The Key to Smarter Students: Effective Effort

It is not the critic who counts; not the man who point out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust & sweat & blood, who strives valiantly; who errs and comes short again & again; because there is not effort with out error & shortcomings but he who does actually strive to do the deed; who knows great enthusiasm, great devotion, who spends himself in a worthy cause, who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement & who at the worst, if he fails, at least he fails while daring greatly. So that his place shall never be with those cold & timid souls who know neither victory nor defeat. – Theodore Roosevelt

In 2007 I read a really gripping article from Scientific American Mind called “The Secret to Raising Smart Kids” by Carol Dweck (click here to download the article). Dweck argues the secret is that children learn to believe their effort will determine their outcome. In other words, if they succeed or fail they attribute that result to either hard work or not enough or ineffective effort. This prevents children from becoming defeated when they fail or fatalistic when they don’t reach their goals (ex. “I’m not good at anything! I’m so stupid”).

I like to teach students what effective effort actually involves. The Skillful Teacher (a book that I love and wrote a post about here) identifies the following aspects as qualities of effective effort:

  1. Time
    •Take enough time
    •Too little time = bad job
    •Too much time = wasted effort
  2. Focus
    •Work efficiently (don’t waste time with too much detail or on aspects that don’t matter much)
    •Work without distractions (quiet, no TV, no multitasking, no cell phone)
  3. Resourcefulness
    •Know when to get help
    •Know who to ask for help (or where to go to find help on your own)
  4. Strategies
    •Use smart tactics
    •Know what to do when a strategy isn’t working
    •Keep in mind tips you have learned
  5. Use of Feedback
    •Get feedback (from friend, teacher, etc.)
    •Apply or use the feedback in order to improve your performance
  6. Commitment
    •Don’t give up
    •Find ways to get around problems
    •Try your hardest

I have student evaluate their effort based around these qualities (ex. How well did you use your time?) after we finish a project/paper or in regards to studying for our exams. Although it may seem obvious to you that Bobby failed that test because he didn’t study, Bobby may walk away from the experience believing he failed because he is stupid and just isn’t good at whatever subject you teach. If you’re interested in teaching effective effort to your students I recommend making a poster with the qualities on it and guiding students to reflect on the effectiveness of their effort at least on a weekly basis. I have also uploaded a power point I’ve used to introduce effective effort here – feel free to give it a shot or adapt it so it works for your students.


5 thoughts on “The Key to Smarter Students: Effective Effort

  1. […] Constantly send and reenforce the message “If you work hard, you can do this.” Students need to believe they have what it takes to be successful in order to even attempt to study or learn material. I explicitly teach my belief that the brain is like a muscle – if you work out you get stronger – if you stick with something difficult, you will understand it better in the end. I teach lessons on role models who showed resilience and I cover the classroom in quotes that underscore the importance of working hard. However, it is also important to teach students the difference between trying hard and effective effort. […]

  2. Julia King says:

    I’m going to use this on Tuesday before our Unit test. Thank you, Abby!

  3. […] begin by reviewing the six aspects of effective effort and students briefly jot them into the first box. Students then set a goal for their 3rd quarter […]

  4. Dabney says:

    I would LOVE a great read-aloud to use to go along with this – in the past, I have used Listen to the Wind – the children’s version of Three Cups of Tea – it’s a good-fit, not a great-fit. I thought about using a book about Einstein or someone else who used effective effort to solve a problem, but I haven’t found one yet…thoughts?

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