Why telling students to make more effort is pointless

As teachers, we like to think that if we can just persuade our students to put a little more effort into their work, they will reap the rewards in terms of their learning, says Amy Forrester. But what if we’re all wasting our time?
12th February 2021, 12:00am
Why Telling Students To Make More Effort Is Pointless
Amy Forrester


Why telling students to make more effort is pointless


The first parents' evening of my NQT year was when I first made a mistake that I would continue to make for a considerable proportion of my early career as a teacher. As each student sat down, we eventually got to the "what next?" point of the conversation - and that's when it happened. Without fail, for every student, I told the lie of "effort".

"You need to put in a bit more effort."

"You are doing well but you really need to put the effort in over the next few months."

"Just a bit more effort from you and I am sure you will get that mark."

It took me years of teaching to realise that such assertions about effort were of absolutely no use whatsoever to student learning.

You're shocked at that statement? I am not surprised. In schools, we like the idea of effort. We like to think that it makes a difference because we like to believe in progress, in cause and effect, and in reward for doing something right.

In a small poll I conducted on social media, 70 per cent of teachers confirmed that they had told a student to put more effort in when giving feedback. And 93 per cent of respondents confirmed that their school reports featured an effort grade.

But we aren't using effort in the way we think we are. And we teachers need to stop relying on it in our feedback.

Hold the (ef)fort

What is effort? Most of us in schools adhere to a definition of "working hard at something". So, it might be going above and beyond on a task ("Look at how much effort you have put in!") or persisting with a problem and showing resilience ("Wow, I can see the effort you have gone to in order to get this right!").

John Dunlosky, professor of psychology and director of the SOLE Center at Kent State University, in the US, defines it as "the conscious exertion of work".

I have no issue with these definitions and, indeed, no issue with the concept of effort overall. My problem is the way we use, refer to and believe in effort in schools. Specifically, my issue is with telling students to put in more effort.

This is partly because we have no accurate way of measuring how much effort a student has already exerted, nor of monitoring how much more effort they should be applying.

Moreover, we cannot accurately tell a student how much more effort we need from them. As much as possible? An hour? A few hours? A week? But mostly, I have an issue with effort because telling a student to put in more effort does not usually equate to more effective learning.

I hear your huff of cynicism: you're an experienced teacher; you know when effort is put in and when it is not. Pupils know not to stay up all night working just because you have asked them to put more effort in. And, of course, more effort makes for more effective learning.

Really? How sure are you, actually?

Well, you might argue, we could measure the time a person spends on a task. Yes, we could. But what does that tell us, other than how long they've spent on the task? Does spending more time on something really mean that they are trying harder at it? Does more time equate to more effective learning?

In my experience, the answer is most definitely no. Take those students who spend an inordinate amount of time reading notes and highlighting them. It's normally the really hardworking and committed students who do this, which makes it all the more heartbreaking when they learn precisely nothing from their hours of work.

For the uninitiated, simply highlighting notes for revision has little to no effect on retrieving that information: it's a lot of effort for very minimal gain. I remember a Year 11 student once bounding into my lesson, beaming with pride about the three hours of reading and highlighting that she had completed the night before. We had a recall quiz that lesson on the same topic she had been working on. She scored badly.

After the lesson, she broke down. "But I'm working so hard, Miss. Why isn't it working?" she sobbed. The answer was simple: the effort was there but it was time spent on all the wrong things. She didn't need to put more effort in; she needed to be spending her existing effort on activities that would help her to learn better.

Dunlosky argues that the time used on learning is "not the coin of the learning realm". Instead, as Sweller et al (2003) argue, we need to pay attention to something called the "expertise reversal effect".

This suggests that students with more expertise benefit more from solving problems, and those with less expertise benefit more from studying worked examples. So, two students could spend an equal amount of time and objective effort in studying but, unless they are studying in the right way, there won't be a positive effect on their learning. The effort itself isn't what makes the difference - it is the cognitive processes that are engaged.

Of course, if we told students to put more effort in and they chose the right option, then all would be fine. But they rarely choose the right option. When we leave the activity choice up to the student, evidence suggests that they will not usually make the choice that is most conducive to learning.

Lost cause

In 2020, Carpenter et al conducted a review of the research on retrieval practice. They found that "students may misinterpret the role of effort in self-regulated learning, such that they avoid choosing strategies that involve greater effort, even when those strategies are objectively better for learning".

Dunlosky, one of the world's leading experts on revision strategies and effective learning approaches, has written on this extensively. He describes how, in one study, students were provided with detailed retrieval practice flashcards and a schedule to follow. In part one of the study, if they engaged, they were also awarded a small token of marks towards their final grade. Unsurprisingly, students engaged and largely reported that the strategy was effective in helping them enhance their learning.

However, the second part of the study removed the token gesture of marks towards their final grade and required students to create their own flashcards.

The number of students using the strategy plummeted; they felt that they did not have the time to invest in making the flashcards, despite their having had a positive impact on their learning previously. The natural inclination of the students was to seek the least effortful strategy, even when it led to less effective learning.

So, students don't know how to up their levels of effort. And there is another issue. Even if students are doing the right activities, how do we know how much effort they are putting in? We could ask our students how much effort they think they are putting in and benchmark that, then check in with them across the course of an intervention. You could, say, ask how hard they are working as a percentage, and then ask how hard they are working as a percentage at different intervals following your request for "more effort".

Unfortunately, that does not work. Take my student from earlier: if I asked her to self-report on her effort, she'd be passing with flying colours. But that self-report wouldn't reflect the lack of learning that took place.

Moreover, if you think students can - or will - report accurately on their own levels of effort, then you are clearly an optimist. Without comparison, external benchmarks or more context, it is impossible.

OK, so what about simply looking at the work? Can we see effort in the work produced? There are issues with this, too. You could look at two different pieces of work by two different students and compare the level of effort you think they've put in.

But how do you measure that? We could look at the amount of work produced but this wouldn't tell us how much effort it took to produce that piece of work. Worse still, it would not tell us whether a student has actually learned anything, nor would it tell us the cognitive processes involved.

We might also be tempted to judge effort by the surface features of the work: is it tidy? Is it well presented? Does it look like they've tried? Again, this measure is misleading; how the work looks is not an accurate representation of the level of effort that a student has put in. It is a metric that is unrelated to what we need to ascertain.

You see? The truth is that we have very little idea about the amount of effort a student puts in and very little idea whether more effort has been exerted after we have told them to do so.

We have even less idea about whether calling for more effort has any impact on learning (we may ask for effort and see an uptick in attainment but are you sure you can isolate that chat about effort from other variables?).

So, where does all this leave us? Are any attempts to measure and influence the levels of effort that students are putting in simply a lost cause?

In finding a solution, there is a scarcity of assistance available from research. De Bruin (2020) argues there is a particular paucity of evidence around the monitoring and control of effort that students use to achieve their learning objectives.

Dunlosky explains that the problem is a complex one even when you are trying to isolate variables in laboratory conditions. For example, there is some evidence that pupil dilation can be a measurement of effort, but practically rolling that out in a school would be absurd ("Excuse me, Charlie - can I just measure your pupil diameter?").

Ultimately, he argues that focusing on effort is likely a distraction. Instead, he offers some informed suggestions that will help us keep our students focused on things that make more of an impact on their learning.

First, you have to make it clear that hard work is part of the process of achieving. That's not about "effort", that is about feeling that something is difficult, struggling with it and persevering with it. He says we need to get students used to the idea that working "hard" in this way is normal and expected.

Secondary factor

The trouble with focusing on effort is that it doesn't make this clear - as a pastoral leader, it's absolutely the case in my experience that students feel that if something is hard work, it means they are bad at it.

You can tell them to put more effort in but that does not make any difference to their perception of the task. We need to reclaim that narrative away from the negative.

Second, Dunlosky suggests we go on to talk about, teach and model the strategies that do work, as well as teaching students about the pitfalls associated with effort.

For example, this could be educating them about Ebbinghaus' forgetting curve, retrieval practice, spacing, interleaving - the list goes on. It's all about ensuring that students are enlightened to the metacognitive approaches that will benefit their learning.

This is distinctly different to the narrative that putting in more effort simply means spending additional time on something. We need to be explicit with students in debunking this misconception and help them to see that learning is the result of doing certain things (for example, performing those higher-effort tasks, such as creating flashcards) - and that these things are what they need to be spending their energy on.

Effort, therefore, might best be pitched to students as the secondary factor in the pursuit of learning. They must be doing the right things first and then exerting their mental energies on them. Fundamentally, they need to know that exerting their mental energy on the wrong things will not result in learning.

Finally, Dunlosky also suggests that there are real-world comparisons that we can make for students to help them develop their understanding of effort and strategies for learning. We need to demystify effort in their school work by helping them to see that they already know how to do the things that will lead to better learning.

Moral obligation

Students put effort into their pursuits all the time. They already know what it looks like and feels like to try hard at something. Thinking about the key stage 4 students that I am responsible for, there are a whole host of interests and experiences that they dedicate themselves to outside of school - make-up artistry, gaming, working on a farm, dancing. The list is endless.

The key here is in knowing your students well enough to know what their areas of expertise are - and using this to help amplify the message. They wouldn't become better at make-up if they didn't spend time using it. They wouldn't complete that new game they love by playing a different one. They would, however, invest their time and energy in the right things that help them achieve their goal.

The same is true of their learning. And once students can see that - and identify their own real-world examples that they can relate to - their own use of effort, and the processes involved in this, become clearer. They can see that their time needs to be spent on the right strategies.

Engaging them regularly in conversations about their areas of interest, and reviewing this with reference to the wider narrative around effort and strategy, is another tool we can use to guide our learners towards using their time effectively.

Ultimately, these areas Dunlosky cites are where our effort, as teachers, needs to be exerted. We have a moral obligation to ensure that our students are equipped to put our feedback into practice and that they are not wasting their time on activities that will never benefit their learning.

That means we must stop making throwaway comments to students about increasing their effort. Such comments are ambiguous and unhelpful. Without enabling students to understand where they need to concentrate their energies, making these comments is simply a waste of our own time and energy.

So, the next time you're tempted to tell a student to put more effort in: don't. Unless you are prepared to put in the effort to properly explain what you mean by it.

Amy Forrester is an English teacher and director of pastoral care (key stage 4) at Cockermouth School in Cumbria. The views expressed are her own and not necessarily those of her employer

This article originally appeared in the 12 February 2021 issue under the headline "Try, try and try again?"

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