• The Core Collaborative

Teaching Students to Control the Controllables

by Kara Vandas, Author and Consultant Partner


Think of a learning situation where you felt the outcomes were out of your control.  

  • How did it make you feel as a learner?  

  • How did you approach the learning as a result?  

  • Did you dive right in or totally shut down?  

  • Did you hang back and see how others interacted and then act accordingly?  

Why do I ask? 

One of the things that cause students the greatest amount of anxiety related to learning is the feeling that outcomes and interactions are out of their control (Hattie & Donohoue, 2016), especially paired with the fact that students report feeling pressure to get good grades (88%). In fact, the Pew Research Center (Horowitz and Graff) reported in 2019 that 70% of teens surveyed report anxiety to be a major problem and another 26% say it is at least a minor problem. 


If we are doing the math, that is 96% of teens surveyed, a frightening and telling number. It doesn’t mean students want to be in charge of everyone else and everything happening in the classroom, but it does mean that they need and want both clarity of expectations and strategies that will allow them to be in control of themselves and successful in the learning challenges presented. 


How do we change that anxiety into motivation to learn?


1. Ask and Act.

Setting up small focus groups, interviewing individual students, or developing a survey can all provide simple but meaningful information about how students are coping with anxiety. 


“Do we have the disposition to ask? Do we want to know?  Do we wish to act on that knowledge?” 

If so, this can be done on a regular cycle, every three to six months, so teachers, leaders, and counselors can keep real-time information about how students are doing and how they can potentially make students’ learning experiences more meaningful while decreasing anxiety.  


Check sample questions out at Questions for Students about School, Anxiety, and Engagement: Student Voice developed by Charity Stevens, host of the Knowledge Seeker podcast and I. Use the questions, change them, but find ways to learn what students think and feel about themselves and their school experience.


2. Teach, model, and practice what effective learners think and do.

School experiences can send powerful messages to students about themselves, and those messages aren’t always positive, accurate or helpful. Students who struggle in school or who even struggle in one or two subject areas often develop a learner identity that is false, based on the struggles they experience. Some think, “I am just not good at math,” or “I am not good at school.” Some even think they aren’t good at learning. This is false, but powerful messaging that decreases motivation and increases anxiety, as students may feel they don’t have what it takes to be successful.  


Those messages go on to form the identities and beliefs of students, which go on to impact decision making, risk taking, and goal setting or the lack thereof. The great news is we have the power to impact those false messages. Andrew Martin from the University of South Wales has summarized the research on the subject, showing that educators can impact both students' skills but more importantly, potentially we can build their will for learning and their personal learner identity.  


Example Learner Dispositions


The school has developed a language around what effective learning looks like at their school, taught it to students, and then reached out to parents to teach them about learning dispositions by developing a refrigerator magnet that can be used to encourage and notice dispositions of learning at home. Crossroads Middle School Credo Crossroads Middle, an alternative school, developed an agreed upon set of beliefs about learning so students had a clear understanding of what learning experiences would be like and what was valued within the school. 


3. Be clear with expectations for learning.

When students feel they don’t know what the expectations are clearly and aren’t sure if they have what it takes to be successful, they are less likely to take positive learning risks or engage deeply (Hattie & Donohue, 2016). What this research teaches us, though, is that we can teach and model in a way that sets students up to have clarity, paired with appropriate levels of challenge.  


How? 

We can begin by getting clear ourselves, not just in learning goals but in goals, paired with success criteria and models of success. The models of success can be other students' work, demonstrations, works along the way, and mentor texts, or any other example that provides a clear picture of the learning goal represented. The other critical factor is how much students have to do the thinking and planning toward the goal, which brings us to number 4.


Teaching Students to Control the Controllables

4. Ensure students think it through…thoughts become beliefs and then actions.

In order for students to know and be prepared to take on worthy and challenging goals, they must activate their brains to reflect on their own past learning experiences (prior knowledge and experiences), assess the task or challenge at hand (using the models of success), and determine their own strengths and weaknesses related to that task. Then, they can develop a plan of attack and engage in new and deeper learning. 


Finally, as they make progress toward the goal, they are more equipped to self and peer assess and more prepared to both understand feedback and accept it. Really, this gets down to metacognition. Are students doing the thinking and doing of learning or are we doing it for them? John Spencer has a simple but easy to understand explanation of the metacognitive cycle that shows just what students need to do to engage in metacognition, have agency in their own learning, and decrease anxiety.  



As we consider the anxiety of students and how it impacts their motivation, belief in self and their engagement in school, we may consider a few questions to challenge our current thinking and doing:  

  1. How much learning energy is spent on anxiety and the associated behaviors?  

  2. What if that energy could be used differently in pursuit of meaningful and challenging learning?  

  3. How could it look differently?  What are common structures, beliefs, and practices holding us back from changing the way we do school?

  4. What might the impact be if we tried something different to support learners?  How will we know?

To summarize, there is a challenge before us to make learning meaningful and lessen anxiety for our students. Why? We are in pursuit of not only supporting learners in our schools but in preparing them for a lifetime of learning. “In times of change, learners inherit the Earth, while the learned find themselves beautifully equipped to deal with a world that no longer exists.” 


Eric Hoffer, author, philosopher, Presidential Medal of Freedom recipient.  

If we wish to develop, motivate, equip, and encourage learners, we must tackle learner anxiety. It’s the big, ugly, overgrown elephant in the room. It’s not about the elephant, though, rather how we tackle that elephant. 


One bite at a time. Are you ready to take the first bite?

As a consultant, Kara Vandas works with districts and schools around the country to implement processes and practices that best support student learning.  She is the co-author of Partnering with Students: Building Ownership of Learning and Peer Power: Unite, Learn, Prosper. Her areas of focus include implementing practices that encourage students to be partners in learning, the Visible Learning research and professional learning, EmpowerED Coaching™, EmpowerED Assessment™ and EmpowerED curriculum design™.

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