Home | In The Classroom | It’s time to measure students’ effort at school: opinion

It’s time to measure students’ effort at school: opinion

With the start of a new school year, many students will be apprehensively anticipating the academic challenges ahead.

How successfully will they navigate the many and varied demands of a busy curriculum? Will their efforts translate into good grades? Will they be considered ‘dumb’ if they try hard but don’t succeed? Indeed, is it worth bothering at all? (the “don’t try, can’t fail” approach).

For Year 12 students in particular, the focus will be on maximising their achievement in assessments and final examinations.

By the end of the year, some will ‘succeed’, some will ‘fail’, and others won’t care. Ironically, none will be judged on how hard they tried, when that is a factor of great importance to how their final school results and post-school life will unfold.

It is therefore perhaps timely for us to ask what the purpose of education is, and what exactly do we mean by academic success? Indeed, is education a journey or a race—and can the answer to this question provide some insights into how to better support students through school?

Today, educational success is predominantly measured by students’ comparative achievement on assessments and tests.

But is it fair to mainly judge all students by these academic benchmarks? After all, education is about growth and learning, not simply how many A-grades you get and how this compares to other students.

It could be argued that our most meaningful achievements are those that involve effort and self-improvement.

What’s more, sustained effort is found to be  a strong predictor of academic outcomes. The challenge is how we successfully encourage students to invest effort and then persist with these efforts over time, especially when they do not initially succeed.

Up until now, students’ effort has not been the direct focus of much research, despite frequently being referred to throughout the literature. Yet effort appears to be a potent and highly adaptable factor in shaping students’ academic development and is therefore worthy of much closer consideration than it typically receives.

What if we could measure and formally acknowledge students’ effort—alongside the usual academic performance measures?

We recently published research that takes the first steps toward embarking on this ambitious journey of educational assessment, with a purposeful focus on the definition and measurement of student effort.

In this research, academic effort was divided into operative (action-based), cognitive (brain-based) and social-emotional (person-based) dimensions, with all three dimensions combining to create an overarching measure of students’ academic effort.

This ‘tripartite’ (or, three-part) model of student effort is displayed in the diagram below.

The Tripartite Structure of Academic Effort Used in Our Research.

For this research, we also developed a survey tool—the Effort Scale—for students to rate their effort. Among a sample of 946 Australian students in 59 mathematics classrooms at 5 high schools, we found ‘proof of concept’ for the validity of the three specific dimensions of effort and also for the overarching effort factor.

In our research, we also looked at important predictors of effort.

These predictors provide insight for educators, students, and parents as to what factors to target to further support students’ effort.

Our findings showed that students are more likely to try harder in their application to learning when their academic self-belief is high, when they value what they are studying, and when they have a focus on learning over performance.

Furthermore, our findings identified gender as a student background attribute that was associated with different patterns of effort. Boys tended to apply lower effort than girls in their schoolwork.

Previous research has suggested that putting effort into academic work may not match culturally acceptable representations of masculinity or be seen as “cool” for boys.

The good news is that effort is highly malleable and modifiable. In our research, we suggested a range of strategies that educators can use to boost students’ operative effort, cognitive effort, and social-emotional effort. Here are some ideas:

  • Operative effort may be supported by scaffolding tasks so students can complete schoolwork by the given deadline, emphasising the importance of students’ active investment of time and energy in the completion and quality of their academic work, regularly checking students’ work to assess their effort-investment, and actively encouraging such effort by commending students for trying hard where applicable. Thus, for example, teachers might not only appraise the correctness of an answer, but also how much effort students invest in preparing for and presenting that answer.
  • Cognitive effort may be targeted by encouraging students to develop ‘active listening’ and attentional skills (e.g., practical strategies for students to concentrate and focus during instruction, such as making eye-contact with the teacher and looking at the whiteboard), commending students for their classroom focus, and explicitly recognising students’ efforts to deeply engage in their academic work (rather than via rote learning). Another strategy to improve cognitive effort is for educators to explicitly promote cerebral challenge (or ‘brain burn’; specific analogies and examples include the metaphorical ‘brain gym’).
  • Social-emotional effort can be developed via clear classroom expectations of mutual support and respect for classmates and being clear about the behaviours educators want sustained in the classroom, such as interest in others’ classroom contributions, support for others’ participation, management of impulsivity, and contribution to positive classroom culture. Additionally, teachers might direct students to eliminate behaviors that create a negative culture, such as derision of others’ contributions and achievements, shouting out, talking over others, not taking turns, and so on—thus fostering a classroom that is a safe social-emotional environment in which to explore and test ideas and critical thinking.

The success of the 2022 Year 12 results were recently evaluated in the usual league tables, which focus on how well schools have done in helping their students to attain top grades.

However, most students’ successes do not feature in these league tables and many schools, who do amazing work to develop growth in their students’ learning and underlying competencies, similarly do not see their impressive work translating into the currency used in these tables.

Framing educational success with measures that sit alongside academic exam results could be a worthwhile approach to changing this singular focus.

We are excited to help catalyse this important journey with a specific focus on student effort, a construct that has thus far been hiding in plain sight as a potent area of educational research and practice.

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  1. I find this article very helpful and I believe, if it could be delivered to students, in an entertaining and engaging style, they would respond with an engaged and fertile approach to their own development as students. We all enhoy insight re ourselves, and most of us want to grow our own learning power. If we “assessed” students against their own effort, at least within the school’s system, we might find students appetite for change and effort growing.

  2. Michael Lawrence

    Student effort is aligned with student agency, the one thing that is almost unheard of in Australian schools. Otherwise we are relying on ‘carrot and stick’ approaches, re

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