Influencing Student Learning

This week, the NYTimes published an article titled “Testing for Joy and Grit? Schools Nationwide Push to Measure Students’ Emotional Skills.”  The story caught my eye because I am interested in emotional intelligence (EQ), the affective domain, and learning research in order to:

  1. Identify instructional strategies that foster “zest,” where zest refers to intellectual curiosity and enthusiasm;
  2. Help college teachers promote academic “grit,” which Angela Duckworth defines as passionate persistence.

(I’m also interested in desirable difficulties and student misperceptions about learning which I affectionately refer to as “sweat,” but that’s a topic for another post.)

The role of curiosity and self-efficacy in motivation has been researched extensively and continues to be part of discussions about active learning. Followers of this blog may remember I wrote about student disinterest last year. Teachers often scapegoat students as being solely responsible for classroom boredom and apathy. Blaming students absolves teachers from investigating alternatives to increase student motivation. If teachers do that, they’re denying the ability to influence student behavior.

But, if you’re interested in learning how to exert more influence over students’ learning behaviors and attitudes, I recommend How Learning Works, Seven Research-Based Principles for Smart Teaching by Ambrose, et al. (2010). It’s comprehensive, grounded in research, and very readable.

The chapter titled “What Factors Motivate Students to Learn?” is particularly relevant to zest, grit and teacher influence.  It’s based on the principle that “students’ motivation generates, directs and sustains what they do to learn” (p.69). The authors provide research-based strategies to “increase the value that students place on the goals and activities you have identified and created for them, as well as strategies to help you strengthen students’ expectancies and create an environment that supports motivation” (p.83).

Connect to Students’ Interests / Make it Relevant. Tap into questions, topics, and issues that matter to students. Make explicit connections between courses and between content and professional expectations or future work.

Make it Real. Study real world events, analyze historical cases, incorporate web-based writing, provide opportunities for service-learning. Real people, clients, deadlines, and professional contexts simulate authentic constraints and assessment.

Reward What You Value. If you want to develop interactive skills or creativity, then those skills should be clearly defined and assessed.

Bring Passion to the Table. Teacher enthusiasm covers a multitude of sins. It also fosters student curiosity. Enthusiasm can be contagious.

Align Objectives, Assessments and Instructional Strategies. Students need to know what the goals are, have opportunities to practice, and get feedback in order to learn. Knowing what’s expected increases motivation. Multiple, low-stakes opportunities to practice and get feedback promotes grit.  Build challenge over time, beginning with opportunities for students to experience success early.  Identify expectations and connect them to concrete outcomes. Provide rubrics to explicitly represent performance standards and expectations.

Identify Appropriate Challenge. If goals are too easy or too hard, student motivation is decreased. Too easy suggests the value or worth is low. Likewise, students may not put forth sufficient effort if a task seems impossible. In order to set goal difficulty accurately, use a pre-assessment to obtain information about what students already know or can do.

Provide Specific Feedback. To be most effective, feedback needs to be specific, and timely. It should identify strengths, weaknesses and recommend future action.

Balance Flexibility and Control. Identify places where student choice can be integrated. Examples include choosing from a range of course weights for exams and papers to including student input about course content. Sharing some decisions with students increases ownership and sense of control, promoting zest.

Incorporate Reflection. Asking what they learned, or the most valuable part of a project gives students an opportunity to identify the value of their academic work. Similarly, exam wrappers help students evaluate test prep strategies, build on strengths and minimize weaknesses.

Learning results from what the student does and thinks

and only from what the student does and thinks.

The teacher can advance learning only by influencing

what the student does to learn. ~ Herbert A. Simon

Integrating zest increases teacher influence about what students think. Strategies that promote grit influence what students do.  Teachers have more influence than we realize. Let’s use it.

Reference: Ambrose, S.A., Bridges, M.W., DiPietro, M., Lovett, MC., Norman, M.K. (2010). How Learning Works Seven Research-Based Principles for Smart Teaching. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.


About Lolita Paff

Educator. Wife. Mother. Amateur chef. Wine lover.

Posted on March 2, 2016, in Learning, Students, Teaching. Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. Maryellen Weimer

    Good post, despite being written in a hurry. Every now and then I have a post that almost writes itself. It’s there and it comes quickly. Most of time it’s grit and sweat. I especially like the quote. We might be able to use that in Lecture/AL discussion. I think that conversation will be good if we have a lot of interesting prompts.

    If I had been well and with it last week, I would have written a mentorly note reminding you that whenever you are speaking, you need to be making references to your blog and inviting people to join. It has become a blog well worth reading. Prompt it! Quietly and persistently.


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