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Making Failure Harder Work Than Passing

Angela Campbell

Teacher, High School Science
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Chemistry seems to inspire a "D" mentality. A significant number of students just want to pass the class, meet their graduation requirement, and do it with as little effort as possible.

Take Evelyn, for example, a junior in my chemistry class last term. Evelyn is a bright young lady, but she didn't see chemistry as relevant to her present or future, so she kept her head low, didn't engage in the material, missed about 20 percent of the class, and seemed to target a grade of 60 percent. That was at the beginning of the class.

By the end of the term, Evelyn was sitting in the front row, volunteering to demonstrate how to solve problems, and getting frustrated with herself when her final grade in the class was a "B."

Evelyn's grade had gone from a 60 percent to an 85 percent, but the real changes that I saw in her were much more rewarding than an improved grade point average. Evelyn was engaged in learning, taking risks, and working harder than she had once believed she could.

Many students will avoid working hard in a class that they see as challenging because of the risk involved. If they work hard and fail, then they've proven their inadequacy. But if they don't work hard and manage to get a "D," then their pride remains intact and they haven't lost anything. That's the reason why, in my class, I make failing harder work than passing.

Turning "I Can't" Into "I Can"

Here is the typical learning cycle for a unit in my chemistry class.

  1. I present the students with a list of learning objectives for the unit. The list is short, concise, and worded as “I can” statements. Here is an example of the objectives for the unit on dimensional analysis and the mole (Holt Chapters 7 and 3):
    • I can identify the mole as the unit used to count particles, and use Avogadro's # to convert between moles and particles. (7.1)
    • I can calculate the molar mass of an element or compound. (3.4)
    • I can perform molar conversions (use the Mole Road Map). (3.4)

  2. There are guided practice opportunities for students on each of these objectives, and then there are formative assessments. The formative assessments could be homework, quizzes, or labs. They count for very little in the grade. The point of these assessments is to give kids a lot of practice with the material in a low-risk environment, and to provide feedback on their progress toward mastering the objectives.

  3. After a period of guided practice, formative assessment, feedback, and review for each objective, the students prepare for the summative assessment. The summative assessment is weighted heavily in determining the grade, so we practice the types of questions that they'll encounter on the assessment.

  4. Students take the summative assessment. A passing grade is 70 percent. Students who don't meet that minimum requirement have to retake the assessment. They're given a test map showing them which objectives they didn't master. The test map is accompanied by an intervention worksheet organized by objective. Students are expected to complete the worksheet sections that they need to practice in order to improve their score.

Chart showing questions, I Can statements, points possible, and your score

Differentiation and Incentive

The final stage of the learning cycle is where instruction is truly differentiated. Students who are required to retake their test must show me their intervention worksheet (completed) so that I can see if they're getting closer to the targets. Usually, they raise their grade to a passing score after one retake. Sometimes it takes a couple of rounds to get this accomplished -- but they have a time limit. They have to finish the retake cycle before the next unit test.

Students who score below 90 percent but have still passed the assessment may also go through this cycle. Many students in the 70-89 percent band opt to do the intervention and retake the test.

Students who are content to score at or below 60 percent are faced with extra work that they would not have to do if they were scoring just ten points higher. This cycle helps students begin to understand that, if they can do the work required to get 70 percent, it's not much more work to get an even higher grade. And the progress is addictive.

This is not a canned curriculum. I write my own tests, quizzes, test maps, intervention worksheets, homework assignments, and labs. I use sample questions from the state tests as a guide for the types of questions to include on my exams. I do all of the grading and fill out the test maps by hand. It's time consuming, and I have to take work home with me every single day. I do my grading while my own children do their homework. While this learning cycle works, it requires a lot of effort. I think the final result is worth all of that effort.

How do you inspire your students to work harder and recognize their potential?

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Kate Morrison's picture
Kate Morrison
eLearning content developer

It has been an enormous pleasure reading this article and the comments. I admire your dedication so much! I've been exploring the idea of creating a "flipped classroom" lately, using an authoring tool to create PowerPoint-based lectures that students can take at home, and reading this article has inspired me to incorporate a lot more formative assessments into those lectures. I feel that giving students an opportunity to drill material in their free time has opened up a lot more opportunities for exploring concepts and personal interaction during class.

Angela Campbell's picture
Angela Campbell
Teacher, High School Science

I think you are right to include a lot of formative assessments. Kids, well all of us really, but kids learning something new need a lot of feedback and I think one major problem with how we are set up to provide education is that we just don't give them enough. Especially when kids have low skills, they need a lot of feedback and in a timely fashion.
I have never been able to flip my classroom but I genuinely like the idea, especially if checkpoint questions can be included intros PowerPoints. The Khan Academy does a brilliant job of providing checkpoint questions that level up or down based on the responses of the students. I think that is the perfect introductory feedback. But since I have always worked in high poverty schools my students do not have enough access to computers at home for me to flip my class. We were promised computers in the classroom too. I still just have one computer in class. But I hope to be able to apply that flipped classroom principle someday.
Best wishes to you as you forge ahead!

MrBrust's picture
I teach special ed. I am insane.

Ok. Here's how this looks in my special ed ELA class. First, we have our warm-up. Then I explain how this relates to our objective for the day. But wait. Five of the kids haven't done their warm-up. One's started; three are playing video games. Ok. Two more minutes for warm-up. We good? Great. Let's review. Hey, listen up, we're reviewing now. Ok. Let's review. Review done, I give a mini-lesson, during which I'm interrupted numerous times by students making inappropriate comments and distracting each other and me. Then I assign the practice work and the real fun begins, as a good 3 or 4 of them absolutely refuse to do anything they do not want to do. This battle of wills will last until the bell. It is a horrible cycle that I have been unable to break and will probably cost my job. Formative assessments are wonderful. Building up student confidence is the goal. But how do I do any of that when my students seem hell-bent on failing? How do I fix 10+ years of emotional imbalance and reinforced negativity? I teach in a Title I school with a majority ELL population, and about a third of the kids I teach have behavior issues. I can't wait until I'm a veteran teacher. Then all this classroom management stuff will be easy, I guess. I know I'm messing up. And I know no one can really help me because all the strategies I read and hear about are missing that 80% extra bit that is so "obvious" to the speaker but never communicated to me. This entire rant has been useless.

Peter Poutiatine's picture
Peter Poutiatine
Senior School Selection Coordinator

Ah! Mr. Brust, I feel you. No one has a silver bullet and there are days when teaching feels Sisyphean - every day you push the boulder up the hill and every day it rolls back down. And you hope tomorrow will be different but it seems it never is. I know. I taught for 16 years. But the key is you care. There is nothing obvious about the art and craft of teaching, but it is obvious to me that you care deeply about your students, that you are trying hard every day, and that you are reaching out to a community for help. With those things in place, at some point tomorrow will be different, and you will say, "Finally!" In the meantime, 1) Celebrate the small victories - that one student who says, "Thanks" or "I get it." Or that one day when it feels like something worked. 2) Find a mentor on campus - a veteran who cares as much as you, who can watch you teach, and offer objective feedback. 3) This is the hardest: Realize that those kids come into your class expecting things to go a certain way - and that isn't working for you - so surprise them. Disappoint their expectations in a positive way. Most of all, let us know how it goes. You got this!

MrBrust's picture
I teach special ed. I am insane.

Thank you. Sorry for the negativity. Yesterday was just really rough.

Angela Campbell's picture
Angela Campbell
Teacher, High School Science

Hi Mr. Brust,
Thanks for writing. I am glad you are looking for some ways to shake up the dynamic in your classroom. I think gaining the trust of certain groups of students is really hard, especially when they have "failed" (or they have been failed) many times over the years. Changing their expectations of the system, and of themselves, is a really difficult task. And then there is the time factor. Kids realize that they only have to endure a teacher for a semester, or for a year, and then they will be "someone else's problem."

I have definitely felt this pain. Trying to win over a class or a student, or a group of students, at the beginning of the year is exhausting. Trying to get them to trust you, to work hard enough to let you see what they are really made of, this is a huge challenge. I am not always successful. I had a student one year who absolutely refused to turn in any work. He came to class every single day except on the days when we had exams. If I handed out a quiz, his would disappear. He would not turn in one shred of his effort for me to evaluate. He had his own agenda in class and was more disruptive than 4 average people. He seemed to only have one purpose in life: defying the system and making the life of his teachers as difficult as possible. I never was able to get through to him. All the things I tried, all of my expertise was useless against his will.

But I did not stop trying. He and I had that battle of wills every single day that he was in my class. I would not let him quit on himself and I was determined not to be another teacher who gave up on him.

I have no idea what has happened to that young man. It has been 8 years since I was his teacher. Maybe he remembers me but he probably doesn't. Maybe my refusal to give up on him had some kind of an impact, maybe it didn't. I think one of the tragedies of our profession is that we will never know how much our efforts have impacted our students, because sometimes the students themselves don't understand it until months or years later. Maybe they never get it.

But we do have an impact. Fighting that good fight with a student to keep them focused and engaged and learning (or reminding them that this is the expectation), and showing them that we are not going to give up on them in spite of the rest of the people in their life, may not ever produce the tangible fruit that we desire to see in every kid, but that doesn't mean we can stop.

I hope that someday soon one of the kids who has challenged you like this will come back and tell you how much your daily patience and effort helped him and that he appreciates it now (even if he did not appreciate it then). Every teacher needs this kind of validation for their efforts. But if it doesn't happen, then I want to thank you. As a citizen of this country, I appreciate what you do and the effort you exert trying to educate the unwilling, the education resistant, the ones we have failed and who don't trust us. I know this job doesn't have the glory of, say, a military career. I know it doesn't have the rewards of a career in stocks or banking. The perks are almost non-existent. But we need you.

Your students need you. Thank you for being their teacher.

Brian Kissman's picture
Brian Kissman
Brian Kissman is passionate about innovative best practice for all things literacy and learning.

Great piece, great discussion. We fall back on a workshop approach that models the learning point with a "show, don' tell" delivery. From there it is all about facilitating self-directing learning with effective cognitive coaching. A key for those turned-off learners is to keep affirming and be patient - and making sure to scaffold learning for that sense of "I can."

We use a number of standards graphic organizers and rubrics for reading, writing, conversation, and presentation across grade levels to give time for the light bulb and hear to turn on.

Brian Kissman, Head of School, Kalamazoo Country Day School

Sarah Ganrude's picture

I am a second year teacher and really finding it difficult to find ways to hold students accountable for their learning without making the class so difficult they can't handle it. I'm very interested to learn more about how exactly your system works.

Angela Campbell's picture
Angela Campbell
Teacher, High School Science

Hi Sarah,
I understand how you feel about getting kids on board. I was amazed my first few years of teaching about how many kids demonstrated learning avoidance. I was teaching in an underfunded Los Angeles County school district, and most of my students were considered "at risk," but instead of digging into their own education like the one saving grace it probably was for them, they found every possible way to derail their learning. My teaching friends and I would sit around shaking our heads in puzzled disbelief.
I think that one of the reasons why this system I describe has been successful at showing some results with kids is because of the fact that it builds trust. If you tell a kid that A is the learning goal for a lesson, and then you formatively and summatively assess the student on A, and give the kid feedback that actually helps him to improve his performance on A, then he starts to really believe that you will follow through on your promise to assess A and that you WANT him to learn this stuff. So many teachers do a poor job of really specifying the learning goals. I know because I have two daughters (grades 7 and 9) and I have watched them struggle with this in their classes over the years. Time and time again these good students from a privileged household sit in classes completely mystified about what the point of the lesson might be, waiting for the shoe to drop and reveal the objective. Much of the time the point of the lesson seems to be to do some worksheet or read some pages and answer some questions, but the big picture about what skills or knowledge they are targeting is just missing. And kids who are good students can tolerate that ambiguity. They can succeed anyway. But kids who struggle give up in that situation. It seems like the system is designed to make them fail. So they learn to fail. And to feel just fine with failing.
So the first few weeks or months of any new term are a big effort for me. I have to get the kids to trust me. I have to prove to them that when I say that A is the learning goal and they will be assessed on A, I truly mean it, and that I am not going to settle for their failure. After about 6-8 weeks of this the majority of the kids will catch on to the fact that they can trust you, and once you have the critical mass of them on your side, there is a tidal shift in where you are putting your efforts. At first you are doing everything you can to get kids to retake tests and improve their performance. After awhile you have to be lightning fast at grading things because kids are eager to know their results and retake things to get that A or B that they KNOW they can manage, and instead of being fine with failure they get upset with themselves for getting a B. I think that is the true sign that you have done your job. When the kid who was failing starts complaining that they only got a B then you can pat yourself on the back and feel like a success.

So start with identifying exactly what you want kids to know and be able to do. Be extremely specific about this. I make a list of the learning objectives for the semester and I give it to the kids at the beginning. It fits on one side of one regular piece of paper. we start with objective 1 and move down the page. They can see their progress. They know exactly what is coming on a test or a quiz.

Once you have the learning objectives listed, make sure all of your assessments are clearly connected to them. If I am giving a quiz I usually make all of the questions about one learning goal. When we go over the quiz I can help them get feedback about what they still need to practice in order to master that learning goal. A summative assessment might be about 2 or 3 or even 4 learning objectives at a time (all related). But there again, every single question on that assessment needs to be clearly linked to a learning goal so that you can give high quality feedback to the student after the assessment, and they can see where they need to improve. You can give them very specific and targeted intervention. They will almost always do better if they take this feedback and use it.
I can send you my learning objective lists and some sample assessments if you like. I have this stuff for chemistry classes but also biology and physics. Let me know what interests you.
And thank you for becoming a teacher! I think the first 5 years in a teaching career are the hardest ones. Hang in there. It is a rewarding and interesting career as long as you can keep finding meaning in what you are doing.
All the best!

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