Why Handwriting Is Still Essential in the Keyboard Age

The New York Times

Photo

CreditAnna Parini

Do children in a keyboard world need to learn old-fashioned handwriting?

There is a tendency to dismiss handwriting as a nonessential skill, even though researchers have warned that learning to write may be the key to, well, learning to write.

And beyond the emotional connection adults may feel to the way we learned to write, there is a growing body of research on what the normally developing brain learns by forming letters on the page, in printed or manuscript format as well as in cursive.

In an article this year in The Journal of Learning Disabilities, researchers looked at how oral and written language related to attention and what are called “executive function” skills (like planning) in children in grades four through nine, both with and without learning disabilities.

Virginia Berninger, a professor of educational psychology at the University of Washington and the lead author on the study, told me that evidence from this and other studies suggests that “handwriting — forming letters — engages the mind, and that can help children pay attention to written language.”

Last year in an article in The Journal of Early Childhood Literacy, Laura Dinehart, an associate professor of early childhood education at Florida International University, discussed several possible associations between good handwriting and academic achievement: Children with good handwriting may get better grades because their work is more pleasant for teachers to read; children who struggle with writing may find that too much of their attention is consumed by producing the letters, and the content suffers.

But can we actually stimulate children’s brains by helping them form letters with their hands? In a population of low-income children, Dr. Dinehart said, the ones who had good early fine-motor writing skills in prekindergarten did better later on in school. She called for more research on handwriting in the preschool years, and on ways to help young children develop the skills they need for “a complex task” that requires the coordination of cognitive, motor and neuromuscular processes.

“This myth that handwriting is just a motor skill is just plain wrong,” Dr. Berninger said. “We use motor parts of our brain, motor planning, motor control, but what’s very critical is a region of our brain where the visual and language come together, the fusiform gyrus, where visual stimuli actually become letters and written words.” You have to see letters in “the mind’s eye” in order to produce them on the page, she said. Brain imaging shows that the activation of this region is different in children who are having trouble with handwriting.

Functional brain scans of adults show a characteristic brain network that is activated when they read, and it includes areas that relate to motor processes. This suggested to scientists that the cognitive process of reading may be connected to the motor process of forming letters.

Karin James, a professor of psychological and brain sciences at Indiana University, did brain scans on children who did not yet know how to print. “Their brains don’t distinguish letters; they respond to letters the same as to a triangle,” she said.

After the children were taught to print, patterns of brain activation in response to letters showed increased activation of that reading network, including the fusiform gyrus, along with the inferior frontal gyrus and posterior parietal regions of the brain, which adults use for processing written language — even though the children were still at a very early level as writers.

“The letters they produce themselves are very messy and variable, and that’s actually good for how children learn things,” Dr. James said. “That seems to be one big benefit of handwriting.”

Handwriting experts have struggled with the question of whether cursive writing confers special skills and benefits, beyond the benefits that print writing might provide. Dr. Berninger cited a 2015 study that suggested that starting around fourth grade, cursive skills conferred advantages in both spelling and composing, perhaps because the connecting strokes helped children connect letters into words.

For typically developing young children, typing the letters doesn’t seem to generate the same brain activation. As we grow up, of course, most of us transition to keyboard writing, though like many who teach college students, I have struggled with the question of laptops in class, more because I worry about students’ attention wandering than to promote handwriting. Still, studies on note taking have suggested that “college students who are writing on a keyboard are less likely to remember and do well on the content than if writing it by hand,” Dr. Dinehart said.

Dr. Berninger said the research suggests that children need introductory training in printing, then two years of learning and practicing cursive, starting in grade three, and then some systematic attention to touch-typing.

Using a keyboard, and especially learning the positions of the letters without looking at the keys, she said, might well take advantage of the fibers that cross-communicate in the brain, since unlike with handwriting, children will use both hands to type.

“What we’re advocating is teaching children to be hybrid writers,” said Dr. Berninger, “manuscript first for reading — it transfers to better word recognition — then cursive for spelling and for composing. Then, starting in late elementary school, touch-typing.”

As a pediatrician, I think this may be another case where we should be careful that the lure of the digital world doesn’t take away significant experiences that can have real impacts on children’s rapidly developing brains. Mastering handwriting, messy letters and all, is a way of making written language your own, in some profound ways.

“My overarching research focuses on how learning and interacting with the world with our hands has a really significant effect on our cognition,” Dr. James said, “on how writing by hand changes brain function and can change brain development.”

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Teaching Young Children About Bias, Diversity, and Social Justice

Edutopia

spiegler-teachyoungchildsocialjust-notstock

When my daughter was three years old, I taught her the word “stereotype.” She was just beginning to string words together into sentences, had determined that pink was definitely not her favorite color, and asked (demanded, actually) why all the “girl stuff” was pink and the “boy stuff” was blue. Because there’s no three-year-old version for a word describing why colors are gendered in our society, I figured that planting the seed might yield fruit soon enough. And somewhat surprisingly, I was correct.

Who’s Different and What’s Fair

As a society and within our educational institutions, discussions about bias, diversity, discrimination, and social justice tend to happen in middle and high schools. We’ve somehow decided that little kids can’t understand these complex topics, or we want to delay exposing them to injustices as long as possible (even though not all children have the luxury of being shielded from injustice).

However, young children have a keen awareness of and passion for fairness. They demand right over wrong, just over unjust. And they notice differences without apology or discomfort.

Racial identity and attitudes begin to develop in children at a young age. Two- and three-year-olds become aware of the differences between boys and girls, may begin noticing obvious physical disabilities, become curious about skin color and hair color/texture, and may also be aware of ethnic identity. By the time they’re five and entering kindergarten, children begin to identify with an ethnic group to which they belong and are able to explore the range of differences within and between racial/ethnic groups. In terms of bias, by age three or four, white children in the U.S., Canada, Australia, and Europe show preferences for other white children. Further, current research suggests that children as young as three years old, when exposed to prejudice and racism, tend to embrace and accept it even though they might not understand the feelings.

The good news is that bias can be unlearned or reversed if we’re exposed to diversity in a positive way. Harnessing young children’s desire for fairness and using it as opening to discuss bias and discrimination is not a hard leap, but one that needs to be made explicitly and with instruction. They are also not afraid to comment on observed differences. Decades of research indicate that even if parents and adults are not talking about race or other differences, children still notice differences and prejudice. If we choose not to teach or talk about it, children’s notions about race and differences will go unchecked and likely become further entrenched in their minds.

It’s also important that adults in children’s lives do not perpetuate the idea that we should be “colorblind” to racial differences or shush them when they notice someone with a disability. Sometimes adults do this out of their own discomfort with talking about differences, or because they think noticing differences somehow makes you biased. We want to encourage children to notice differences because they do so naturally, yet at the same time, honor people’s identities without judging or discriminating based on differences. In other words, noticing people’s differences is natural, but when adults assign judgments or value to these differences, bias can develop in young children.

5 Elementary Strategies

Elementary school is a time ripe for these discussions. Provided that teachers have the right tools and resources and use developmentally appropriate language and activities, teaching about these concepts can be rich and engaging for children, laying the groundwork for more sophisticated understanding when they move into the tween and teen years.

Here are five concrete ways of bringing discussions about bias and diversity into the elementary classroom:

1. Use children’s literature.

There’s a wealth of children’s books that can be read aloud and independently to approach the topic of bias, diversity, and social justice. Whether it’s about people who are different than your students (window books), an affirmation of their identity (mirror books), or one that exposes bias or shares stories of people who stood up to injustice, reading books is a core part of the elementary classroom curriculum and therefore a seamless way to address the topic.

2. Use the news media.

Find topics and news stories that bring forth these themes, discuss them in the classroom, and build other reading, writing, social studies, and math lessons around them. Relevant news stories that highlight bias and especially those where someone stood up to it and justice prevailed — like the nine-year-old boy who was banned from bringing his My Little Pony backpack to school because it was the source of bullying, or the story ofMisty Copeland becoming the first African American appointed as a principal dancer for the American Ballet Theater in its 75-year history — are terrific teachable moments.

3. Teach anti-bias lessons.

We know that all educators face a plethora of daily demands. But because children’s social and emotional development is a key part of the elementary curriculum and because much of the teasing, name-calling, and bullying is identity-based, it’s helpful for the classroom climate to set aside a time every week for an explicit lesson on this topic. Social and emotional skill development lessons are the foundation, and then teachers can move to lessons on identity, differences, bias, and how bias and bullying can be addressed individually and institutionally.

4. Give familiar examples.

Take advantage of children’s interest in books, TV shows, toys, and video games, and use them as opportunities to explore diversity, bias, and social justice. Whether it’s about toys and gender stereotypes, a New Jersey girlwho was tired of seeing books only about white boys and dogs, or discussing a new line of dolls with disabilities, you can provide openings for children to see how bias takes place in media and the everyday objects that they use.

5. Explore solutions.

Re-think the concept of “helping others” (through service learning projects or other volunteer opportunities) to include discussions with children about the inequities that contribute to the problem and consider actions that can address it. For example, while it’s useful to provide food to homeless people, we want to deepen the conversation to convey a social justice perspective and a wider lens with children. Therefore, discuss the stigma and stereotypes of homeless people, learn about unfair housing policies, and reflect on solutions that will reverse the problem in a lasting way and encourage students to take action.

Start Early

Recently, several prominent national education organizations (including theNEA, AERA, AFT, and NCTE) have called for addressing equity in schools and society, specifically recommending that we need to highlight the “systemic patterns of inequity — racism and educational injustice — that impacts our students,” and that educators and school leaders “receive the tools, training, and support they need to build curricula with substantive exploration of prejudice, stereotyping, and discrimination.”

We need to begin this process with our youngest hearts and minds in order to have a lasting impact. What are your thoughts? How do you approach social justice issues with elementary students? Please share in the comments section below.

When Black and White Children Grow Apart

The Atlantic
Research shows that interracial friendships decline as kids enter adolescence—and that teachers may play a role.

MELINDA D. ANDERSON JUN 14, 2016

The image of black and white children hand-in-hand is possibly the most well-known and most often quoted line from Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech. Over the years, black and white youngsters playing together has evolved from a civil-rights leader’s vision of racial equality to a clothing retailer’s marketing campaign, and in the process spawned a cultural meme—signaling everything from innocence and hope to a world free of interpersonal racism. Yet black and white childhood friendships, an inspiring notion, rarely happen organically.

According to a new study of elementary- and middle-school students, teacher behaviors may shape how students select and maintain friends and affect the longevity of interracial friendships. The study, led by researchers with New York University’s Steinhardt School, finds that as students move through a single school year, from the fall through the spring semester, their number of cross-racial friendships decreases. What’s more, students’ perceptions of their teachers—who may treat children in the same class differently, for example—influenced the rate of growth in same-race friendships from the fall to the spring.
Elise Cappella, an associate professor of applied psychology at NYU and the study’s lead author, said the group started out with a common understanding, supported by popular wisdom and established research, that as young people approach and enter adolescence, their likelihood of forming friendships across racial and ethnic groups decreases. “We wanted to try to understand what might be influencing that change … and we wanted to go beyond simply understanding the opportunity piece [greater numbers of diverse peers] to understanding what parts of this social process or the teaching practices might make a difference in the changes that occur.”

Access to diversity is only the first step, not the destination.
The research is drawn from a longitudinal study of the school experiences of 553 black and white students in a racially diverse, middle-class, and suburban unidentified district. That study, the Early Adolescent Development Study, collected detailed self-reported surveys during the 1996-97 school year from children ages 8 through 12 in grades three through five: 61 percent white, 39 percent black, with equal numbers of male and female students.

It’s a notable data set for a couple reasons, Cappella said, emphasizing that in the age range studied “children still form most of their friendships in classrooms and in schools. That was the case in 1996, and that’s still the case in 2016.” The data in the Early Adolescent Development Study is also particularly useful for analyzing interracial friendships because it was conducted in a school district that at the time had relatively low levels of tracking and high levels of integration—an unusual combination—facilitating an analysis of factors such as cross-racial friendships. Further, because the composition of the class and the actual teacher didn’t change, “if there were changes in cross- and same-race friendships [during] that year, we can isolate the effect [to] some aspect of that classroom.”

After calculating the racial composition of the students’ classes, the study’s authors used an index to measure how many same-race friendships would be expected if friendships were randomly distributed. Despite the district’s high level of racial integration, researchers found that the number of same-race friends grew for both black and white children over the school year, with white and older students showing the largest increases.
In the fall of the third grade, black students had 15 percent fewer same-race friendships and white students had 2 percent more same-race friends than would be expected by random chance. By the spring, black third-graders had 5 percent fewer same-race friendships than would be expected by random chance and white third-graders had 6 percent more. Among fifth-graders, black students started out with 2 percent more same-race friends than expected, and white students started out with 23 percent more. By year-end, fifth-grade black students had 10 percent more friends of the same race than expected and white students had 33 percent more.

As the argument goes and studies prove, children of all backgrounds benefit from diversified classrooms and schools where they can interact with peers of different races and ethnicities. Teaching Tolerance, an educational project of the Southern Poverty Law Center, concluded in a comprehensive review of research on racial and ethnic diversity in schools that “a racially integrated student body is necessary to obtain cross-racial understanding, which may lead to a reduction of harmful stereotypes and bias.” But access to diversity is only the first step, not the destination, said Cappella, noting that the study points to the need for teachers to create classrooms where interracial friendships can develop and grow.

The influence of teachers on students’ cross-racial bonds manifests itself in two key ways. Researchers found smaller increases in same-race friendships from the fall to the spring in classrooms where student perceptions of teachers’ warmth, respect, and trust—“My teacher pays attention to my feelings” and “My teacher helps children feel good about themselves”— were rated highest. And black children were more likely to make friends with white classmates during the school year in classrooms where teachers received high rankings on differential treatment—the survey asked children to rate their teacher’s behavior toward a hypothetical high- or low-achieving peer.
While the study did not establish that teachers were favoring one racial group over another, researchers theorized based on prior evidence that black children choose to befriend more white peers “as they begin to internalize the higher value their teachers place on the white students.” A study from Johns Hopkins University published in March also confirmed the comparatively low expectations white teachers have for black students.

How parents arrange get-togethers outside of school can “deepen friendships while allowing others to flounder.”
Jennifer Orr, a white elementary-school teacher in northern Virginia, said she was fascinated on a personal and professional level by the study’s analysis. Her oldest daughter, now in seventh grade, attended Annandale Terrace Elementary, a highly diverse school, from grades kindergarten through 5. “Her close circle [of friends] included a Korean girl, a few Latino girls and boys, and at least one girl from the Middle East, [but] she has only kept up with two friends from there: another white girl and a white boy.” As a parent, Orr offered a caveat to the study’s findings, bringing the role of parents into the picture. “The immediate thing that came to my mind … was how much parents may play a role” with race or ethnicity shaping how parents arrange get-togethers outside of school that can “deepen friendships while allowing others to flounder.”

From her vantage point as a former teacher at Annandale Terrace for 16 years, Orr said she strived to create a classroom environment that fostered friendships across races and ethnicities through activities and lessons. When assigning class projects she encouraged diverse groupings of fourth- and fifth-graders to solidify existing friendships, adding “that’s what strikes me the most from this study: The idea that friendships narrow during this age range.” Orr also turned to literature, using books with interracial friendships “to help kids see these friendships as normal and good.”

Keffrelyn Brown, an associate professor of cultural studies in the education college at the University of Texas at Austin, upholds the idea that teachers are fundamental to leveraging the promise of integrated schooling. Brown, who was a classroom teacher before becoming a researcher and teacher educator, stressed that “integration cannot only occur at the surface level. It must be seamlessly found across all [parts] of the … teaching and learning processes.”

The creation of schools with racial and socioeconomic diversity must be complimented by classrooms that affirm all students, Brown said. “It’s about cultivating a community of learners who are invested in the well-being of the community,” she explained, envisioning a learning space that is keenly attentive to issues of justice, fairness, and equity.

As validated by the study, children’s perceptions of teachers’ traits are very important—and unlike curriculum decisions and other pressures, it’s the one aspect that teachers can control. Cappella, the NYU researcher, said it’s the daily interactions that teachers have with their students in the classroom—modeling how you treat one another and how you listen to one another—that can bolster the likelihood of interracial friendships enduring.

“When teachers [show] that everyone is valued … that everyone deserves warmth and support, then that trickles down to the students, particularly at this age,” she said. “Those [actions] are the most salient and potentially the most powerful for influencing students in a more implicit way.”

When It Comes to Grading, Is ’50’ the New ‘Zero’?

EdWeek

By Kate Stoltzfus on July 11, 2016

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This fall, fewer students in the D.C.-metro area will have reason to fear their report cards.

Schools in Fairfax County in Virginia and Prince George’s County in Maryland will implement “no zero” policies to prevent students who put forth effort to finish their assignments from receiving grades below 50, reports the Washington Post. 

The districts are two of the latest to jump on an increasing trend to rethink grading practices, including efforts that make it harder for students to fail by giving them more chances to make up tests or missing work and increased evaluation on learning over behavior and homework.

The trend stirs questions about the motives for grading in the first place: Are grades truly accurate representations of learning? Should they serve as a system of reward or punishment for students’ behavioral and academic performance? How best can they be used to support student progress?

Grading policies have been slowly shifting in the Washington, D.C. area and elsewhere, according the Washington Post. In 2010, West Potomac High School in Fairfax County stopped giving out Fs. Several years before that, Montgomery County Schools in Maryland began scoring Fs as no lower than 50 percentSome middle schools in South Carolina implemented a no-zero policy even when students fail or cheat on an assignment.

Rick Wormeli, an educator and author, told the Post he estimates that close to 50 percent of schools nationwide are looking into changing their grading policies in some way.

For years, educators have debated the effects of a minimum-grading shelf in the classroom. Those in favor of the change believe such policies improve the drop-out rate and allow struggling students to stay motivated. They allow schools to focus on learning rather than behavior, Kevin Hickerson, president-elect of the Fairfax Education Association, told the radio station WTOP.  Handing out zeros for missed assignments boils down to a disciplinary measure, one that prevents schools from effectively assessing their students’ learning, argues author Powers Thaddeus Norrell in the American School Board Journal. 

Those in disagreement say such policies decrease student accountability and will hurt student college- and career-readiness; university professors will not likely be so tolerant in giving grades, and students’ future bosses will have clear performance expectations. Gina Caneva, a teacher in Chicago, spoke out strongly against no-zero policies after her school on the city’s South Side implemented one. By lowering expectations for her students, she wrote in a post for Catalyst Chicago, it gave many of them an excuse to stop working hard. 

Student cheating also complicates the equation. Cindi Rigsbee, a finalist for National Teacher of the Year in 2009, was shocked when her principal suggested zeros should not be given even to dishonest students.

But after she began reassigning work and harder tests to those who cheated, she agreed with him. “I really do want grades to reflect what my students know, not what behavioral choices they make,” she wrote in an Education Week Teacher article in May 2012. 

Other teachers advocate throwing out grades altogether. Mark Barnes, author of Assessment 3.0: Throw Out Your Grade Book and Inspire Learning, independently replaced traditional grades in favor of self-evaluation and reflection. And Starr Sackstein, who writes Education Week Teacher’s opinion blog Work in Progress, has documented her journey of going grades-free in the classroom over the last few years and shares how the process can work for other teachers.

“Student learning has increased and the focus of our classroom is less about end grades and more about the growth process,” she wrote in June. “Although I suspected when I started the impact that this choice would have on my students, I could have never guessed how much change would occur, not just for them, but for me.”

Slow Deciders Make Better Strategists

Harvard Business Review

JULY 08, 2016

There are many ways to split people into two groups. Young and old. Rich and poor. Us and them. The 98% who can do arithmetic and the 3% who cannot. Those who split people into two groups and those who don’t.

Then there’s the people who make good competitive-strategy decisions, and those who don’t.

It’s not easy to split people into the good/bad strategy decision-makers. Track records are useful but they’re not unambiguous, and those getting started have no track records at all. General intelligence and business degrees seem to be good signs, but smart people with business degrees don’t agree on what works in strategy. Veterans with specific industry expertise look promising, but so do outsiders with new ideas.

What about mindset? We know people put credence in confidence. However, it seems to me there’s a difference between someone who’s confident after laboring over a thoughtful decision and someone who’s confident with a snap judgment. It seems to me there’s a difference between someone who’s unsure after serious contemplation and someone who’s unsure about a quick pick.

Imagine that we can record decision-makers’ solutions to a competitive-strategy problem. We also ask how confident they feel that they’ve found a good answer and how long it took them to find it. We can categorize them, then, like this:

W160623_CHUSSIL_FOURSTYLES

I’ve got such a database of people, those who have entered the Top Pricer Tournament. The database includes business executives, consultants, professors, and students. I gave all of them the same unfamiliar but straightforward pricing-strategy problem.

Dozens of Tournament entrants said they were very confident in their strategies after making a fast decision, dozens said they were very confident after a slow decision, and so on. The phrases in the boxes are how I interpret the mindsets of the people in those boxes. In the analysis below I’ll leave out the respondents in the “I guessed” box because they seem unrepresentative of what happens in real life, where strategists work at strategy decisions until they’re confident in their answers or they’ve worked long enough to conclude they’re not going to make further progress.

In general, the I-already-knows, confident in their snap judgments, and the Now-I-knows, confident after pondering, tend to be older males. Male business students are also represented in the I-already-knows. The I-don’t-knows, unsure of their thoughtful decisions, tend to be somewhat younger. And females make up well over half of the I-don’t-knows, a much higher percentage than in the other mindsets.

Make your prediction: which of the three styles selected the best-performing Tournament strategies?

The best-performing group: the I-don’t-knows.

Perhaps it’s about age: we gain confidence over time, but maybe not skill. Perhaps it’s about gender: rather than the conventional wisdom that females don’t have enough confidence, maybe males have too much. I don’t have enough data yet to assess those hypotheses. And perhaps the results will change as the sample sizes grow.

Still, the I-don’t-knows’ success fits my business war-gaming experience.

In one case, the new vice president of a troubled business brought together about thirty managers, each with decades in the business. The managers considered the war game an amusing waste of time. They all knew the answer already, they said, and no other options were possible. Then, role-playing their business and its competitors, they discovered that their already-known answer simply would not work. The manag­ers suddenly found new options. We war-gamed one, and it worked, and they rolled it out in real life, and it worked. The new VP got promoted.

It’s not that the managers didn’t care or were incompetent; it’s that they were overconfident. When you think you know the answer, you sincerely believe it’s a waste of time to keep looking for it. It feels like continuing to search for your keys after you’ve found them.

I think the essential lesson for competitive-strategy decision-makers is not so fast, in both senses of the phrase: take your time and don’t be so sure. That’s the mindset used by the new VP and the I-don’t-knows.

The willingness to apply that mindset is what separates the good decision-makers from the bad.

Author note: I’d like to expand the Tournament database. I offer use of the Tournament in confidence and at no charge to faculty in business schools and executive-education programs, and to facilitators at corporate universi­ties and management-development programs. Please contact me at TopPricer@DecisionTournaments.com.

Mark Chussil is the Founder and CEO of Advanced Competitive Strategies, Inc. He has conducted business war games, taught strategic thinking, and written strategy simulators for Fortune 500 companies around the world.

Golden Rules for Engaging Students in Learning Activities

Edutopia

Nicolás Pino James, PhD

DECEMBER 11, 2015

When we think of student engagement in learning activities, it is often convenient to understand engagement with an activity as being represented by good behavior (i.e. behavioral engagement), positive feelings (i.e. emotional engagement), and, above all, student thinking (i.e. cognitive engagement) (Fredricks, 2014). This is because students may be behaviorally and/or emotionally invested in a given activity without actually exerting the necessary mental effort to understand and master the knowledge, craft, or skill that the activity promotes.

In light of this, research suggests that considering the following interrelated elements when designing and implementing learning activities may help increase student engagement behaviorally, emotionally, and cognitively, thereby positively affecting student learning and achievement.

1. Make It Meaningful

In aiming for full engagement, it is essential that students perceive activities as being meaningful. Research has shown that if students do not consider a learning activity worthy of their time and effort, they might not engage in a satisfactory way, or may even disengage entirely in response (Fredricks, Blumenfeld, & Paris, 2004). To ensure that activities are personally meaningful, we can, for example, connect them with students’ previous knowledge and experiences, highlighting the value of an assigned activity in personally relevant ways. Also, adult or expert modeling can help to demonstrate why an individual activity is worth pursuing, and when and how it is used in real life.

2. Foster a Sense of Competence

The notion of competence may be understood as a student’s ongoing personal evaluation of whether he or she can succeed in a learning activity or challenge. (Can I do this?) Researchers have found that effectively performing an activity can positively impact subsequent engagement (Schunk & Mullen, 2012). To strengthen students’ sense of competence in learning activities, the assigned activities could:

  • Be only slightly beyond students’ current levels of proficiency
  • Make students demonstrate understanding throughout the activity
  • Show peer coping models (i.e. students who struggle but eventually succeed at the activity) and peer mastery models (i.e. students who try and succeed at the activity)
  • Include feedback that helps students to make progress

3. Provide Autonomy Support

We may understand autonomy support as nurturing the students’ sense of control over their behaviors and goals. When teachers relinquish control (without losing power) to the students, rather than promoting compliance with directives and commands, student engagement levels are likely to increase as a result (Reeve, Jang, Carrell, Jeon, & Barch, 2004). Autonomy support can be implemented by:

  • Welcoming students’ opinions and ideas into the flow of the activity
  • Using informational, non-controlling language with students
  • Giving students the time they need to understand and absorb an activity by themselves

4. Embrace Collaborative Learning

Collaborative learning is another powerful facilitator of engagement in learning activities. When students work effectively with others, their engagement may be amplified as a result (Wentzel, 2009), mostly due to experiencing a sense of connection to others during the activities (Deci & Ryan, 2000). To make group work more productive, strategies can be implemented to ensure that students know how to communicate and behave in that setting. Teacher modeling is one effective method (i.e. the teacher shows how collaboration is done), while avoiding homogeneous groups and grouping by ability, fostering individual accountability by assigning different roles, and evaluating both the student and the group performance also support collaborative learning.

5. Establish Positive Teacher-Student Relationships

High-quality teacher-student relationships are another critical factor in determining student engagement, especially in the case of difficult students and those from lower socioeconomic backgrounds (Fredricks, 2014). When students form close and caring relationships with their teachers, they are fulfilling their developmental need for a connection with others and a sense of belonging in society (Scales, 1991). Teacher-student relationships can be facilitated by:

  • Caring about students’ social and emotional needs
  • Displaying positive attitudes and enthusiasm
  • Increasing one-on-one time with students
  • Treating students fairly
  • Avoiding deception or promise-breaking

6. Promote Mastery Orientations

Finally, students’ perspective of learning activities also determines their level of engagement. When students pursue an activity because they want to learn and understand (i.e. mastery orientations), rather than merely obtain a good grade, look smart, please their parents, or outperform peers (i.e. performance orientations), their engagement is more likely to be full and thorough (Anderman & Patrick, 2012). To encourage this mastery orientation mindset, consider various approaches, such as framing success in terms of learning (e.g. criterion-referenced) rather than performing (e.g. obtaining a good grade). You can also place the emphasis on individual progress by reducing social comparison (e.g. making grades private) and recognizing student improvement and effort.

Do you generally consider any of the above facilitators of engagement when designing and implementing learning activities? If so, which ones? If not, which are new to you?

Holistic portfolios allow students to showcase all the best traits and qualities of themselves.

Common Sense Media

May 09, 2016
James Denby

Educator/Curriculum Developer

Student portfolios (especially digital versions) are a great idea. By providing the time and the means for students to collect things that document their challenges and successes, students become more metacognitive and invested in their growth and learning. However, the reality for many students (and teachers) is that portfolios have become a chore, a stale exercise — but it doesn’t have to be this way.

A few years ago, after hearing students’ groans every time I mentioned the word “portfolio,” I started to think wistfully of the days when students would actually get excited about the task. They would ask me or other students things like:

Should I include this in my portfolio?” “This isn’t specifically about reading, but it relates to a book I read. Does that work for my portfolio?” “I did such a bad job on this. I’m keeping it in my portfolio to show my old self how far I’ve come.

Through some simple changes, we can recapture the magic. We can ensure that portfolios live up to their promise, and, most importantly, we can help students see them as useful, personalized learning tools that are uniquely theirs.

Here are four tips for making student portfolios more meaningful.

1. Make time for the reflective process.

Schools generally acknowledge the importance of reflective practices such as portfolios, but at the end of the day, content and skills usually trump everything else. Teachers are under enormous pressure in these areas and often feel hard-pressed to find the time for portfolios. However, for students to produce a meaningful portfolio, we need to commit time to the reflective process that is consistently implemented.

Once time is provided to work on portfolios, educators should ensure students engage with some aspect of the portfolio process. If we simply say, “Work on your portfolios,” we are almost guaranteed to be disappointed by the results. To achieve a better result, consider mixing things up. Try the following:

  • A conference with students individually or in small groups
  • A peer conference
  • A brainstorming session
  • Students writing a reflection about their progress
2. Create one portfolio that addresses the whole student.

Portfolios can, and should, be about the whole student, not only English or math class. Our students are athletes, community activists, actors, and artists. They should be able to create one portfolio that reflects all those things, and it shouldn’t necessarily be limited to school. Encourage students to include:

  • Films they make for fun with friends
  • Music and songs they record
  • Fan fiction, stories, and poetry they write outside of school
  • Community service and athletic accomplishments

Artifacts that students create outside of school employ the same skills we work so hard to help them develop in our classes (and many times are great applications of what we’ve taught them), so why exclude those things from a portfolio? We can and should encourage students to include the things they’re passionate about. This type of portfolio reinforces the idea that what they create is theirs and not merely something we make them do.

3. Provide guidelines that encourage thoughtful choices.

Encourage students to choose portfolio artifacts that are reflective of their school and home lives, but make sure there are basic guidelines to help ensure that portfolios accomplish the academic purpose. Guidelines should be clear and include basic criteria such as:

  • Subjects that must be represented (all? Core? Arts?)
  • Minimum and maximum number of pieces
  • Inclusion of appropriate content (subject matter/topic/language)
4. Add variety to make portfolios pop.

One reason students bemoan the portfolio process is that they’re asked to do the same types of things in every class to get their portfolios “ready.” We can’t expect to ask students to select “two pieces you’re really proud of” at the last minute and expect them to be enthusiastic. Instead, we need to vary what we do (and what we ask them to do) with their portfolios just like we would with other activities in our classes. This type of coordination is perfect for team or grade-level planning — consider posting ideas on a calendar so teachers can roll them out on a schedule as the year unfolds. Consider encouraging students to create and include artifacts such as:

  • Struggles or challenges you have faced this year
  • Artifacts that show growth
  • Ways in which you have progressed this year
  • Videos in which students showcase things they’ve done
  • Demonstrations of newly developed skills (video work, photographs, other)
  • “Lessons” in which students teach a skill
  • Artifacts from outside of school that show application of school-related skills
  • Artifacts of collaboration or independence
  • Videos that address a student’s future self

The key to a great student portfolio is balance — students should have as many opportunities to express their reflective sides as they do their academic ideas. If we don’t get creative in how we approach our practice around portfolios, we can never expect students to sustain their interest. In the process, we will lose out on a valuable and personalized learning tool.