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The Debrief

Where does a “can do” attitude come from and why does it matter?

Dan Cogan-Drew
Oct 27, 2020

“People learn best when they believe in their ability to grow and achieve mastery of what they are learning.” — Transcend Education

If you’re concerned about the ability of every student in your classroom to find reason to engage and stay motivated this year, one concept you may want to consider is that of competence and self-expectancy. Simply put, the term self-expectancy describes a learner's belief about themselves when it comes to tackling a learning task: how do they expect that they will perform on the task, and how does that confidence (or lack thereof) influence their motivation to undertake the task?

Several factors influence a student’s self-expectancy, one of which is their past history with similar tasks in the same subject area. If you have had difficulty as a reader — as I did, growing up — then the task of reading is one that for you evokes the memory of other attempts that you made at reading. When many of those attempts were unsuccessful — you got distracted while reading, didn’t understand the background knowledge or the vocabulary was unfamiliar and after encountering a few words that you couldn’t pronounce or comprehend, you stopped — your next attempt may call those experiences to mind. You may expect not to be able to read successfully, and your motivation to read may wane. 

Expectancy varies for learners by domain, so a student who feels supremely confident and motivated in the morning during math might struggle in the afternoon with reading. It’s also important to recognize the attribution that the learner gives to their success or challenge — whether in their mind, for example, their success in completing an assignment in a domain is the result of an internal or stable circumstance (something that they are in control of) vs. fortunate circumstance (“I got lucky”) or something beyond their control (“the quiz just happened to ask me about the part of the chapter that I’d studied”). 

In this way, it’s also important to recognize that expectancy binds strongly to a learner’s self-concept. And that self-concept is susceptible to distortion. For example, researchers have shown that identity threats can compromise student performance ability. A study of Asian-American women being reminded of their feminine identity (“girls aren’t good at math”) and not doing well vs. a control compared with being reminded of their Asian-American identity (“Asian-Americans are good at math”) demonstrated that a positive association with one aspect of one’s identity can lead to an improvement in performance. Strikingly, the same priming of a salient positive aspect of one’s ethnicity has also been shown to have the reverse effect, causing the subjects to perform worse due to the self-imposed pressure of living up to that identity. This effect is known as “stereotype threat,” the vulnerability of fulfilling a stereotype about your identity and either living up to or failing to live up to the performance that is expected of you based upon your identity. 

How can we as educators encourage our students to “believe in their ability to grow and achieve mastery of what they are learning,” as Transcend puts it? What are the implications of the learning science of self-efficacy for the selection and use of high-quality instructional materials? 

There’s a lot that can be said, but let’s focus here on two recommendations from Transcend and how they can be effectively enacted in Newsela: 

  1. Engage learners in tasks that are challenging but doable

It probably goes without saying, but just to be clear: readers who are below grade level can’t catch up to grade-level reading by reading only content that is below grade level. (As pedagogue Bart Simpson once said, “Let me get this straight: we're behind the rest of our class and we're going to catch up to them by going slower than they are?”) At the same time, comprehending texts that reach the higher end of a student’s zone of proximal development will require support from a teacher. Without this support, a reader attempting independently to comprehend text at their instructional level is unlikely to experience much success (though reading success has been shown to vary by student interest level and background knowledge).

Students need a mix of texts at their independent level and their instructional level. Newsela makes this possible by recommending an article at the level that may be right for the student, but also enabling the student and teacher to make choices about the difficulty that is right for them. In this way, the platform enables a teacher to select a harder level for the student when they are able to provide personalized scaffolds. When the same student is reading that article independently, they can choose to do it at a lower level where they are able to read successfully.

2. Help learners regularly set goals, plan toward them, and reflect on progress

The first time that we saw Newsela used in a classroom setting was back in the spring of 2013, in a middle school in New Haven, Connecticut. Based on dozens of user interviews and tests of design prototypes, we had a strong feeling that Newsela could be helpful. But we didn’t know exactly how it should be used. Fortunately, we had the benefit of a wonderfully innovative and determined teacher, who intuited an exercise for her sixth graders that would otherwise never have been possible.

She instructed each student to go to the lowest level of the article (grade 3, I think it was) and read it from beginning to end, then take the four-question multiple-choice quiz. If they scored 3 out of 4 or better, they were to go up a level and repeat the process. (If they scored less than 3, they were to review their answers and then go on to pick a new article and repeat the process.) In the 35-40 min we were in the class during this independent reading time, multiple students made it to the highest level (the original, as it appeared in the source publication) and scored 4/4.

The teacher gave them the structure and the goals, the actions that they needed to complete, and then let them advance as far as they could. Everyone scored at least ¾ on the lowest level, so everyone experienced a measure of success. And as the stronger readers advanced from level to level, she met with individual students to review their reading progress and help them identify and reflect on what was challenging.

The point here is that the student mindset matters. A student’s belief in themself matters. And many elements in their surroundings contribute to this mindset and self-concept. We want all students to read grade-level text, but we can’t expect them to apprehend a text that is beyond their reach without proper recourse and plan of attack - especially at a time when students will be doing the vast majority of their learning physically separated from their teacher. We must enable them to experience a sense of achievement, to attribute this accomplishment to themselves and their process, and to build the confidence that despite — and perhaps, because of — occasional setbacks, they have every reason to believe in themselves.

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