Student Learning at Scale, Improving Students' Beliefs about their Learning, and Teacher Instruction
Susan Birnie, Southern 1 Regional Director
Summer 2010

As leaders of mathematics, we are in a constant state of reviewing content and instructional practice. We are also often challenged by a district goal of improving student learning at scale. Elizabeth A. City, Richard F. Elmore, Sarah E. Fiarman, and Lee Teitel in a recent publication, Instructional Rounds in Education, state that to improve student learning at scale, there are three things that need to be implemented:

  1. Increase the level of knowledge and skill the teacher brings to the instructional process.
    • How can we design and implement high quality professional development in order to engage teachers in this process?
    • What are the characteristics of high quality mathematics professional development?
    • How do we convince our administrators and superintendents of the urgency of this need?
  2. Increase the level and complexity of the content that students are asked to learn.
    • How can we increase the cognitive demand of a task so that each and every student is challenged and engaged?
    • How do we raise the level of student engagement beyond a memorization level to analyzing, interpreting, and making connections (Margaret Smith, 2000)?
    • How do we engage in systematic and collaborative process to engage educators in meaningful reflections about what occurs daily in classrooms?
  3. Change the role of the student in the instructional process.

    Recognizing learning includes specific tactics for improving students' beliefs about their abilities and how and when to recognize them when they achieve. Teachers who understand the value of tapping into students' affective domains for improving achievement employ research-based strategies, such as:

    1. Teach the relationship between effort and achievement. Many stories exist to make the connection with famous people. Draw examples from the well-known as well as the unknown so students recognize success in all situations and under many situations. Encourage students to think about: What does effort look like?
    2. Reinforce effort. Students who are recognized for effort will make the connection between effort and improvement. Students should be helped to internalize the value of effort to make a strong connection between effort and the desired outcome.
    3. Visual representation of effort may increase effort. Students who are helped to design an "effort log" using graphic representation will be more likely to see it in their mind's eye, and refer to it when working.
    4. Create a class effort rubric. A class that shares a common definition for effort will also share the understanding of effort and achievement. If students are in learning groups, on the same teams, or in study groups together, they will have a common language and a shared ideal regarding effort and achievement.
    5. Be careful about how and when recognition is provided. Verbal praise for small or easy tasks can be construed by students as undeserved, and may actually decrease effort. Ensure that praise and rewards are provided because an authentic standard of performance has been achieved. Doing an activity to a predetermined standard may well be worthy of reward and result in increased effort and motivation.
    6. Recognize individual students for personal progress. Winning usually indicates that others have lost, or are "below the winner." When students have personal goals, or reach pre-determined standards of excellence, recognition is for personal achievement, which is unique to each student.
    7. Make clear the real goal of effort. "The harder you try, the more successful you are" is what the act of recognition should communicate to students, not "the harder you try, the more prizes you get." Make this clear to students and apply it in practice. (

These are important things to consider as we move forward in leading our district teachers, administrators, and Board members in supporting actions that truly make a difference in improving teacher practice and student learning.

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