If you want to improve student learning, start here.

When I read Visible Learning for the first time, I was surprised at what topped the list as having the single greatest impact on student learning. Having twice the impact of teacher clarity, feedback or student-teacher relationships, two and a half times the impact of concept mapping, study skills or problem-solving teaching and almost three times the impact of home environment, classroom management, socioeconomic status and small-group learning (the list could go on) was….

Student self-report grades and self expectations. 

If you had asked me before reading, I would have placed it as an important contributor, but it surprised me that it topped just about everything else on the list of effect sizes (although, Hattie’s latest book puts two new impacters just above it – you can find that here).

So what exactly is self-efficacy? Tokuhama-Espinosa says that self-efficacy is connected to the idea self-confidence, or a person’s belief in their ability to succeed (p. 48). Essentially, it is ‘the way self-perception influences what a person believes is within [their] power to achieve and has a direct impact on [their] motivation’ (p.48). For me, this is where Dweck’s Growth Mindset becomes pivotal. Student self-perception not only impacts student choice in what activities they undertake, their level of effort, their persistence through difficulty in learning, but it directly influences their actual ability to perform.

Self-efficacy is therefore crucial. If you aren’t familiar with Dweck’s work,the essence is this – students who believe they are incapable of learning typically prevent themselves from progressing, whereas students who adopt a belief that their abilities are fluid and can grow and change with persistent effort, will find a way to progress in learning. This is not to say that simply because students believe they can learn they automatically will achieve, but more the inverse; students who believe they are ‘stupid’, ‘not a math person’, ‘just not smart’ etc. they will give up on learning before it has a chance to occur.

Part of my role this year has been thinking through developing a learning and well-being framework for the school that I work at. The more I approach this topic, the more I become convinced that a huge part of learning improvement is, in the words of my colleague, about changing the way students see themselves. If you present quality pedagogy, but students don’t have a culture of positive self-efficacy you won’t make the progress you want to. So I’ve made it my mission to do what I can to target and improve student self-efficacy. Here’s my thinking on what I, and you, can do to change the way students see themselves:

  1. Explicitly teach students about possessing a growth mindset. Show them what a fixed mindset looks like and explain the damage it causes to the learning process. There are some great TED talks on the topic, and this one is quite accessible to students. A little phrase that I got from Dweck is the power of adding ‘yet’ onto ‘I can’t’ statements which is a helpful reminder to students. At the end of the day, why should teachers be specialists in teaching and learning to the exclusion of the students understanding the process?
  2. Hold a growth mindset yourself! Many schools are built on the rhetoric of class streaming, grading students, league tables, assessment results etc. Language is powerful, and language we use in schools not only demonstrates what we believe, but it can actually set the agenda. The worst bit is that this rhetoric gets into teachers’ heads. Sadly, I hear colleagues say things such as ‘… is just a B student’, or ‘… really shouldn’t be doing [insert subject here], they don’t have what it takes’, or ‘… will never get a Band 6’ (Band 6 is the highest level of achievement in NSW, Australia school leaving certificate). Language betrays belief, and at the heart of statements like these is a fixed belief about student ability. If you want to know where your mindset falls, take this test on Dweck’s website. Hattie identifies ‘not-labeling students’ as a significant positive contributor to learning in and of itself, so it’s a helpful challenge to watch for this thinking and language in yourself.
  3. Set high expectations. If you really believe that all students are capable of learning, then demand it from them (within reason). I wonder if, when a student fails in an assessment (or several in a row!), you ever tacitly accept this? Believed that this is just their ability level? If you knew they were heading that way, could you have intervened in their learning to change this? There are quite clear studies in this area; if we expect less from students, they will pick up on this pretty quickly and it will impact not only how we approach them but also how they approach their learning. If we expect more (within reason), they will rise to the challenge.
  4. Promote a culture of thinking. I’ve had a real focus this year on developing activities that are centred around promoting thinking and inquiry rather than memorisation of content for a test. In doing so, I’ve seen a significant increase in participation from students who might typically disengage from learning because of a lack of self-efficacy. The more you can engage these students, the more opportunity you have to show them that they can succeed in learning.
  5. Develop meaningful student-teacher relationships. This one sounds obvious (and ranks highly in Hattie’s effect sizes by itself), but investing in meaningful relationships with disenfranchised learners and demonstrating that you believe in their ability to succeed in learning can have profound effects. Students will not take risks in learning (which is a necessity to learn) if they do not feel safe and supported in the learning environment (Ritchhart, 2015, p. 201), and this safety won’t occur without a positive student-teacher relationship.
  6. Show them success. This has two dimensions. Firstly, using learning intentions and success criteria are helpful in showing students what it is they are aiming for, which can be really helpful (it actually helps focus their attention systems). Sometimes students have unattainable standards in their head of what ‘that kid over there that always comes first’ is able to produce. Showing what success looks like makes it all the more attainable. Secondly, creating opportunities for them to succeed and then acknowledging when students have succeeding has a profound impact on those who typically might not get acknowledged very frequently. Be careful here – this should be genuine praise, as artificial and unfounded praise can actually be damaging to students learning.

Each of these is relatively simply to do, but the more I journey into my reading about pedagogy, I can’t escape this feeling that too often schools ‘do learning to’ the students, rather than invite them meaningfully to participate in, believe in, and own their own learning. They simply won’t do this if they have an ingrained belief that they are incapable of learning.


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