As many teachers know, the national discussion on education is overcrowded with opinions on teacher training, salaries, tenure, and unions -- with occasional detours through iPads, textbooks, and national policy. In fact, it seems that we listen to every interested party except the one for whom education exists in the first place: students.
We've worked one-on-one with hundreds of students over the last decade, and while they always start from "my teacher hates me" or "I'm just bad at this subject," a change in their own behaviors and beliefs consistently leads to a turnaround in grades. We've seen firsthand all the ways that students can impede their own academic performance. We've seen how parents and our culture at large unwittingly sabotage students' success. And then we've seen our society give teachers full responsibility for a process that is only partially in their hands. That has to stop.
Teachers are essential and influential, guiding their students through new material, drawing out analysis and excitement about ideas. But even the best teacher is helpless against the student looking straight at the board but thinking about lunch. Students are, ultimately, the only party with the ability to truly transform the state of education. And as it turns out, what they have to say is quite telling.
What the Students Are Thinking
A year ago, we were approached by The Princeton Review to help them design a survey about Student Life in America. Rather than focusing on academic performance, they wanted to understand students' academic process. What goes through their heads when they do homework? Where do they turn for help when they're stuck? How do they think and feel during a typical school day? In short, the survey was designed to find out what only students can know: their thoughts, feelings, and goals. The results suggest that if we want to fix education, then we have to move away from blaming teachers, resources, or classroom size, and start talking seriously about what students are doing to create academic success -- and how we can best support them in that process.
Here are some of the survey's most telling results.
Too much homework or too much homework time?
Students readily reported that they spend one-third of their study time stressing out. We hear parents and students constantly complain about teachers assigning too much homework. Based on volume of hours alone, that makes sense. However, what the students have reported provides a totally different picture.
For every three hours that students seem to be spending on homework, only two are productive. Concerns about whether they'll do well, whether they're smart enough to understand the assignment, what grade they have, and how everyone else in class is doing can derail them in a major way. We could cut out that hour so that the work gets done and they can move on. Rather than assigning less homework, we should focus on helping students work more effectively. In preparing students for the modern world, that strategy is essential. In the working world, they won't have time to spend one third of their day unproductively stressing out. They need to learn how to stay on top.
They do care. . . about the wrong things.
One of the most interesting results was that 90 percent of students reported that they want good grades. For an educator, that's thrilling to hear. But only six percent of students want good grades for the sake of learning. Many students are so concerned with grades, tests, and college admissions that they've lost what's really important about school. When they're not succeeding, they feel terrible about school. The irony is that the act of learning in itself releases dopamine, the brain's ultimate feel-good chemical. That’s why those "aha!" moments feel so good. We can help students make that virtuous cycle happen. Better grades and scores matter, but you don’t get them by focusing endlessly on them. Better results come from finding better ways of working -- from improving process.
When students are so obsessed with results -- what they need to learn and what grades they'll get -- that they ignore how learning works. The frequent explanations ("math is stupid" and "my teacher just hates me") are obviously unproductive and untrue. But the survey participants made it clear that we must help students by making sure that they need to know how to learn, manage their stress, ask for help, and get that dopamine kick they deserve.
Here are just a few survey-inspired ways to help your students improve their approach:
1. Do a side-by-side comparison of cramming and learning.
We educators obviously love the subjects we teach and want kids to love learning for its own sake. However, the benefits of learning aren't obvious to students. Help them do a side-by-side comparison of learning and cramming over both the short and long term. While students' preferred strategy of last-minute cramming seems "smart" (why study every night when you can study just one night?), it doesn’t lead to long-term learning. Within hours or days, that material is forgotten, and students end up needing to relearn and refresh basic concepts, month after month or year after year. Also, by choosing to cram the material, students are denying themselves that dopamine release. Since they want to do well in school and have a non-miserable existence, once they realize that actually learning helps them do both, they'll choose it more and more often.
2. Teach your students to substitute action for stress.
Not only is spending one third of your study time freaking out unpleasant, it's a huge waste of time. Doing any small thing that gets your work closer to done is a much better use of time. Getting students to recognize when they're freaking out and substitute that worry for any small, productive action will help them massively reduce the amount of time they spend studying. Best of all, their results will improve, too!
3. Challenge students to produce actionable feedback.
We're all familiar with good and bad tech support, and this is no different. Comments like "Math is stupid" or "When am I going to use this in real life?" often lead to arguments about the virtues of a subject. But the real issue is that when we feel like throwing our computer out the window, it's not because computers are a waste of time. It's because the thing won't work, and we have no idea how to fix it. So we should encourage students to stop discussing results and start discussing actions. Instead of letting them talk in terms of grades and ability, turn the focus to what they actually did and why:
- What steps did you take?
- What could you do differently next time?
- How did you get this answer?
- What specific piece needs improvement?
Solutions at Our Fingertips
The fixes that come from listening to kids don’t require more money, more resources, or consensus in Congress. Talking to our elected leaders doesn't seem to have fixed education. Talking to our kids just might.
How have you gotten your students to take charge of their learning in the classroom? What strategies do you use to help students manage stress? What are your policies for making sure that students can come to you for help? We'd love to hear your thoughts and experiences in the comments section below.