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Unmotivated or Disengaged Students? Try Incorporating Victories That Are Not Linked To Grade Performance

Posted by 
Mitch Weathers
 on 
February 25, 2021

In a recent article I encouraged educators to help their students get grittier about their learning by taking a moment to celebrate their effort. When we do this, we motivate students to lean in and try harder, even (and especially if) they’re struggling. Students get grittier about their education when they’re acknowledged and celebrated within an academic setting.

Design For Success

Therefore, it is worthwhile to design opportunities for students to engage in ways that we can acknowledge and celebrate. To be clear, this effort must be a genuine pursuit. If it’s hollow or contrived, students will pick up on our disingenuousness and tune out. Our goal is to get them to lean in. The question then is how do we implement this strategy with authenticity? And how do we do so for our most fragile students: the learners who are in need of motivation, preparation, acknowledgement, and victories?

The Promise Of Predictable Routines

The answer is found in the promise of predictable learning routines. Our dependable rhythms of the school day that establish safer learning spaces. Students, when engaged in these environments, are more likely to find the courage to take the risks inherent to learning. If by virtue of our daily learning routine, students engage in ways we can acknowledge and celebrate, we have created countless opportunities for these victories. But here is the key to this strategy - these celebrations must not be tied to content mastery. Instead, they should be the byproduct of simply participating in the learning routine of the class. This can’t be stressed enough. These celebrated moments must not be linked to grade performance. Too often, in the modern classroom, “success” is tied entirely to content mastery. So much so that if I am a student who is struggling in this course I may perceive myself as less of a part of the learning community. This is tragic. These students, more than most, need the chance to see themselves differently as a learner. If we design the rhythm of our school day strategically, we give students the opportunity to be “caught” engaging and we can celebrate it. 

Keep It Simple

It can be simple. For example, if my starting routine is to be in your assigned seat with your binder or notebook or computer open to a certain page then I give students the opportunity to do that successfully. When they do, I can acknowledge their effort and celebrate it. 

For the record, these acknowledgements are not elaborate ceremonies. Usually it’s more of a tap on the shoulder with a soft, “...way to go, you had your binder open when we started class.” Or my favorite, for my most fragile learners, a whisper saying, “...good work, you brought a pencil to class today.” Similar to my friend and mentor Aubrey Patterson’s note about my writing in a tweet. He simply said I was a “wonderfully creative writer.” As I explained in that article, I don’t see myself as a writer, it is an uncomfortable and vulnerable space for me. When I read Aubrey’s words there was a shift in the way I perceived myself as a writer and a new found courage to continue putting myself out there for the world to read. If a simple acknowledgment of my effort from someone I trust can have such a profound impact on me, imagine what they can do for young people. 

Look For Anything

Truly, anything we can find, acknowledge, and gently celebrate, must not pass us by. It is also important to frontload these victories at the beginning of class, or the school day, if we are going to engage students. Struggling students are used to the struggle. They are familiar with failing. They need to hear a different narrative and we are helping craft that story. When they arrive to class and experience some success (those that we acknowledge and celebrate), even if the content is hard for them, we give them the chance to see and be a part of our learning community. The impact of this paradigm shift cannot be understated.

Empowering Students With Praise

This is true for all students, but in particular, those who struggle academically, as well as our English Learners, and those students with learning differences. Many of these students may not know how to approach their learning with acuity and dexterity. They often feel like their education is happening to them, or all around them, but they lack the agency to jump in with confidence and succeed. I have watched this take place year after year in my classroom - both in-person and virtually. We empower these students to take the risks needed to succeed academically when we acknowledge and celebrate their victories that are not necessarily tied to grade performance in the class.

Win Win!

One last point. To take it a step further, when students, by virtue of our predictable routines, get practice with the skills and habits research has indicated help them succeed academically, it is a win win. Students have the opportunity to be acknowledged and celebrated while engaging in the rhythm of the school day while simultaneously gaining practice with the noncognitive skills and executive functioning necessary to achieve success. 

Give it a try and let me know how it goes! 

Be well,

Mitch 

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