One dark, gray morning in early February, tired students stumble into the hallways of their middle school, blinking at the sudden onslaught of fluorescent light. Kira and Bryan walk toward their first-period class, and Bryan sighs. “I didn’t do my homework. Maybe I can get it done before class starts.”
“Me neither,” Kira admits. “It’s too cold to get up early and finish my work. Spring break isn’t until forever. Even my teachers seem exhausted.”
Much of the momentum that teachers carefully build during the fall semester seems lost in the spring as everyone in the school building enters survival mode. The stretch between January and April tends to see flagging stamina and a downward trend of performance data. These four strategies can help teachers maintain the momentum of earlier school months and help students not just survive, but thrive.
Not surprisingly, inertia interferes with growth. From a purely physical standpoint, sitting still for over 30 minutes is an unhealthy habit. Beyond that, the connection between body and mind health is strong, particularly for active children. When students sit in desks for over 30 minutes, their ability to remain engaged quickly declines, leading to behavioral issues and diluted learning experiences.
In the cold winter months, when exhaustion tends to increase as stamina decreases, it is even more important to keep energy uptake flowing. One strategy is to set a 30-minute timer at the start of instruction. When it goes off, give students 90 seconds to get up and stretch. If the class goes much longer than 60 minutes, reset the timer to go off one more time.
Focus on small, daily objectives
Every day, Kira walks into her social studies class and glances at the objective posted on the board. Today, it is the same as it was yesterday: “Students will analyze a variety of data to determine the root causes that underlie a scarcity of resources.” Shaking her head, Kira wonders, “What does that even mean?”
A more accessible objective might read something like, “Students will break down information that explains why people run out of some resources more quickly than others.” When learning objectives are packed with jargon or material to be covered over several days, kids struggle to see where learning is headed because the cognitive load of parsing out that bigger picture is overwhelming.
Consider an objective that is large enough to span several days and must therefore be chunked into component parts, such as “Students will design a model to describe the function of a cell.” If the teacher wishes to break down the objective into something more manageable for students on a daily basis, these are two more specific examples that fall under the umbrella of the larger target:
- Students will describe the function of each part of the cell.
- Students will develop two to three possible ideas for how to depict the cell in a model.
Research shows that if teachers focus learning targets on one measurable outcome each day using a higher-order performance verb per Bloom’s Taxonomy, it is much easier for students to see the rationale behind each lesson. Teachers also benefit by remaining focused on specific outcomes rather than becoming distracted by the large number of standards that are possible to assess on any given day.
In addition, teachers can provide relevant support to any students who have not achieved the objective to ensure that everyone meets expectations before moving on to new concepts. That way, students like Kira can finally see the purpose of the objective on the board, understand exactly what it means, and know that achieving this goal links directly to successful performance outcomes.
Avoid mental inertia
Even as students can get overwhelmed by overly broad objectives, they can experience mental inertia when the class does not move forward at a pace that matches their learning speed. Students do not benefit from reteaching or reviewing when they already know the content, so good first instruction coupled with a surgical analysis of classroom data helps teachers determine whether classes are meeting specific learning targets.
Suppose a seventh-grade world studies class is writing persuasive essays about what a democracy should look like with this learning objective: Students will be able to support the central argument with two examples from the text. The teacher can categorize achievement of this target into three sections: exceeds, met, and not yet.
Teachers can provide feedback for each category. For example, in the not yet category, the note might be something like “Some students in this category only included one example. Others didn’t find examples that related to their arguments.” With this type of analytical tool designed for a snapshot of student progress toward one objective, there is no need to undergo a long process of providing feedback to students.
Talk about and celebrate success
Bryan stares at his teacher as she looks over his life science homework. This class has been really tough, and he always feels as though he’s a little behind. “This isn’t what I asked for,” his teacher says, handing the report back to him. “You just wrote down the definitions. Can you elaborate on what these cell parts do?”
“Sure,” Bryan says, walking back to his seat as a familiar sense of dread creeps in. He dutifully copied down the vocabulary terms on his teacher’s slide presentation, but he doesn’t really understand what they mean. Mitochondria are little squiggly lines that have something to do with energy. Beyond that, he doesn’t yet understand how to explain their functionality. Frustrated, he puts his head down.
Teachers may be too quick to tell students what is wrong with their work, leading to feedback that is couched in criticism without any examination of what is good. As a result, students grow less certain about their capacity to achieve. To help kids gain confidence, it helps to provide explicit praise for what is working.
Suppose Bryan’s teacher had instead handed back his homework by saying, “I appreciate how well you were paying attention during the slides presentation. You captured a lot of the definitions I shared. Can we talk about how to elaborate on what the cell parts do?”
Whether celebrating success in conversation or in writing, making space for targeted feedback about the positive aspects of student work is key to maintaining momentum throughout the school year. On each assignment, teachers can include specific comments about what worked and what needs a little more attention:
- What is working?: Your main idea was very clear, and it was nice how you pulled in a quick sentence about your family as a quick way to explain your thoughts.
- What needs improvement?: Even though your personal example is great, you still need to add a quotation from the text to support your idea. You’re almost there!
If celebrations and areas for growth are given equal emphasis, students are less likely to become demoralized and give up. Teachers who incorporate explicit conversations about success into their daily instruction, keep the focus on smaller daily objectives, and maintain productive momentum through both physical and mental movement forward encourage students, so that they are far less likely to disengage and experience the gradual downward slide that is all too common in the spring semester.