Three ways to foster student perseverance

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Originally posted August 22, 2013 on Scholastic EduBlog

When it comes to motivation, your belief in your ability is more important than your actual ability. When we hit an obstacle in math or science or reading, we don’t pick ourselves up and try again unless we believe our next effort has a chance of success. If we want students to persevere, we need to build their confidence along with their competence. Here are three things you can do to help foster this resilience:

Set the expectation for struggle. Consider these two introductions to a math problem: “Let’s start with an easy one” vs “This might take a few tries.” What happens to the student who can’t readily do the “easy one”? He’s done for the day. What’s the point of trying something that isn’t “easy”? On the other hand, the student who expects that the problem will “take a few tries” comes out feeling okay no matter what. If she gets it right away, it feels like a big win. If she struggles, it’s no big deal; it was supposed to take a few tries.

Give them a running start. Students with a history of failure expect to fail, so they often stop trying. Telling them to keep trying is nice encouragement, but why should they believe you? They need evidence of their capability. So walk them back a few steps. Give them tasks along the learning progression that they already know how to do. Or scaffold these early steps so that they build some confidence. Don’t spend too much time asking them to do what they already know; it gets boring. Quickly get them to their edge of their abilities, but with the belief, supported by their early successes, that achievement is possible.

Show progress. Seeing that your effort is paying off is very motivating, particularly when a milestone is in sight. Create a visible pathway through the learning you expect students to achieve. Then show each student how he or she is moving along that pathway. Put markers along the pathway so that achievement can be reached and celebrated incrementally. “Wins” are very motivating, so it’s okay to have several of them along the learning path.

We’re looking to share insights like these about perseverance, resilience, and growth mindsets across the country. And I’ve teamed with a couple of colleagues from Mindset Works and the University of Memphis to propose a session at the SXSW 2014 Education Conference in Austin. The conference uses crowdsourcing to help evaluate, refine, and select proposals for the conference program. Please take a moment to comment and vote for our proposal.

©Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. Reprinted with permission.

Last updated on 05/31/2016