Category Archives: Student Motivation & Engagement

What Makes for Good Learning Experiences?

The more we try to to help build the talents of every student and help every learner succeed in school, the more we have to be deliberate about creating good learning experiences in our classrooms. I have certainly added to the conversation about what I believe gives students good learning experiences.

The roots of those ideas are not just my own experiences as a learner and a teacher, and not just conducting research and reviewing research, but from actually asking people about their own good learning experiences. The Good Learning Experiences Activity is one of the ways I have explored different people’s perspectives on how they think they learn well.

The Process

learn-939239_960_720Gather a group of stakeholders: student, teachers, administrators, parents, community members. 

“Think of a good learning experience,” the script for the activity begins. “It can be in school, or out of school. It can be when your grandfather taught you how to cast a fly rod, or when your teacher worked with you to write that really good essay. But think of a time when you had an ‘aha!’ or something finally made sense, or you could finally do something. Think of a good learning experience.”

I give small groups of participants a few minutes to share their stories. Next, I ask them to jot down on scratch paper what it was that made it a good learning experience. What were the characteristics of the experience? After a few more minutes to share their lists with their neighbors, we compile a class list on chart paper, an overhead, or on a projected computer.

 

Before reading on, just take a second to think about a good learning experience of your own, and what it was that made that a good learning experience.

 

I have conducted the activity with people of nearly every age group: upper elementary students, middle school students, high school students, college students, teachers, parents, and community members. Only a few participants have ever stated that they can’t think of any good learning experience. Many of the learners state that their best learning experiences have taken place outside of school. No one has ever said that their best learning experience came from a terrific lecture, or an interesting textbook, or an engaging worksheet (although I believe each of these can be a useful teaching tool when applied wisely).

Having conducted this activity with so many groups, I am intrigued by the results. I was surprised to find that, regardless of the group involved, there were common elements with other groups’ lists. Since 1992, I informally tracked the results and found that certain characteristics of good learning experiences come up in nearly every list:

  • The work was well connected to other ideas and to the real world
  • The content of the learning experience was personally relevant, interesting, useful, or meaningful to the learner
  • The learner had choices, shared authority, control, and responsibility
  • The learning was hands-on and experiential
  • The learner learned from and taught others
  • The learner had the support of a patient, supportive, and nurturing mentor
  • The learning was individualized and although there were standards for the work, the learner could meet them in his or her own way
  • There was a positive aesthetic component to the experience: it was fun or left the learner feeling good
  • The experience helped the learner understand him or herself
  • The learner had success and accomplishment with challenging work

Now, these are my words synthesizing the lists I have collected over the two and a half decades I’ve been doing this activity. Certainly elementary students aren’t going to use these word exactly. But doesn’t this list reflect what has made your own good learning experiences good?

Much can be learned by investigating how students believe they learn well. What better source for finding out what motivates students to learn than themselves?

But with knowledge comes responsibility. If you know what makes for good learning experiences, don’t you now have an obligation to ensure that you model these in our own teaching? – Or at least start learning how to do these in the classroom?

 

(Note: I have been with educators who have used the prompt “think of a good experience” or “think of a good school experience”, and it never gets to the right information about when people learn well. If you are considering doing this activity with your own students, teachers, or parents, I highly recommend that you stick with the prompt “think of a good learning experience.”)

Ed Tech Research is Clear: Owning a Device Does Not Improve Learning

Scanning the media on education technology could easily lead one to believe we are wasting our money when putting devices into the hands of students.

Whether it is districts that have had disturbing problems trying to implement technology for learning (such as here, or here), or folks who tell us why we shouldn’t have devices in school, or schools that have decided that technology is too disruptive and have banned it, or authors who caution about the over-promising with technology (such as here, or here), it is not surprising that we are dubious of investing in education technology, and wonder “why bother?”

Digital LearningOn the other hand, educators in Washington County, PA, find that their devices benefit students, and in Auburn, ME, educators found that when they carefully selected apps aligned to their curriculum or participated in professional learning focused on using apps to build conceptual understanding of mathematics, student learning improved.

So what’s different between these two groups?

From my perspective, each of these instances are really just reflections of either the problems we experience when we focus on the device more than we do the learning, or the benefits of doing the reverse (the notion of “more verbs, fewer nouns”). It is ludicrous to look inside a classroom and decide if technology is a waste of investment or a distraction without also investigating how we are using them for learning. Simply having technology does not improve learning.

And there are plenty of authors and organizations out there who are anxious to help us be successful with education technology:

Here is our advice to your school when considering the value of your education technology:

  • If the goal of your technology initiative is to provide students with technology, then all you will end up with is students with devices (and probably distracted, off-task students at that).
  • Your technology initiative should consider the kinds of learning experiences you want for your students and the supports you put in place to help teachers create those experiences.
  • Keep in mind that student distraction is almost never a device problem. It is almost always a boredom problem. We must stop blaming technology and get better at engaging students with our teaching.
  • Make classroom management in technology rich classrooms a part of your school’s professional learning plan. Support teachers in developing strategies beyond sending kids to the principal and requesting that devices be locked and blocked.
  • When reviewing research on technology in schools, ask yourself if the study simply looks at the presence of technology, or if it looks at how the technology was used. Further, did the study measure student engagement? Don’t put too much value in the incomplete studies – we already know that owning devices doesn’t improve learning.

In short, start with the pedagogy, then think about the devices.

 

 

 

Motivating Students: Focus on 6 Strategies

There are many children who seem undermotivated, disengaged, and underachieving.

Many educators are frustrated by such students; some educators as they struggle with finding ways to engage those students, and some because they believe it is up to those students to be motivated or not.

While it is true that the degree to which students are “self motivated” is a key factor of student academic success, the idea falls flat when it is accompanied with the assumption that there is nothing teachers can do to help students be more self motivated, when, in fact, there are strategies for creating the conditions for student to be self motivated.

Great teachers have always struggled with the persistent question, “How do I motivate all children to learn?” (Although, the question is probably better framed as, “How do I create the conditions for students to be self motivated?”) And you are probably one of the ones wondering how to reach them (or I doubt you’d be reading this post). You are not alone.

Six strategies for motivating students

One approach to reaching all students is Meaningful Engaged Learning’s Focus 5 Plus 1, based on my research. Schools working to improve student motivation, engagement, and achievement concentrate on balancing six focus areas:

  • Inviting Schools
  • Learning by Doing
  • Higher Order Thinking
  • Student Voice & Choice
  • Real World Connections
  • Continuous Improvement

Here’s a brief overview of each strategy.

Inviting Schools
Sometimes, it may seem like this has nothing to do with academics or engaging students in learning, but positive relationships and a warm, inviting school climate are perhaps the most important element to implement if you are to reach hard to teach students. I heard over and over again from the students I studied that they won’t learn from a teacher who doesn’t like them (and it doesn’t take much for a student to think the teacher doesn’t like her!). It’s important for everyone in the school to think about how to connect with students and how to create a positive climate and an emotionally and physically safe environment. Adult enthusiasm and humor go a long way, and teachers are well served to remember that one “ah-shucks!” often wipes out a thousand “at-a-boys!”

Learning by Doing
When you realize that people learn naturally from the life they experience every day, it won’t surprise you that the brain is set up to learn better with active, hands-on endeavors. Many students request less bookwork and more hands-on activities. The students I studied were more willing to do bookwork if there was a project or activity as part of the lesson. Building models and displays, fieldtrips and fieldwork, hands-on experiments, and craft activities are all strategies that help students learn.

Higher Order Thinking
It may seem counterintuitive, but focusing on memorizing facts actually makes it hard for students to recall the information later. That’s because the brain isn’t accustomed to learning facts out of context. Higher order thinking (e.g. applying, analyzing, evaluating, and creating, within the New Bloom’s Taxonomy) requires that learners make connections between new concepts, skills, and knowledge and previous concepts, skills, and knowledge. These connections are critical for building deep understanding and for facilitating recall and transfer, especially to new contexts. Remembering things is important and a significant goal of education, but remembering is the product of higher order thinking, not the other way around. Involving students in comparing and contrasting, drama, and using metaphors and examples are strategies to move quickly into higher order thinking.

Student Voice & Choice
Few people like being told what to do, but in reality, we all have things we have to do that may not be interesting to us or that we would not choose to do on our own. Nowhere is this truer than for children in school. So, how can we entice people to do these things? We often resort to rewards or punishments when we don’t know what else to do, but these have been repeatedly shown to be counterproductive and highly ineffective (Kohn, 1993). Instead, provide students voice and choice. Let them decide how they will do those things. This doesn’t mean allowing students to do whatever they want, but it means giving them choices (“Which of these three novels about the Great Depression would you like to read during this unit?”). Let students design learning activities, select resources, plan approaches to units, provide feedback about how the course is going, and make decisions about their learning.

Real World Connections
This focus area is often a missing motivator for students. Schools have long had the bad habit of teaching content out of context. Unfortunately, this approach produces isolated islands of learning, and often makes it easy to recall information learned only when they are in that particular classroom at that time of day; they are not as able to apply the information in day-to-day life. When learning is done in context, people can much more easily recall and apply knowledge in new situations (transfer). Making real world connections isn’t telling students how the content they are studying is used in the “outside world.” It’s about students using the knowledge the way people use the knowledge outside of school. Effective strategies include finding community connections, giving students real work to do, and finding authentic audiences for work (think project-based, problem-based, and challenge-based learning).

Continuous Improvement
Continuous Improvement takes skilled guidance, direction, and coaching from thoughtful teachers, who will place emphasis on assessing frequently, providing timely formative feedback, coaching, motivating and nudging, and monitoring of progress. Learners need to know what they are aiming at (clear picture of the learning target), and to see fairly immediately how they did with meeting the target. They can gather the feedback themselves, or a guide or coach can provide the feedback (or both). But that feedback needs to be as immediate as possible, and needs to be detailed enough to lead to improved performance. Learners need the opportunity to make corrections on their next turn (and, therefore, need opportunities for next turns!), and the next turn needs to be soon after the current turn. This isn’t about letting students just try and try and try until they get it. To focus on “re-do’s” is to focus on the wrong part. It is about strategically leveraging the clear target and the detailed feedback to improve performance.

These six focus areas aren’t new material; they are a synthesis of what we’ve known about good learning for a long time. The model is comprehensive, developed from education research, learning theories, teaching craft, and the voices of underachieving students.

But it is important to keep in mind that students need some critical mass of these strategies to be motivated. Teachers sometimes get discouraged when they introduce a single strategy and it doesn’t seem to impact their students’ motivation. The trick then isn’t to give up, but rather to introduce more of the strategies.

(NOTE: this is an updated version of the original Focus Five. “Continuous Improvement” was added as Focus Area while working in a district implementing proficiency-based, customized learning. Continuous Improvement had come up a little in the original research as “success breeds success,” but, without proficiency-based systems where teachers continue to work with students until they demonstrate some level of competency with a learning target, students don’t really notice – in a research study based on their perspective – the impact and importance of ongoing feedback and coaching, and success breeds success/continuous improvement didn’t rise to the level of a Focus Area at the time.)