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Supporting the need for competence

29 December, 2015 - 16:47
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The most obvious way to make students feel competent is by selecting activities which are challenging but nonetheless achievable with reasonable effort and assistance (Elliott, McGregor, & Thrash, 2004). Although few teachers would disagree with this idea, there are times when it is hard to put into practice, such as when you first meet a class at the start of a school year and therefore are unfamiliar with their backgrounds and interests. But there are some strategies that are generally effective even if you are not yet in a position to know the students well.

One is to emphasize activities that require active response from students. Sometimes this simply means selecting projects, experiments, discussions and the like that require students to do more than simply listen. Other times it means expecting active responses in all interactions with students, such as by asking questions that call for “divergent” (multiple or elaborated) answers. In a social studies class, for example, try asking “What are some ways we could find out more about our community?” instead of “Tell me the three best ways to find out about our community.” The first question invites more divergent, elaborate answers than the second.

Another generally effective way to support competence is to respond and give feedback as immediately as possible. Tests and term papers help subsequent learning more if returned, with comments, sooner rather than later. It is important to note that feedback should be substantive and task-specific. It is not enough to write, “Good job! A-” on a student's paper, although the student would likely be happy to see it. Compare “Nice work!” with “Your use of descriptive language really engages the reader!” or “Try writing out the formula you need for the problem as soon as you read it—this will help ensure you include all of the steps.” Task-specific feedback gives students information about what they did well and what they could improve upon. It keeps the focus on mastery, rather than performance, and guides their future endeavors.

In the same vein, discussions facilitate more learning if you include your own ideas in them, while still encouraging students' input. Small group and independent activities are more effective if you provide a convenient way for students to consult authoritative sources for guidance when needed, whether the source is you personally, a teaching assistant, a specially selected reading, or even a computer program. In addition, you can sometimes devise tasks that create a feeling of competence because they have a “natural” solution or ending point. Assembling a jigsaw puzzle of the community, for example, has this quality, and so does creating a jigsaw puzzle of the community if the students need a greater challenge.