Sometimes, one word can make all the difference.
That’s the message Stephanie Miller-Henderson was trying to convey to a class of 6th graders at Smyth Elementary School in Chicago one Monday morning earlier this month.
Miller-Henderson, a school counselor at Smyth, was walking students through how their grades were calculated. They had discussed different categories of assignments—like homework or quizzes—carrying different “weights.”
Now, they were moving on to the difference between two designations for incomplete work: “missing” and “excused.”
“Excused” is like a free pass, Miller-Henderson said. It doesn’t count in your final grade.
“‘Missing’—it will count against your average,” she continued. “You didn’t turn in an assignment. It’s missing, that’s going to be a zero.”
It’s a simple distinction. But these systems—how teachers determine grades, how important different assignments are—have big consequences. And the calculation can often feel opaque to students.
The lesson was designed to provide some clarity. It’s part of a middle grades college- and career-readiness curriculum called Success Bound, which aims to help students set future goals and develop the life skills that they’ll need for high school and beyond. The program partners with more than 150 schools in Chicago and began expanding nationally in 2021.
Smyth serves about 400 students in grades pre-K-8, most of whom are Black and from low-income households. The lesson on calculating grades is one small part of the school’s larger goal with Success Bound, aiming to equip students with the institutional knowledge to advocate for themselves and monitor their own progress.
With the program, Smyth is aiming to intervene at a key turning point: middle school.
It’s a time when kids are making the transition from childhood to adolescence and developing a stronger sense of their identities and where they fit into the world.
Studies have found that academic achievement in middle school can predict later success, and that poor attendance and behavioral issues in these years can be early signals that students may struggle in high school.
Motivating and engaging students at this important juncture is a perennial challenge for educators. But it’s more complex now, amid a pandemic that has disrupted students’ education and changed some children’s relationship to school.
“Most of what they learn feels pointless and disconnected,” said David Yeager, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Texas at Austin.
What’s missing is relevance, Yeager said—to students’ interests, their backgrounds, their goals for themselves. Figuring out what matters to kids is the first step.
Envisioning a ‘future self’
Too often, researchers and practitioners say, programs designed to teach middle and high schoolers social-emotional learning skills can feel babyish to teenagers. They don’t attend to what students care about at this age—motivations like developing their identities, being accepted by their peers, or figuring out their goals and priorities.
But in Miller-Henderson’s 6th grade lessons, she tries to keep these concerns front and center. “We want the students to understand their why,” she said.
At the beginning of the year, she asks her 6th graders to imagine the life they would want in 10 years, when they’re 21. Where would they want to be going to school, or what kind of job would they want to have?
They also talk about what motivates them. “For them, it’s what reaches the heart—my mom, or my grandma, or because I want to do well for this other person in my family that I love,” Miller-Henderson said.
Throughout 7th and 8th grades, she said, students develop more concrete plans for high school and beyond, and explore how their identities and communities shape their future plans.
Studies have shown that connecting students’ identities to their future aspirations can pay off academically and socially, said Chris Hulleman, an associate professor of education and public policy at the University of Virginia, and the director of the Motivate Lab.
He noted research on the use of identity-based motivation, a concept developed by Daphna Oyserman, a professor of psychology and education at the University of Southern California.
Interventions conducted by Oyserman and her colleagues are designed to help students see academic achievement as part of their identity, and show how involvement in school can help them achieve the versions of themselves that they imagine for the future.
“They bring in adult models and near peer models—high school students and college students and then older adults—to talk about, ‘Here’s my experience. Here’s how I went from middle school to being an accountant, a doctor, a lawyer, professional athlete, even,’ and what school meant to them and their journeys,” Hulleman said.
The approach appears to promote higher grades and test scores, raise intrinsic motivation for school, and also reduce disciplinary issues.
What’s not as motivating for students? Grades for their own sake, Hulleman said, based on survey research that he and his team conducted.
Even so, he said, there’s value in making grading systems explicit for students, as Miller-Henderson did in her lesson.
“It’s really important to do this: educating students on how to navigate a system. Because that’s something that’s not evenly distributed in our culture,” he said.
Wealthy, white students are more likely to get this institutional knowledge from their parents than their peers.
Making connections to students’ lives now
Envisioning a “future self” can motivate students. But there are also ways that teachers can underscore the value of school in the present.
“The main argument we use as a society for schooling is that if you sacrifice now, then in the distant future, you’ll have a better life,” said Yeager. “And we know that teenagers aren’t awesome at 15-year delayed gratification.”
One intervention that Hulleman and his colleagues designed attempts to make those connections between students’ current interests and their classwork.
“We’re trying to get students to think really concretely about what they’re learning in a class that they’re in,” Hulleman said.
If a student is learning about photosynthesis in biology, teachers can talk about how that relates to their grandma’s flower garden. Motion in physics has a lot to do with skateboarding.
“We try to support students by providing quotes from other students who have been in that class before, about how the material has been relevant to their lives … and then encouraging them to do a little writing and reflecting on their own,” Hulleman said.
The process, called the utility value intervention, has boosted achievement and motivation in studies—particularly for students from traditionally underrepresented and marginalized backgrounds.
Other studies have found that young people find purpose when they can use what they’re learning to benefit others, Yeager said.
A series of 2014 studies by Yeager and his colleagues found that high school and college students were more likely to persist on boring or repetitive tasks when they were told that doing so could prepare them to help others, or make the world a better place.
Not tapping into this social desire that children and teenagers have to contribute to society is a “fatal flaw,” Yeager said.