Learning Sciences – Making Good Progress

The typical empirical pattern was that the employees internalised social expectations when expectations were high (the Pygmalion effect) and worse when they were low (the Golem effect).

– Social Motivation at Work: The Organisational Psychology of Effort for, Against, and with Others.

If a small number of students lack key skills, you can alert them to this fact and direct them to resources … to help them develop these skills on their own…. Once you have identified important missing skills, create opportunities … for students to practice those skills in relative isolation.

 – How Learning Works

Learning is about being able to do what one was not able to do before. It is a phenomenon which has been the subject of scientific inquiry for a long time. It is a complex process which requires many different factors to interact just right. What could students do in order to improve? Is it more practice?

The right kind of practice is important. There are other areas students have to work through before practice would be beneficial. They would also need to understand what and how to practise.

First and foremost, they must want to improve. To want to improve, they must be dissatisfied with where they are presently. This will cause frustration mainly because in the ordinary course of things, it will not be possible to change things overnight. They must be content with feeling discontented for a while or more.

Dissatisfaction alone is not enough. Students (regardless of age and domain of learning) are motivated to do anything in two main ways and these have been classified as intrinsic and extrinsic.

Intrinsic motivation is to feel moved to do something because the goal has personal significance or is worthy in and of itself. For example, a person who is intrinsically motivated may want to achieve a goal because he identifies with a certain self-image. He may want to know for himself that he is able to reach that goal.

Extrinsic motivation is to feel moved to do something because of some external reward. This reward could be recognition by peers and significant others. It could be something more tangible.

A key difference between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation is that when the external reward is removed, the extrinsically motivated person will no longer be inclined to invest time and effort in achieving the goal. The intrinsically motivated person is not as reliant on external rewards.

Both intrinsic and extrinsic motivation can be very compelling, at least in the short term.

Students must know it is possible to improve. This is to have a growth mindset instead of a fixed mindset. The truth of the matter is that improvement is always possible barring fixed barriers to change. It depends on time invested on the right kind of effort. A person who wants to improve and knows it is possible to improve with effort, is more likely to make the effort and remain motivated to improve.

A related concept is known as the Pygmalion effect. The Pygmalion effect was documented by psychologists Rosenthal and Jacobsen and refers to the phenomenon of improvement because of the high opinion of others. When A believes strongly in B and tells B as much till B believes it, B begins to perform up to A’s high expectations. Though the Pygmalion study was criticised for a design flaw, many can attest to its potency and its intuitive appeal. In a recent paper in the Annual Review of Psychology, Grant and Shandell (2022) showed research suggesting that the Golem effect (when A is certain that B cannot perform) can motivate some types in some situations to improve. Most teachers though, especially those working with kids, are likely to forswear this approach knowing how delicate the child psyche is.

Before proceeding, it would be apposite to highlight that dissatisfaction, frustration, motivation, and growth mindset are very crucial to improvement but students may not understand their significance. One way to help students understand why they work hard and control what they work hard on is to support them with guided reflections.

Through periodic reflections (written or through verbal discussion) students can remind themselves of why working on something is worth their effort. They can also identify subconscious obstacles standing in the way of their progress. For example, they may realise they have been discouraged and believing wrongly that progress in a certain area is not possible.

Though reflections can boost performance, it is not clear that students take any kind of reflection seriously. If they get the consistent message that understanding motivation and having a growth mindset is important, they may begin to focus better on reflections.

Students who are motivated and have a growth mindset may not know how to improve.

They may not know what they don’t know. Ambrose and others (2010) discussed how students master skills. They shared a model of mastery which suggests that students have to go from unconscious incompetence to conscious incompetence to conscious competence and then to unconscious competence (Sprague & Stuart, 2000 as cited in Ambrose et al., 2010).

For them to know what they don’t know, they must know the subskills a task entails. For example, let’s say a student wants to improve in Comprehension Cloze. The student may be facing issues with decoding (understanding meanings of words, phrases and sentences), synonyms (alternative words which would fit grammatically), spelling, subject-verb agreement, preposition use, background knowledge or reasoning. This is not an exhaustive list.

Ambrose and others (2010) say students need to know exactly why they are making mistakes and that some form of qualitative analysis would be useful. They also recommend that students be given opportunities to practise the very areas they need help with.

Once students become familiar with what they don’t know, they can then apply their efforts in that area. They have now moved from unconscious incompetence to conscious incompetence. With targeted practice in problem areas, they can move to conscious competence. After having practised long enough, they will eventually reach a stage where they can get questions correct automatically without conscious effort and this is known as unconscious competence.

Students may practise and still find their results wanting. Some students at this point may equate or conflate their performance to and with their ability. There are two concepts of practice students should be familiar with, to do justice to their time spent practising. The first is deliberate practice and the second is spaced practice.

They should deliberately practice specific areas and components they have problems with. Some students prefer not to do this and instead practise components they are more confident in. Practising problem areas can be mentally and emotionally taxing but in time will produce results.

Students may get questions in spelling tests or worksheets correct and yet misspell the same words or answer the same questions wrongly in an exam. This is due to the natural process of forgetting over time. Therefore, students would do well to self-test periodically after spacing with intervals, to ensure that what they have learnt remains easily accessible in their memory.

Steps tell you how much further you have to go but they make steep slopes less daunting. Also, they do end somewhere.

The Brain Dojo




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