Most teachers actively root for their students to succeed. They are often more committed to student learning than the students themselves. Even with the best of intentions, teachers frequently sabotage their students' ability to think, process, and comprehend when they use assessment and motivation strategies that are detrimental and ineffective ... even though they are common practices in most middle school classrooms.
Below are six statements that teachers use with the goal of helping their students. At first glance, they seem common, and it is easy to argue how they could have a positive impact. The purpose of this article is for educators to think about their practices and how common "help" can easily reduce student agency and enthusiasm.
With that said, think twice before uttering the following:
"Let's do a quick review before the quiz."
Teachers often say that this allows students to seek clarification before tests and quizzes. And if we are completely honest, our motivation is that we want our students to score well. However, what typically happens is that teachers reteach and remind their students of the content moments before passing out the assessment. Students now have the information stored in their working memory; they are able to regurgitate it for the day (or class period) so to appear to have understanding, yet they quickly forget it.
When teachers make this a part of their practice, students learn that they don't have to review new information over and over which is how it becomes embedded in their long-term memory. This helps explain why students earn A's in class, yet they still fail end of course state tests. More importantly, it affects students' ability to truly learn the material.
Instead, frequently assess students with both low stakes checks that are not graded along with quizzes, tests, essays, projects, etc. that do impact grades. Although I would not recommend "pop quizzes," students should not have an opportunity to cram facts and details into their working memories so they get a good score. Even better, teachers should begin classes with an assessment (whether graded or not) to use the results for targeted instruction.
"Let me help you."
Of course teachers should help students. However, students learn through struggle. For students to have deep learning experiences, they must think critically, which entails that students find their own answers to questions through research, reasoning, and investigation. As Carol Dweck details in Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, students must embrace challenges and temporary failures before they truly develop a passion and skill for learning.
Even though I would suspect that everyone reading this article has heard of growth vs. fixed mindsets, teachers still have difficulty watching students struggle with new concepts or higher-level thinking. They quickly "rescue" students by providing guidance, direction, or even answers. Teachers often err on the side of protecting their students' self-esteem, which is short-sighted and ultimately detrimental. Ask any athlete about beating a superior team vs. beating a weak team. Ask any musician about mastering a difficult piece vs. a simple piece. Although most students will not admit it "in the moment," they crave challenges, appreciate teachers who expect each student's best, and take great satisfaction in meeting lofty goals.
Instead, after directly teaching students the value and philosophy behind struggling, remind students to either try to figure information out themselves or collaborate with their peers with an understanding that after 5, 10, or 20 minutes, you are there to assist with feedback or guidance to help them find answers. Embrace temporary failures.
"Are you sure?"
Is there any clearer clue that a student answered a question wrong than when a teacher sweetly responds with "Hmm" or "Are you sure"? When students hear either of these, they know they just answered incorrectly and are prompted to answer again without much thought. If it is a low-level question, they just answer the opposite without true understanding.
Instead, reply "Why?" whether the answer is correct or incorrect. When students must justify their responses, they have the chance to self-correct, which leads to a deeper understanding. Teachers can simply expect that an answer is followed by "because …" When it becomes routine for teachers to solicit the reasoning behind student answers, the level of critical thinking increases dramatically.
"You need to know this for the test."
Okay, this is typically stated long before assessments, but it certainly contributes to the inauthenticity of learning. When teachers try to motivate students through grades, they are often successful. But they are also contributing to the development of a fixed mindset and causing more harm than good.
As teachers, we are frustrated when students ask, "Is this going to be on the test?" However, we are the reason why so many students ask. To steal from a 1980s public service announcement, "I learned it from watching you!"
Instead, assessments should be focused on big ideas and higher level responses to facilitate independent and critical thinking rather than the regurgitation of facts.
"Are there any questions?"
Again, on the surface, this is not a bad question. However, the issue is assuming that student silence equals comprehension. Many students are too embarrassed to publicly share that they do not understand, and others may be daydreaming or didn't hear the question. There are so many ways students can demonstrate what they know and do not know in an engaging and data-driven way.
Instead, use formative assessments such as exit tickets, the monitoring of small group discussions, quick check games, low stakes quizzes, and a plethora of digital assessment tools such as Kahoot!, Socrative, Mentimeter, Google Forms, Padlets, Poll Everywhere, Quizlet, Quizizz, Nearpod, etc. Good teachers are using these assessments to check understanding. Great teachers are using them to purposefully group students and target instruction and remediation based on student readiness.
"Use your notes."
This is similar to "Let me help you." Instead of the teacher rescuing the student, the student rescues him or herself by finding answers rather than struggling. I still remember copying down definitions from the dictionary … but I don't remember any of them. For students to truly use those higher level thinking skills, they must take what they know and synthesize that information.
In Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning, Peter C. Brown et al. argue that students often have an "illusion of knowing" based on familiarity of information. Unless students are able to recall information in their own words and then apply it, real learning is not occurring; test preparation is occurring in its place.
Instead, remind students that their own self-awareness is the most important aspect of learning. During those multiple low-stakes assessment opportunities, students should recognize what they know and, more importantly, what they do not know. Don't take away this tool by quickly providing the "crutch" of notes.
So how can teachers be responsive and supportive to their students? Establish from the first day of school (or start tomorrow) a focus on learning rather than grades and an expectation that student struggle is part of the learning process. Remember that the purpose of assessment is to check understanding, not to motivate students.
Any questions? No? Good.
Eric Fritz is an assistant principal at River Bend Middle School in Loudoun County, Virginia. He previously taught seventh and eighth grade English and is a frequent presenter at conferences.
Published October 2018.