Student effort: the Holy Grail of school improvement?

Stephen Adcock, deputy director of academies for United Learning, says the biggest determinant of students’ success will be the effort they are willing to commit to it.

I’m drawn to school improvement strategies that have a multiplier effect – strategies that continue to have a positive impact long after the initial stimulus has been withdrawn. Into this category I would put a challenging curriculum, exemplary student behaviour and a clear assessment system. Perhaps there’s something else that we can throw into this mix: high levels of student effort.

At the risk of stating the obvious, imagine how much easier our jobs would be if students worked just a little bit harder. Getting students to work harder would help us meet two of the biggest challenges facing schools leaders today: raising student outcomes and retaining staff.

Finding ways to boost student effort would also help us to deal with the rise of tougher terminal exams. These exams mean that there is simply less that teachers can do to ensure that students succeed. In the world of coursework, modular assessment and repeated entry, teachers were often expected to do whatever was needed to get students over the line. Now we watch them cross the threshold of the exam hall alone.

Given these changing dynamics, how can we get kids to work harder?

We can start with a whole school culture founded on practice and perseverance. It’s easy to pay lip service to growth mindset and the 10,000 hour rule, but we need to weave effort and responsibility into the fabric of our schools. I remember an assembly in which a headteacher demonstrated his juggling skills in front of the whole school. He had never juggled before and the balls landed in a heap on the polished floor. 1 month later he juggled with 3 balls, then returned again the following month with 5. The message of course, was that we improve through practice. Teachers and form tutors can constantly reinforce this message and we must urge parents to do the same.

From the assembly hall students should file through to classrooms in which hard thinking and hard work is prized. This means challenging, open tasks, which require students to work independently for extended periods of time. It means teachers gradually removing the scaffolding and allowing students to experience the discomfort, the pain, the anguish of real learning. It means brief but punchy feedback which prompts students to improve their work.

It’s when leaving the classroom that our high effort culture is most at risk, particularly as exam season approaches. We tell students that we expect them to revise, but we betray our good intentions by herding students into intervention sessions which seek to do the heavy cognitive lifting on their behalf. If our words tell students that the ball is in their court, our actions tell them that as long as they turn up for extra sessions, they will be fine. The evenings, weekends and holidays of our teachers take the hit.

A solution to this is supervised study. In one school I work with – Paddington Academy – Year 11 students attend an after-school study session three times a week. The session is supervised by members of SLT but students must bring their own work with them. If they don’t, they sit in silence. Carter Community School in Poole has found ways of making Year 11 students accountable for their maths revision. Students are given a maths DVD and are directed towards the areas in which they are less secure. Sanctions and support await students who fail to address their shortcomings and show progress in their assessments.

Homework is another area in which we can improve student effort, perhaps by issuing pupils with homework packs at the start of the year. Students work through the packs, and progress is checked by their form tutors. Non-completion is met with after-school detentions, managed centrally by the senior leadership team.

Similarly, I’m convinced that there is great power in issuing students with the content that they cover in all of their lessons. These course guides, distributed on a termly or annual basis, enable students to preview and review their lessons. The assessment schedule is mapped on to these guides, meaning that students are effectively given revision guides for each subject at the start of the year.

Where I’ve seen this work best, schools publish this information on their websites, with guidance on how students and parents can explore issues covered in the curriculum.   Quick quizzes at the start of lessons help to hold students to account for the knowledge they need to acquire and retain as they go through the year.

Finally, we need to be clear and honest about how far we expect teachers to go to support their students. It’s too easy to expect teachers to stop at nothing to secure positive student outcomes, but there are better ways of showing our commitment to our students than by giving them endless opportunities to submit coursework and show up for intervention.

Asking a teacher to sit down with a student to complete coursework long after the published deadline might help secure a pass for that student, but it’s a Pyrrhic victory if that teacher loses faith in the school, and in the profession, due to the weight of expectation placed on them.

Marginal gains are all the rage in education as schools strive for the 1% improvements that might make a difference over time, but let’s not ignore the richer rewards before our eyes. Imagine the time and effort we can save for our teachers over the five years of secondary school if we can get students in Year 7 to realise that the biggest determinant of their success will be the effort they are willing to commit to it.

The vast majority of teachers I know are working at full capacity. I look forward to the day that we can say the same of our students. Now is the time to search for the holy grail of student effort.

This article first appeared in the summer 2016 edition of Academy magazine. Follow Stephen on Twitter via @steveadcock81 

What do you think? Do you agree that student effort is the biggest factor in potential success? Let us know via Twitter…

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  1. sueberry9

    Penny_Ten SchoolsImprove I don’t think I could ask Y6 puils across the country to work any harder. The system fails them.

  2. I fully agree that for students to do better, they need to put in more effort into their work. Parental support and encouragement is vital in ensuring that students keep motivated.

  3. BTerziyski

    atharby steveadcock81 Thanks! Lots to consider here. Link to resilience/ growth mindset/ independence Confidence to succeed #chacepd

  4. iQuirky_Teacher

    steveadcock81 davowillz I think primary schools have a big part to play in sending up children who expect fun, not valuing academic achvmt

  5. iQuirky_Teacher

    steveadcock81 davowillz In their younger years, children don’t receive rewards for academic achievement and there is no competition either

  6. statepapers71

    iQuirky_Teacher BarryNSmith79 steveadcock81 davowillz I’m lucky, have taught KS1-KS4 FT. Fun definitely not priority at most primaries.

  7. iQuirky_Teacher

    steveadcock81 davowillz They are indoctrinated with message that being good at maths is something to hide/downplay

  8. iQuirky_Teacher

    steveadcock81 davowillz Quiet, studious children not allowed to shine and everyone internalises that ignorant extroversion is way to go

  9. statepapers71

    iQuirky_Teacher BarryNSmith79 steveadcock81 davowillz I’m lucky, have taught KS1-KS4 FT. Fun definitely not priority at KS1 and KS2.

  10. statepapers71

    iQuirky_Teacher BarryNSmith79 steveadcock81 davowillz learning is the priority, the learning needed to show progress in tests.

  11. RequireImprove

    iQuirky_Teacher BarryNSmith79 steveadcock81 davowillz And if you compare attitudes in y7 and y9- secondaries have to take lots of blame.

  12. davowillz

    iQuirky_Teacher steveadcock81 I’m genuinely interested. The competitive nature of young children is a barrier in football training.

  13. iQuirky_Teacher

    RequireImprove BarryNSmith79 steveadcock81 davowillz I think we just have a big problem with our culture; no respect for academia

  14. iQuirky_Teacher

    davowillz steveadcock81 Interesting. I think it helps motivate males in the classroom, but is seen as vulgar, something to be quashed

  15. BarryNSmith79

    RequireImprove iQuirky_Teacher steveadcock81 davowillz so much we teach should of course have been taught by parents

  16. BarryNSmith79

    iQuirky_Teacher RequireImprove steveadcock81 davowillz instant success shouldn’t be the expectation – patience & perseverance should be

  17. RequireImprove

    iQuirky_Teacher BarryNSmith79 steveadcock81 davowillz It’s a kind of fear;the intrinsic value of academic learning isn’t enough

  18. EnserMark

    BarryNSmith79 iQuirky_Teacher RequireImprove steveadcock81 davowillz Yet is our key word. Isn’t excellent yet. You aren’t finished yet.

  19. thepetitioner

    iQuirky_Teacher steveadcock81 davowillz actually I think sec schools are at fault too. Y7&8 waste of time for all 3 of my kids

  20. RequireImprove

    BarryNSmith79 iQuirky_Teacher steveadcock81 davowillz Getting that a lot at the moment with the flip to new GCSE. Initial fear…

  21. thepetitioner

    BarryNSmith79 iQuirky_Teacher RequireImprove steveadcock81 davowillz “keener” term of bullying & abuse common in schls

  22. RequireImprove

    BarryNSmith79 iQuirky_Teacher steveadcock81 davowillz… because it is harder. On the bright side, lots of kids risen to challenge ☺

  23. davowillz

    iQuirky_Teacher steveadcock81 So in football it’s hard to get kids to see that passing and moving is more important than scoring a goal.

  24. BarryNSmith79

    thepetitioner iQuirky_Teacher RequireImprove steveadcock81 davowillz not with us but agree absolutely. Worse for boys.

  25. thepetitioner

    BarryNSmith79 iQuirky_Teacher RequireImprove steveadcock81 davowillz v hard for a boy to be socially accepted as an academic type

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