George Lucas Educational Foundation
Teacher Wellness

Battling Decision Fatigue

When you’re teaching reading, focusing on these three questions can help you conserve your mental energy.
Photo of a bookshelf with students’ hands reaching in to make selections
Photo of a bookshelf with students’ hands reaching in to make selections

Teachers make about 1,500 decisions per day, which can lead to decision fatigue, a situation in which the brain is so exhausted and overloaded with decisions that it either looks for shortcuts or stops working altogether. Decision fatigue often leads teachers of reading to outsource our decisions to manuals, guides, and social media platforms that offer the promise of a quick fix. This outsourcing is a natural outcome of trying to cope with decision fatigue, and we’ve all been there.

The unfortunate consequence, though, is that outsourcing often leads to teaching that misses the mark, and we end up needing to reteach concepts when our students are ready for them—which can lead to more fatigue.

A good way to triumph over decision fatigue is to focus on the decisions that have the most impact. In our research, we found three decisions that are worth reading teachers’ attention. They all start with letting students be your guide—by doing so, you regain the trust in the intuitive expertise that helps you thrive.

Decision 1: What Books Do I Make Sure End Up in My Students’ Hands?

The more students read—actually read, not skim or pretend read—the stronger readers they become. Students are most likely to read when they get lost in the story of a great book and when they study a topic they’re curious about. And a pivotal study found that students increased the time they spent reading by 60 percent when they had classroom libraries.

There’s no magic list of books that will motivate all students to read. However, we’ve found that books fly off the shelves when they are relatable, represent something the students have faced in their lives, focus on topics that feel a bit edgy, and have plot lines that help readers develop empathy for others with very different life experiences.

When teachers decide to make book selection a priority in their classrooms, students are more likely to become independent readers. Student book talks, book blogs, and robust classroom libraries help students gain easy access to books they want to read and can read.

Decision 2: What Kinds of Conversations Should My Students Have About Their Reading?

The question is not, “Should we let students talk?” but rather, “How much and what kinds of talk?” Teachers see an increase in both engagement and understanding of texts when they open up space for daily conversations during read-alouds, shared reading, independent reading, and book club experiences.

The key is to offer students general choices about what to talk about, so conversations don’t feel forced and artificial. Invite students to generate a list of conversation topics with you and then let them choose what’s most compelling to them. For example, the list might include the main character’s wants, or whether the narrator is trustworthy, or whether students would want to be friends with a character.

All in all, it’s critical to remember that students benefit from a few minutes a day to talk before, during, and after reading.

Decision 3: What Kinds of Writing Should I Encourage My Students to Do About Their Reading?

Students benefit from keeping a reading notebook where they choose how to document and develop their thinking. The notebooks are filled with a variety of entries for which the student feels that he or she is part of the audience, in addition to the teacher.

Just as bookmarks are used to remind readers of where they left off in a book, notebook entries can help students save their thinking in those places and remind them of where their thinking left off. These notebooks become personalized, safe spaces for taking risks in their thinking. Treating the notebooks like the currently popular bullet journals lets students know they can be creative.

Readers tend to record three types of thinking in reading-notebook entries:

  • Right-now thinking: Readers write about what they’re thinking in one part of the text.
  • Over-time thinking: Readers write about ideas that are formed from noticing patterns in multiple places in the text.
  • Refining thinking: Readers look back at their thinking and develop it even further.

Students benefit from notebook entries where they choose how they write about their thinking—and teachers encourage creativity, visual representations, and a variety of entries over time.

We want to help you spend your decision energy wisely. If you focus on three main decisions, your teaching will be streamlined. So the next time you’re in the midst of decision fatigue, give yourself a break and remember that not every decision is worth your precious energy. Find the balance that works for you and your students.

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