We know that the best learning happens when students give their best effort. Casual approaches to learning tasks often lead to products that may be passable, but not notable. When we recall our own learning and what we value most, we probably recall taking the learning challenge or task seriously, feeling confident but not complacent, and experiencing support to give our best effort.
We want to create these same conditions for our learners. We want them to give their best effort and produce their best work. Of course, some students always seem to give their best effort. Other students give extra effort sometimes, but not always. And still others can do better work than they typically produce but fail to do so.
So, how can we create conditions and position learning tasks and challenges so that students give their best effort and do their best work? Let’s explore six keys we can employ that have been shown to make a significant difference in the quality of work that students produce.
First, we can give students purposeful work. Of course, students need to see the work as purposeful. It is not enough for us to think it should be worthy. Purposeful work taps what students value and see as worth pursuing. Some students will respond to grades as their purpose. Unfortunately, when grades are the only reason for learning, learning retention is often short.
Second, we can allow students to play a meaningful role in defining a quality work product. We can engage students in discussions about what qualities and characteristics need to be present in quality products. We can share exemplars with students and have them analyze dimensions that represent quality and what might fall short. We can even formalize this process by building rubrics and scoring guides.
Third, we can engage student curiosity and unleash their persistence. Presenting open-ended questions for students to consider as they plan and prepare can offer unique work paths that students imagine and create. Meanwhile, we can coach students to see that excellence is rarely the result of a first or single attempt. Reflection, iteration, and practice move performance from good to excellent.
Fourth, we can provide focused, timely, thoughtful feedback. When we frame feedback as observations rather than judgements, we invite collaboration rather than resistance. When we position feedback as a conversation, not a presentation, we stimulate an exchange of information and perspectives rather than an argument. Feedback becomes more attractive when students experience it as “food for thought” rather than the “final word.”
Fifth, we can assure students of our confidence in their ability to succeed. Our relationships with students carry significant weight in how students perceive the likelihood of their success. Our belief in the capacity of our students is a crucial element in building their confidence to do high quality work. Of course, our expectations carry maximum weight when they are clear, realistic, and authentic.
Sixth, we can arrange an audience for the work that matters. When students care about the opinions of the audience of their work, they are more likely to give their best efforts. Sometimes peers can play this role. At other times, students will “give each other a pass” and will not represent a strong motivator for quality. Teachers, parents, and community members can often play this role effectively. Also, writing for a publication and performing for a video recording and posting can be influential. The key is for the audience to be important, but not so high stakes as to lead to action paralysis or emotional meltdown.
We may not be able to get every student do their best work every day. However, the more we can position and inspire students to do their best work, the more they will learn. Further, the more often students strive to do their best work, the more they develop skills and habits associated with high performance. Remember: Success in life often resides in moving good work to excellent.