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Helping Students Thrive Now

Angela Duckworth and other behavioral-science experts offer advice to teachers based on scientific research. To submit questions, use this form or #helpstudentsthrive. Read more from this blog.

Teaching Opinion

You Can Motivate Students to Accelerate Learning This Year

By Angela Duckworth — September 22, 2021 2 min read
How do I help students who have fallen behind?
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How do we help students deal with learning loss from the pandemic?

The way you talk to students about learning matters—and so does your teaching strategy. Here’s something I wrote recently about the topic for Character Lab as a Tip of the Week:

“I’m really worried about you. You’ve fallen behind. You’re nowhere close to where you need to be at this point.”

How would you feel if, on the first day of school, you were on the receiving end of this assessment?

You might respond to such discouraging news by doubling your motivation to succeed. I’ll show you, you say under your breath. I have what it takes.

But much more common, I think, is the opposite reaction: I’m never going to catch up. I hate school.

Which is why many educators and psychologists advocate an “asset-based” approach to teaching and parenting.

For the longest time, I didn’t really know what that meant. Sure, I nodded my head in agreement when my colleagues in positive psychology said that it was more useful to focus on strengths than to remediate weaknesses. Yes, I liked the idea of capitalizing on assets.

But, truth be told, I didn’t fully grasp the problem with remediating weaknesses.

After all, experts get better at what they do by zeroing in on what they need to do better. Blithely ignoring our failings seems a poor recipe for character development. And when I’m told that I can’t do something, reflexively, I have the I’ll-show-you response.

But I’m beginning to see the light.

A new analysis of more than 2 million students in over 100,000 schools suggests that acceleration is a more effective pedagogical strategy than remediation. Specifically, students made more progress in math when their teachers taught grade-level content and used just-in-time support to patch learning gaps as needed compared with when teachers instead took a more traditional approach, teaching below-grade-level content to make up for pandemic-related learning loss.

The Latin root for remediation means “to heal.” The Latin root for acceleration means “to hasten.” The distinction is subtle and yet, in terms of motivation, can make a world of difference. If you need to be healed, you must be broken. If you deserve to be hastened, you must be a champion.

Don’t panic. If the young person in your life suffered setbacks during the pandemic, it doesn’t mean they’re broken. It means this year is a unique opportunity to cover more ground than ever.

Do start this year looking for success stories. As veteran educator Ron Berger reminds us, the secret to motivating kids is to raise expectations and then provide the support needed to meet them. In word and in deed, tell your kids: “I’m really excited for you. You’re going to race ahead this year. You’re going to learn more than you did last year, and you’re going to feel so proud.”

The opinions expressed in Ask a Psychologist: Helping Students Thrive Now are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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