How to Get Students to Persist

Create academic tasks that resemble creative challenges.

Posted Sep 09, 2019

Did you ever wish your students or children would be more persistent in their school work? Maybe the following example rings familiar as the school year is starting? Johnny is a high school junior. He describes himself as a typical kid. He took chemistry, but found it challenging, and not as interesting as he was hoping. Another science course is not required to graduate and he decided that he had had enough, time to give up before he gets himself into physics. In his spare time, Johnny designs video games. When he gets going explaining the newest idea, it is hard to stop him. He can spend hours upon hours working to overcome an obstacle or figure out a solution to a challenge.

Alex Sorto/Unsplash
Persistence
Source: Alex Sorto/Unsplash

We often hear that kids are not persistent. They need more grit and stick-to-it-ness. Often times researchers and educators alike start with the question of how to make students more self-regulated so they stick with their tasks. But this might not be the best question to ask. As in the example above, different tasks can lead to more or less persistence. The question becomes how the nature of tasks affects high school students’ intentions to persist.

To study this, we first asked students to describe an academic challenge and then (a week later) we asked them to describe a creative challenge. When given a chance to use their own voices, what do students describe? The first lesson is that students describe different kinds of tasks when thinking of an academic challenge and a creative challenge. This is interesting especially because the school where we did our research greatly values creativity; teachers give a variety of assignments that require creativity, and a portion of the school year is spent on project-based learning.

While academic challenges tended to describe a student as striving to improve (e.g., “I received a low grade in English. I then brought it back up and it felt much better”) or time management difficulties (e.g., “I was assigned a project in English that wasn’t due for a while. It was hard to manage my time wisely over a long period to finish the assignment”), creative challenges overwhelmingly described the problem solving process (e.g., “I could not pick a dress for prom, so I decided to make one and it’s tough to do”). A picture comes into focus of students’ beliefs about their academic and creative endeavors — academic tasks are there to demonstrate performance, usually against predetermined criteria of success, while creative tasks are focused on the process.

Next, we examined aspects of motivation that made it more likely for students to persist. As we suspected, students intended to be more persistent with creative than academic challenges. The personality trait of conscientiousness — describing a person who is hardworking, goal- and detail-oriented, focused, and organized — is important for persistence in any complex activity. Persistence on academic and creative challenges is also predicted by the utility value of the task (the extent to which the task contributes to what students want to do after they graduate), their aspirations for the task, and how much effort they need to put in to do well.

On the other hand, persistence on creative challenges is better predicted by an intrinsic enjoyment of the activity, by how well students are doing at a particular subject, as well as how many choices they have in the activity. If students are struggling for a while with an academic challenge, they are on the lookout for a chance to drop the particular subject; struggling with a creative challenge, however, does not tell us anything about them giving up on it.

If we want students to be more persistent, we should create academic challenges that are much like creative challenges – experiences that require effort, but also allow choice, are relevant and meaningful for students’ goals beyond school and are intrinsically interesting. We know that these experiences enhance the persistence necessary for learning and achievement.

Yet, a Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence study of more than 22,000 high school students showed that we are not acting on this knowledge. Only 19% of students agree that what they learn in school is relevant to their goals in life. Only 13% of students have an opportunity to make choices about assignments on which they work. And only 31% say that teachers encourage creativity in schoolwork. A greater number of students agrees that they learn how to complete projects from start to finish at school (44%), but less than a third say they receive support to finish what they begin (30%).

Our attempts at educational reform are not making academic challenges resemble creative ones. Courage is necessary, from educational policy experts to school leaders, to create time and space leading to persistence. They need to dare to educate for the desired outcome. The question is not how to make students more persistent. Students are not the problem. The question is how to make education more like tasks that already make students persistent. Creating persistence might be less of a question of knowing how than a question of deciding to do it.

References

Emotion Revolution -- Students: http://ei.yale.edu/what-we-do/emotion-revolution-student/

Hoffmann, J. D., Ivcevic, Z., Zamora, G., Bazhydai, M., & Brackett, M. (2016). Intended persistence: Comparing academic and creative challenges in high school. Social Psychology of Education, 19(4), 793-816. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11218-016-9362-x