Incremental improvement


If you were to draw a path to success, what do you think it might look like?  I recently saw this visual, and it made a lot of sense to me:3dd260bf-ecde-4bdd-b88d-ebdcd9bbc539

I think we all would agree that the path to success is not a straight line.  We’ve all had bumps in the road on our own path to where we are.  In the version of success that appears on the right, there are some ups, some downs, and some times in the totally opposite direction of where you want to go. When you understand that this is what the path to success looks like, you also understand the concept of incremental growth.  These are the small steps we take to get closer to our goals.  When we focus on incremental growth, we don’t care as much about the external factors, and instead focus on the things that we can control.  Hopefully you will see the benefit of the rest of this post if you hear questions like this in your classroom:

  • How many points is this worth?
  • Can I earn extra credit?
  • Did you grade the tests yet?

Questions like these are a sign that students care only for an extrinsic motivator – the grade.  The problem with our students having this mindset is that when students are motivated solely by a grade, they will find ways to get the work done and earn the credit, but they will completely miss the educational value of the lesson, and will not retain anything.  The best way to get them past these extrinsic motivators is to shift the mindset of your students.  Work to get them to focus less on the external motivation, and more on the internal motivators.

The first step – make sure that students understand that grades are just another data point, nothing more or less, that tells teachers and parents a little about where students are right now.  When you attach rewards or consequences to a grade, you train the students who do well to expect an external motivator, and you completely miss that kid who might be doing everything in their power just to keep their head above water, and never getting anything for it.  When you talk about report card grades, make sure students know that you are much more concerned with their day to day efforts than you are with their overall grade.

So what are some of the ways that you can give this message to your students?  Check out the points below:

Improving through effective feedback

If you want your students to value growth, you have to give them feedback that shows you recognize their growth.  Normally this can’t be shown just in the grade on a paper, but rather through the words you speak to a student.  During work time, be walking around, observing what students are doing, ask questions of them, and sharing your thoughts.  Since we all know that our students have a jagged learning profile (see the last post on “Average” students), we should also be aware that every child is at a different place, with different goals and different needs.  Our feedback should focus on what’s most important to THIS child at THIS time.

One of the other keys to effective feedback – focus on the future, not the past.  Instead of saying “You shouldn’t have done it this way; you should do it this way…” you might want to try saying “Next time, I’d like you to do it this way because…”  Our words totally change the feedback and focus on incremental growth moving forward.

Improving Results

One of the best ways for students to be able to see their improvement is to have a way to reflect on their learning process easily.  A great way to do this is through portfolios.  In this day and age, the portfolio can be totally digital, and easily viewed, shared, and managed.  Apps like SeeSaw, or a blog, can allow students to share their work and create a reflection in writing, audio, or video of what they have learned in their work.

Depending on the task, what you might ask students to include in their portfolio may vary, but some of the things that would probably be valuable to include would be:

  • A title that describes the Big Idea or concept
  • A picture or video of the process or final product from the activity
  • Answers to reflection and synthesis questions that guide each child to successfully demonstrate their understanding of the concept.

The reflection questions should vary depending on the activity and be based on your learning goals, but the idea is to get students to reflect on their learning.  If nothing else, ask them “What did you learn?”  If they can reflect and articulate that, their retention will be that much stronger.

If you feel that students are lacking in their answers to the reflection questions, there is a simple solution.  Follow up their answer with “Tell me more.”  This simple statement gets students to think a bit deeper, and if you model this enough, your students will eventually begin answering your questions in a more complete way without you having to ask.

Critical Peer Feedback

If you are the only person in the classroom who is able to provide feedback, some things might get missed.  We all know there’s only so much time in the day!  The key is to get students to understand that when they are looking at each others work, they are not being judgmental, rather they are looking for specific things that could be improved.  In order to help students understand how to do this, here are some steps you could introduce to them:

  1. Tell your peer that you have an idea of where they might improve. This way they know that you are just trying to help them make their work better.
  2. Start or end with a specific compliment! Let them know what you like and why you like it – when they know you appreciate something they have done, it’s easier to take some critical feedback.
  3. Give your suggestion as a question rather than a statement. Instead of telling your peer what to say, you could ask “have you thought about doing this…” or “I wonder if others might understand it better if you…”

Hopefully you see a couple of ideas here that you could implement in your classroom to help your students move towards an attitude of incremental improvement.  Maybe you noticed that a big key to incremental growth for students is feedback.  Meaningful feedback is the key to incremental growth for all of us!

If you decide to try out any of these strategies in your class, I’d love to hear how it goes!  If you’ve tried anything like this, tell us about it in the comments below.  What worked well?  What were your sticking points?


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