out how to proceed even when there are great obstacles to it? In other words, it was important for you to stick with it because the task was meaningful and interesting to you.
Interest is both a “psychological state characterized by increased attention, effort, and affect, experienced in a particular moment (situational interest), as well as an enduring predisposition to reengage with a particular object or topic over time (individual interest) (Harackiewicz, Smith, and Priniski, 2016). Student affective reactions (joy, excitement, curiosity, wow factor) along with the perceived value of the information or task (relevance, the strong why, WIIFM?) and a blending of cognitive functioning make attention and learning effortless.
Research strongly suggested that participants’ “interest” in a topic and the activities at hand were directly tied to both their effort and achievement on those tasks. Furthermore, it showed that student choice is directly related to interest (Simmons, 2014).
Here are a few tips, ideas, and strategies for facilitating student interest within your lessons so content and tasks are meaningful and “speak to them” so when the going gets tough, they just might put forth more effort during that challenge or try something new that looks daunting.
▢ Create lessons that positively answer the Big Four Questions that increase student attention and engagement (Marzano, Pickering & Heflebower, 2011): How do I feel about this topic or task? Am I interested in it? Is this important to me now and in the future? Can I do this?
▢ Giving students academic choices increases the likelihood of tapping into their unique interests and preferences while learning. Give students choices with the questions and topics they can research, topics to do jigsaws with, articles pertaining to your standards, who they work with sometimes, where they work in the school, and which tools they use, (list goes on and on) all contribute to enhance interest. Give students choices with how they practice what they have learned. They can write a summary, draw a picture with a one-word synthesis attached to it, create a mini skit, design a mindmap, or create a rap about what they learned. Don’t forget to ask them to help you design the Criteria for Success for the formative assessment that allows them to “show what they know” in their special way that is rigorous.
▢ Make the content relevant by sharing when they will use it in their day-to-day lives and in their future career (options of math concepts and which career could use them).
▢ Make the content more meaningful by activating their prior knowledge with these questions at the beginning of the lesson: What do you think you know about this topic? What are you sure you know about this topic? What questions do you have about this topic? What experiences have you had with this topic? What experiences has your friend, ___________, had with this topic? By the way, if they don’t know much about this topic, you will need to prime their brain by teaching them words, concepts, and ideas about this topic before teaching it (use lots of visuals).
▢ Choose culturally relevant texts, video clips, and activities so they see representation of their own cultures throughout the lessons.
▢ Remember Madeline Hunter’s anticipatory set (I’m dating myself here)? We do small things to grab their attention so the brain can take learning to the next step. We might call them grabber’s now. Here is a list of ways to “grab” students’ attention:
- Create status: Great student work; why Shakespeare is so highly regarded; The greatest war, Ripley’s, etc.
- Do something wrong – they love to catch a teacher’s mistakes!
- Use technology (Kahoot, Google Earth, Wonderopolis, Padlet, NearPod) – you’re a pro at this by now!
- Play songs that connect with your content
- Promote a challenge or problem to solve
- Ask an Amazing Question (What if… Should…)
- Show something – visual or prop – connected to your topic
- Engage student in a game or contest
- Involve students in a simulation
- Share a shocking story connected to the topic
- Create a funny analogy they would connect with for deeper meaning
- Ask students to help you open the lesson with a demonstration
- Form a Value Line based on their opinion about the topic (strongly agree – agree – neutral – disagree -strongly disagree). They stand next to the statement that best explains their perspective and form a human graph. Make sure you give them time to explain why they stood in that particular line.
- Show art that connects with the topic
- So many others…
▢ Think like your students while designing the lesson. Make sure examples truly do happen in a second grader’s life at school or at home. Know what gets their attention on a daily basis and tap into those items throughout the lesson. Connect to their real life.
▢ Facilitate curiosity with your topic. “You can teach a student a lesson for a day, but if you can teach him to learn by creating curiosity, he will continue the learning process as long as he lives” (Clay P. Bedford). More about this fabulous state of mind in future Insights newsletter.
▢ Find out what they are interested in within your units of instruction ahead of time. List their questions that they have about the topic at hand and take action to facilitate the answering of those valuable questions. Here is a free Interest Inventory within this Learning Profile (scroll down to “Learning Profile Contents).
▢ What are their strengths and how can you integrate their strengths into the unit and lesson? Here are two websites you can use to learn more about learning strengths: My Learning Strengths and Scholastic.
▢ Give students a Homework Menu of Options so they can practice what they need to practice in creative ways that are a better fit for them personally. See this website for a math menu example.
▢ Project-Based Learning and Passion Projects definitely spark more interest among our students.
▢ Engaging students to explore the answer to their questions with this amazing 11-Step Research Process that Eric Jensen and I created in our Deeper Learning (2014) book (email me if you want this template).
▢ LeAnn’s Favorite One: Your Raw Enthusiasm for your students and your content – BIG WINNER ALWAYS!
More than ever, we will need to be intentional in planning little ways to ensure students are interested in our daily lessons. There are small and big actions that we can take to enhance student efforts on a daily basis.
Dweck, C., Walton, G., & Cohen, G. (2011). Academic Tenacity: Mindsets and Skills that Promote Long-Term Learning. Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
Harackiewicz, J. M., Smith, J. L., & Priniski, S. J. (2016). Interest Matters: The Importance of Promoting Interest in Education. Policy insights from the behavioral and brain sciences, 3(2), 220–227. https://doi.org/10.1177/2372732216655542
Marzano, R., Pickering, D., & Heflebower, T. (2011). The Highly Engaged Classroom: The Classroom Strategies Series (Generating High Levels of Student Attention and Engagement). Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree and Marzano Research Laboratory
Simmons, M. Student Perceptions of Motivation and their Impact on Effort and Performance: A Grounded Theory Study of Affect and Achievement Motivation. (2014). Doctor of Education (EdD). 32.