Effort needs to be targeted to be effective.
When promoting growth mindsets with our students, we want them to understand that effort is the path to mastery. But mastery is rarely a result of random, undirected effort. Instead, it is usually a consequence of effort being trained, focused and adapted in response to feedback.
Consider two students. On the surface, they both put in what appears to be the same level of effort. Student One, however, doesn’t direct their effort particularly effectively. They do lots during a lesson, expending a great deal of energy in the process, but only about 40% of this is focussed on the learning objectives.
Student Two targets their effort much more precisely. They use information from the teacher to shape what they do. They see learning objectives and success criteria as tools they can use to direct their energies. And they assess the results of their actions, drawing out information they can use to focus their efforts more effectively.
Clearly, Student Two is going to make better progress than Student One. Over time, they will learn more, develop a better understanding of the subject and achieve better grades as a result.
If both students are praised for putting in effort, what will be the result of this?
Praise is positive reinforcement. It implies that students should persist with the behaviours which have led to the praise. Therefore, in our imaginary case, we can assume that praise would lead Student One and Student Two to continue doing what they are doing.
And here is the rub.
Praising Student One just because they have put in effort is not to their benefit. Much of their effort was misdirected. Much of it did not help them to learn, or to gain mastery. Blanket praise of effort misses this nuance, and, in the process, encourages repetition of inefficient behaviour.
What would better praise look like?
It would contain two things. First, a precise acknowledgement of where and when Student One has targeted their effort effectively. This praise would focus on the 40% of the time during which the student is directing their effort onto the learning. Second, an explanation of how the student can target their effort more effectively, and what this will look like in practice.
Our praise thus becomes more closely tied to the reality of what the student is doing. We praise the element of their behaviour we want to see repeated and we provide feedback they can use to alter the element which could be better. Here is an example:
- ‘Tommy, you really concentrated on including different rhetorical devices in your speech during the first twenty minutes. That was great – and we can see the results. Next time, I want you to spend the second half of the activity editing your speech so that it more closely reflects what you want to say. That is a better use of your time than writing out a second section which repeats what you said in the first.’
In conclusion, targeting effort matters. And you can help your students to target their efforts through the praise and feedback you give.