How to Help Students Make Academic Progress

By Jennifer Oden, Loyola Marymount Los Angeles, Masters in School Psychology
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Helping Students Make Academic Progress Isn't Easy.

Teachers often struggle to determine how to help students make academic progress within their classrooms. Here is an example that I'm sure many teachers can relate to: Ms. Holmes, a high school special education teacher, is at a loss for what to do; “I have several students in my class that are reluctant learners, get frustrated easily, and won’t even try.  They all have been in special education since early elementary school, but have made little progress based on their Individual Education Plans. What do I do?”

Here are several examples of interventions for Ms. Holmes to try, based on each of the following concepts:

  • Expectancy Theory
  • Social Learning theory/Vicarious learning
  • Locus of Control
  • Attribution Theory
  • Performance Goal Orientation

The Expectancy Theory focuses on the expectation of success. Basically this theory suggests that people are guided to either approach or avoid any task based on their perceived level of success. If a person thinks they will succeed at a task, he/she is more likely to attempt to perform it because they have an expectation that they will end up feeling proud after completing it. On the other hand if a person has low self efficacy and does not believe that he/she will succeed, the task is often avoided.

  • An intervention that might help to increase self-efficacy might include practice with tasks that are relatively simple to begin with, but gradually increase in difficulty over time and with practice. Providing an individual with plenty of opportunities to succeed is important when that individual is experiencing low self-efficacy.
  • Even students who are typically high achievers might avoid attempting a difficult task. For instance, Amy might be highly motivated to achieve success because she is a great student, but she is less likely to approach difficult tasks because her desire to avoid failure is very strong. To increase Amy’s efficacy, an intervention would have to focus on abolishing Amy’s need to always succeed. Practicing failure would be very important for Amy. Also offering her challenging problems to solve that are not counted for credit by the teacher might help her learn the value of pushing herself beyond the comfort of solving easy problems.

The Social Learning Theory emphasizes beliefs about the contingency of rewards, especially when earning the reward is within a person’s control. When an individual expects a reinforcement or reward and the reward is determined to be valuable, they are more likely to work hard to achieve the task and earn the reward.

  • If a student feels that earning an A letter grade in her class is highly valuable, than she is more likely to study hard and earn an A. On the other hand, another student who does not care about his letter grade in a class might not work as hard because the reward is not valuable for him. An intervention that teaches students about the benefits of good grades might help. Maybe a baseball student athlete won’t care if he gets an A in class until he learns the earning and A will help get him into college and that college experience is necessary for all major league baseball players.  Linking the non-valued item to something of greater value could be beneficial.
  • Another intervention might need to take place when students who expect failure eventually stop trying because their hard work never pays off. An intervention for these types of students might include assignments or tasks that are graded not on outcome or answers correct, but on the effort exerted by the student. Rewarding students for their hard work might help those who previously placed little or no value on rewards that come only from perfect results.

The Locus if Control, or LOC, is essentially where the source of success/ failure lies. When considering an external locus of control, we are talking about some outside source that causes success or failure to occur.

  • Students who believe that their success is due to an external locus of control do not believe they are responsible for their own achievements. They might say, “I was lucky that time” or “The teacher made the test easier this week,” inferring that they believe intra-personal attributes caused their success. One intervention to help students take responsibility for their successes could involve instructing teachers about the matter. How teachers attribute causes will have a great effect on how the students attribute causes. Educating teachers on how to empower kids to take responsibility for their success would likely prove to be a very useful intervention.
  • Another intervention might focus on building a closer connection between performance and reward. Students are more likely to develop an external locus of control when rewards are not closely tied to skills or performance. When teachers learn to clearly and consistently connect the reward to the skill, students will eventually feel they are responsible for their success.

The Attribution Theory is concerned with beliefs about the causes of achievement. Students who constantly attribute their success to good luck and their failure to personal weaknesses are destined to struggle in school.

  • Helping students to realize that their skills lead to their successes is very important. An intervention that allows students to recognize their abilities would be useful in this case. Students could possibly keep a chart of their progress over the course of several weeks/ months so that they see their increasing levels performance. This way students won’t claim their success was due to luck because clear patterns of success are evident over time.
  • Another intervention strategy might be to encourage self-esteem building among the students. Students might be told to think about things they have accomplished individually and share about their successes. Increasing awareness of positive skills is important for students who need to learn that they are the causes of their own achievements.

The notion of Performance Goal Orientation stems from belief that students will only perform well on tasks that they feel are achievable. When the student becomes overly fixated on achieving the task, they end up learning less and only doing what they need to do in order to avoid failure.

  • In this case, there is little being learned by the student who merely wants to achieve so as not to fail. This is a problem because the student is less likely to retain the information they acquire along their path to achievement. Interventions that involve activities that are not graded would help students to simply enjoy their work and not focus on a required outcome.
  • Another intervention that might help change the focus of students who merely achieve to avoid failure could involve a very valuable incentive. If students are prompted to succeed because of the appeal of a valuable reward, they might abandon the desire to achieve to simply avoid failure.

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