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September 1, 2014
Vol. 72
No. 1

Giving Students a Reason to Try

Some struggling learners believe quitting is their best option. Self-efficacy can change that.

As a kid in Brooklyn, I struggled to play baseball. I wanted to be great, to get lots of hits–but time after time, I struck out. I heard the comments ("He stinks!"), and no one wanted a sure "out" like me on their team, even if I had the only bat and ball. I felt hopeless. So I did the rational thing: I stopped trying.
When I first taught struggling readers and kids with learning disabilities, I saw a similar phenomenon. Kids struggled to read, but many failed–they "struck out." Often, they stopped trying. Somehow, I never made the connection to my baseball behavior. Like many teachers, I wondered what was wrong with these students. When I saw kids quitting, I'd think, "Why aren't they trying? They aren't motivated to even look at a book! Don't they realize how important reading is?" Many of my fellow reading and special education teachers recounted similar concerns, with pain registering in their voices and faces.
Later in my teaching career, I started to view motivation differently. Sometimes my students were motivated; they tried and even looked like they cared. But that only happened when they had started to succeed, when they seemed to believe they could achieve something they considered important.
Slowly, I made the connection between my baseball struggles and the frustration–even despair–of my colleagues and me. Just as it wasn't my fault that I rejected baseball because I never saw success, maybe the kids' lack of motivation wasn't their fault. Maybe we educators needed to create more opportunities for struggling readers and other discouraged students to excel, take credit for their successes, and come to believe in their capabilities. Only then could they fall in love with learning.

A Change Worth Trying

I believe educators need to change how we reach struggling readers and learners. But in an era of teachers' evaporating autonomy and escalating demands on their time, any recommended changes in practice have to be practical, easy to implement, and backed by research so teachers have reason to believe the practice is worth trying and sticking with. Shifting our actions and words to strengthen self-efficacy is one such practice.
Once I began searching for insights into why unmotivated students sometimes do try–and how small successes fit in–I discovered Bandura's (1997) concept of self-efficacy. Self-efficacy–a realistic expectation that if you use the right strategy and make a good effort you'll succeed–is crucial to motivation. Without learning how to interpret emotional responses to difficulty and failure and how to use effective strategies to master a difficult task, any student would be unlikely to invest even moderate effort to accomplish a personal goal, let alone someone else's goal. He or she might well resist the task and quit.
Many observers would consider that student unmotivated. They wouldn't realize that he or she wanted badly to succeed but thought trying was useless and embarrassment certain. I didn't realize this for decades, even though as a kid I'd quit trying in a game I loved.
Research and clinical practice connected to self-efficacy reveal three insights educators can use to improve the motivation of discouraged students:
  • Learners with weak self-efficacy for a task believe they have a slim chance of success at it. Failure has taught them that effort means little.
  • Because of this belief, they often quit learning, which makes teaching these kids difficult and compounds their learning and life problems. But if they believed they could learn, many of these kids would try.
  • Weak self-efficacy is not immutable. Once learners start to experience successes and learn to make proper attributions for successes and failures, their expectations of success become stronger.
Let's look at how we might act on these insights.

What We Can Do

Teachers have abundant options for building students' weak self-efficacy. Most involve nothing more than good teaching practices that benefit all students–in general education classes, instructional tiers in a Response to Intervention program, or self-contained special education classes.


It's a rare adult who doesn't like to be listened to. Struggling learners are no different. Listening communicates that you care about someone, respect them, and want to learn about them. Once a student believes this, he or she will reveal much: interests, likes and dislikes, concerns, and (often most important) short- or long-term goals. Such information will help a teacher better understand that student so the teacher can craft just-challenging-enough instruction that will lead to some successes, which further motivate that student. As an educator listens empathetically to a student, ensuring that he or she understands, gently identifying that student's concerns and feelings, and occasionally helping him or her solve problems, the teacher's influence for boosting confidence increases.

Present Moderate Challenge

One of the fastest ways to obliterate struggling learners' self-efficacy is to feed them a daily diet of frustrating, overwhelming work. An assignment that's far beyond their capacities tells them "Don't even try." Instead, discouraged learners need a daily diet of work well within Vygotsky's (1978) zone of proximal development.
For most struggling readers, being in that zone when reading independently means that they're reading texts where they can recognize at least 96 percent of the words and comprehend 90 percent of the passage. Homework should be at this level. Reading–or working–independently requires the ability to focus on a goal, monitor one's progress, and revise strategies to overcome obstacles. When the material is too hard, that can't happen; instead, kids become despondent and resistant.
When struggling learners are reading at the instructional level (with teachers modeling, giving feedback, or offering support and guided practice) the criteria ease. Students should recognize 90 to 95 percent of the words in the material they're being instructed on; reading comprehension should be at 70 to 89 percent (McCormick, 2003).
If, before you introduce a new assignment to a student, you briefly discuss with her a similar assignment she succeeded on, her expectations of success can soar. Ensure that she understands which strategy and supports were behind her former success. If needed, demonstrate that strategy. The student should start thinking, "I succeeded at this before. I know the steps. I can do it again."
For instance, a student with learning disabilities was procrastinating in writing her thesis statement for a persuasive essay. Her teacher showed her familiar cue cards to guide her in crafting a thesis statement and two recent statements this girl had written, pointing to positive comments a reviewer had jotted above the statements. "What could you do to succeed?" the teacher asked. The girl jotted a few key words and began writing a statement.

Teach Simple Strategies

Don't confuse learners with too many strategies. Pick one simple strategy and when a struggling learner masters it, consider extending it. Simple strategies, like short Google Maps driving directions, tell learners what to do, step by step. For a reluctant writer, for instance, try the POW strategy: Pick an idea; Organize your notes; Write, and then write more. After a learner masters this strategy, extend it to POWER, adding Edit and Revise.

Use Peer Modeling

Having a struggling learner observe a peer completing a tricky task often strengthens the observer's expectations of success at that task–but not automatically. It's best if the "model" is someone whom the observing student respects; who is similar to him or her (in background, interests, and so on); and who is partially skilled at the task. The model should explain what she's doing, visibly struggle a bit, and finally succeed.
If the model can't describe the steps while completing the task, or the task lacks discrete steps, a teacher can describe the actions as they unfold, stressing that doing these same actions deliberately will likely produce success. Or have the model repeat the steps and stop after each one; ask a volunteer to describe what the model did correctly–or incorrectly–at each step.
Here's what this would look like: Emma demonstrated the RAP strategy to her reading group. Pointing to the letters on a chart, she explained, "R means read the paragraph … A means ask yourself what the main idea is and find two supporting details. So I'll think about this paragraph out loud a bit. I think the idea is … " When she got to P, Emma had to check her notecards to remember it means "put the answer in your own words"–but she continued her modeling. Watching this small struggle may have encouraged her peers to think, "If she can do it, I can do it."

Highlight Effort

If learners operate in their zone of proximal development but make only minimal efforts, don't expect success. Moderate–often sustained–effort is crucial. To help kids who aren't used to trying hard reverse that habit, provide them interesting, enjoyable, and relatively short tasks that they believe they can do. Infuse these with task-focused feedback that attributes success to trying hard.
As challenged learners begin to value the power of greater effort on these easier tasks, gradually introduce harder tasks that they may have failed at in the past but that they can now do at the independent or instructional levels. Immediately before you deliver these lessons, encourage the students to discuss–in detail–how effort and persistence recently helped them. You might even think aloud about how you overcame a difficulty: "I'm struggling with this project at home. I skipped the directions and didn't truly focus. Guess I'll read the directions and start again."
Another way to reinforce effort is to graph each learner's progress. Privately, discuss what the graph shows he did well, what he needs to improve, and what he should tell himself about his performance.

What We Can Say

What teachers say before, during, and after they introduce a task can engender optimism–or an expectation of failure.
If a struggling learner trusts you, and if you ground your encouragement in evidence of past good work, your encouragement before the learner begins can engender optimism. You might say, "Yesterday you made a good effort using POW. The four-sentence paragraphs you wrote were wonderful; you had good topic sentences and supporting facts. I'm sure you'll write a great five-sentence paragraph. Let's review what's worked for you." These words not only point to prior successes, but also review what a student can control–effort, persistence, and strategy use.
Helping learners optimistically but accurately identify emotions can minimize pessimistic interpretations that undermine hopefulness. Guide a student to interpret her emotions and bodily messages in ways that promote success. If she views butterflies in her stomach as a marker of expected failure and humiliation, reply, "Whenever I have that feeling in my stomach, I feel hopeful. It means I'm ready to learn. My body's gearing up for success."
As learners work independently, make positive, task-specific comments: "Gabriel, I see you're carefully organizing your work. You're persisting. Give yourself credit." (Later, you might ask Gabriel what he did that helped him succeed.) Such statements teach struggling learners to make facilitative attributions, statements that encourage them to think in ways that improve their confidence and school successes. Attributing success to incorrect factors ("I got a 96 because the teacher felt sorry for me") won't help; it's much better to help a kid take credit ("I got a 96 because I studied hard and used the self-testing strategy").
After the work, ask learners why they succeeded–or didn't. Begin by modeling; share a brief story about a time you struggled at something, and ask students what you should've done. This humanizes you and helps learners understand that success isn't magical and that teachers, too, must often work hard.
Before, during, and after, teach struggling learners to make corrective attributions that include what they might do differently. Imagine hearing a student say, "I messed up because I daydreamed about tonight's dance instead of studying. I didn't focus, make a good effort, or review the guide. For the next test, I'll do all three."

What Else They Need

Strengthening struggling learners' weak self-efficacy for academics–or self-regulation, physical coordination, or anything else–requires highly focused, long-term support. Students may need years of successful experiences, coupled with correctly attributing their success to controllable factors. They need lots of guided and independent practice with "just right" work. Discouraged learners also benefit from mentors, choice, cooperative rather than competitive environments, well-structured group learning, and tutoring. Teachers can easily use such strategies to infuse self-efficacy into lessons.
Many struggling learners need even more than this. They have problems that go beyond lack of confidence, including persistent feelings of hopelessness, worthlessness, and depression. Some youth view school as a minefield, with the mines only inches apart. These learners need and deserve high-quality counseling (not 20 minutes a month). They need well-coordinated efforts to strengthen their self-efficacy–programs that continually monitor their academic progress and emotional well-being, and adjust interventions when needed. Like all learners, they need engaging lessons and satisfying activities.
Helping struggling learners strengthen their self-efficacy is less time-consuming than it appears. Teachers, paraprofessionals, and counselors can try all these (and other) recommendations, but not necessarily simultaneously. And educators needn't do this alone: Parents, after-school instructors, and peers can help build self-efficacy. Baseball coaches can, too.

Bandura, A. (1997). Self-efficacy: The exercise of control. New York: Freeman.

McCormick. S. (2003). Instructing students who have literacy problems (4th ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Merrill.

Vygotsky, L. S. (1978). Mind in society: The development of higher psychological processes. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

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