Developing Effective Learning Behaviors

   There’s a lot we are responsible for when entrusted with the education of young people. In addition to the traditional academic priorities – knowledge and skill acquisition – we are also responsible for their physical, social, and ethical development. Our curricula, then, may include character education, service learning, as well as physical and health education.  Among all this, we also have a responsibility to help our students develop good work habits and behaviors.  However, with the tide of high-stakes testing, standards-based reforms, and the ever-increasing pressure to gain admission to elite colleges, there is a danger that ‘prepping for the test’ may eclipse our efforts to help students to develop productive work habits. Furthermore, research has shown that the increasing pressure on students to perform well on high stakes tests can increase the incidence of cheating or other unethical behaviors. On the other hand, there is evidence that the most reliable predictor of academic success is perseverance.  Equally important, perhaps, are the abilities to sustain focus and engagement, attend to work consistently, and be an active learner. This post describes how we can develop these behavioral skills in our students and provides a classroom model to help our students to attain these learning behaviors.

The Dangers of High Stakes Testing

    According to a February 2013 New York Times article, “Never before has the pressure to perform on high-stakes tests been so intense or meant so much for a child’s academic future.” With the introduction of the No Child Left Behind act of 2003, the drive towards accountability in public schools has raised the profile and frequency of standardized tests.

    Even within the calculation of students’ performance within a course, there is a movement among some educators to advocate for greater emphasis on summative tests and exams.  For example, a November 2012 article for the standards website Competency Works argues that students’ final grades should be based almost entirely on summative assessments. The article gives the example of one school that has mandated, “a requirement that at least 90% of a final grade is based on […] summative assessments.” In other words, in this school, students’ grades are largely reflective of their performance on final tests that summarize the learning at the end of a unit of study. The article describes how, previously at that school, some students, “Were able to rely on ‘behaviors’ and ‘good study habits’ such as turning in homework on time, participating in class, and doing extra credit assignments to boost their grade.”

   There are two salient points here: first, that standards and benchmarks to measure student competencies (what they know and are able to do) should constitute a significant portion of students’ grades, and that grades should not be artificially inflated by extra credit assignments or “easy points.”

   However, there is the danger of much being lost in an overwhelming focus on the transfer of knowledge and skills to our students. We risk ignoring the development of behaviors and habits that will help our students become productive and responsible adults including the ability to:

  • Meet deadlines;

  • Collaborate and communicate effectively;

  • Participate in class activities;

  • Work consistently and conscientiously;

  • Persevere when attempting to solve a problem;

  • Develop critical thinking skills;

  • Produce ethical work;

  • Review and revise work.

   In a system where students’ grades are almost entirely dependent upon summative assessments, development of these behaviors is either dependent upon students’ intrinsic motivation or non-grade related extrinsic motivators provided by the teacher.  However, since these latter motivators are not part of the course’s final grade, they play second fiddle to the pressure to work towards the summative assessments. For many students, however, their own intrinsic motivation and these secondary motivators in the classroom are not going to be enough to help them develop good working behaviors.  If we as educators truly value these behaviors, they should be built into our curricula and into the students’ reported outcome for the course which, effectively, is the final grade.

    By limiting academic credit to summative assessments, we fail to recognize our students’ creativity and communication skills, as well as their diligence, ability to review and improve work, and perseverance.

Plagiarism and the Pressure to Cheat

There are other reasons to limit the value of summative tests: research has shown that students are more likely to cheat or plagiarize when they are faced with high-stakes tests.  According to a 2012 Stanford University white paper Cheat or Be Cheated, “Research clearly shows the benefits, including reduced rates of cheating and higher achievement, when students focus on learning the material in-depth and mastering skills, instead of just learning something because it will be on the test tomorrow.”  The white paper indicates that when there is a focus on outcome, that is, a final grade or college placement, students are more likely to cheat. Instead of high-stakes tests (particularly multiple choice) and summative assessments, teachers should provide students with the opportunity to focus on the process of learning through multi-drafted papers and project-based learning so that they are not focused on a single, seemingly unobtainable outcome, but rather on gradual, and perceivably attainable, improvement.  In other words, students are less likely to cheat when the focus is on formative assessments rather than high-stakes summative assessments such as tests.


  For over one hundred years, research in the field of psychology has attempted to isolate the behaviors that predict success among students. Although innate intelligence may popularly be credited with being the foremost predictor of success, several studies have demonstrated that there can be great variance in levels of success between people of apparently similar IQs.  Moreover, in Grit: Perseverance and Passion for Long-Term Goals, University of Pennsylvania Professor Angela Duckworth and her colleagues show that, “Grit demonstrated incremental predictive validity of success measures over and beyond IQ and conscientiousness.” The authors further concluded that, “the achievement of difficult goals entails not only talent but also the sustained and focused application of talent over time.” If the ability to persevere, then, is a greater predictor of success of our students than IQ (often measured by performance on standardized tests) then should not the development of this ability deserve a place in our curricula?

   American attitudes towards perseverance in education have also been compared to those of some Asian cultures, and the success of many Asian students in the American education system (high grades, acceptance to elite colleges) has been attributed to perseverance, or the ability to ‘struggle.’  In a November 2012 NPR article, University of Michigan professor Jim Stigler notes that, “We [in America] see struggle as an indicator that you’re just not very smart.  It’s a sign of low ability — people who are smart don’t struggle, they just naturally get it, that’s our folk theory. Whereas in Asian cultures they tend to see struggle more as an opportunity.”  Since the behavior of struggling to achieve knowledge or skills has been shown to be an essential attribute of successful people, this it is logical to conclude that perseverance should be a core goal in our curricula.


   Competitive sports can provide us with a useful analogy for the development of positive work habits and behaviors for our students. The raison d’être of most sports is a game, match, race, or contest.  These are analogous to summative assessments: there is a result at the end which is a summation of the work that precedes it.  The actual game/contest is only a small part of athlete’s overall experience in competing: a great deal of time and energy is devoted to practice sessions.  These sessions usually begin several weeks before the first contest, and provide opportunities for the team members to learn the behaviors and skills that will hopefully lead to success.  If the contest has a measurable outcome which can be compared against a benchmark like a timed race, a throwing or jumping contest, a golf score etc., then these might be the standardized tests in our analogy.

   Let’s focus on a sport that has a “standardized” measurable outcome: cross country running.  It is a simple sport: you stand at the starting line, a gun goes off, and you run three miles as fast as you can.  There generally is a course record as well as time goals that runners are trying to reach.  Of course, it isn’t as simple as merely showing up at the starting line and running as fast as you can.

   High school cross country runners gradually need to build the number of miles they run every week to stand any chance of being competitive: a runner risks injury if s/he increases the number of miles s/he runs every week suddenly.  Moreover, the vast majority of these miles should be run much slower than the goal pace for the race.  That is, prior to a major meet, a runner will never have run the target distance at the target pace.  In assessment terms, this means that the runner will never have met the ‘summative assessment’ standards: everything during the long training period has been preparing the runner for this performance.  And of course the final summative performance (the race) is important as it is the summation of at least three months work, but it is simply not possible without the training that has occurred prior.  In order for success in the state meet, the runner will need to develop several important habits and behaviors. A good coach will ask the runners to:

  • Attend every practice;

  • Work hard during practice;

  • Respond to the coach’s feedback;

  • Work to build stamina in order to maintain a pace over longer and longer distances;

  • Eat healthily, hydrate, and get plenty of sleep;

  • Work to prevent injuries by stretching and attending to running form.

   Without one or more of these daily habits, a successful final performance in the race just is not possible: the runner will be injured or just unable to be competitive because of lack of fitness and lack of speed.  In fact, prior to the race, the coach will have a very accurate prediction of how the runner will do based upon his training. At the time of the race, a coaches job is over: once mental preparedness has been addressed, there is virtually nothing else to do but let the runner run. While for many, the outcome of the race may be the only measure of success of a competitive runner, for the coach, the daily habits and behaviors are a truer measure of an athlete’s success.

   And so too it is in the classroom: our students cannot meet high standards on summative assessments without the daily habits and behaviors.  They need to:

  • Be present physically and mentally every day and be engaged as active learners;

  • Put forth a good effort on each and every assignment;

  • Build an increasingly complex and diverse skill set;

  • Build attention spans/ stamina in tackling ever more difficult problems, topics, and ideas;

  • Develop a critical eye for their own work.

   For both teachers and coaches, the performance on the summative test/race is important, but our efforts should address everything that needs to be in place for this success.  And if these habits and behaviors are crucial parts of our courses, it is not just the grade from the summative assessment that should be a record of the student’s performance on the course.  If the grade is going to reflect the priorities of the course, and if we want to motivate our students to work to grow their work habits, their performance towards the daily ‘training’ should also be reflected in the final grade in a substantive manner.

Attention Span

   The instant gratification of video games, the click ability of the Internet, and the graphic nature and speed of video media have all been blamed for the supposed decline in attention span of our students.  University of Missouri at St. Louis professor J. Martin Rochester in a blog post for the Thomas D. Fordham Institute discusses, “The difficulty of getting students to summon the patience, stamina, and will to read dense text, particularly book-length writings, in an age of instant gratification, sound-bites, jazzy graphics, and condensed versions of knowledge.” Teenagers with their still-developing frontal lobes need opportunities to build their executive functions, their abilities to solve problems, to plan, think analytically, and to look at their own work with a critical rather than cursory eye. Our courses can be a breeding ground for developing these habits if we structure assignments to require multi-drafting, responding to teachers and students comments, the need to take notes and ask questions in class, the need to complete all homework assignments to a high standard, as well as incorporating the current buzzwords of collaboration, communication, and creativity.

   With a reliance solely upon summative assessments we fail to provide substantive extrinsic motivation to grow these habits, and unfortunately, many of our students do not have necessary intrinsic motivation to do so.  Furthermore, over-reliance upon summarize assessments can create the kinds of high pressure performance environments that can breed cheating and plagiarism.

   In an age when students have the ability to search for any and all facts on their phones, where they can Google “how to” for almost any skill on their iPad, the need for our students to memorize information for high stakes tests and exams is surely declining.   What they do need, however, is opportunities to assess, analyze and sort the information that is at their fingertips, assignments which help them to learn how to use and synthesize what they find, and the encouragement to multi-draft their work to insure the highest quality.   Growing good work habits can be a tricky business as we are attempting to change our students behaviors.

A Model for Active Learning in Class

   The following scenario may be a staple in many academic environments: the instructor assigns reading material for homework, then the students are quizzed or tested on the contents of the reading, usually answering questions from memory.  The class may discuss the reading after the summative assessment before moving on to the next reading assignment.

   In this scenario, the students are extrinsically motivated to complete the reading assignment by the looming quiz/test, and they are ‘encouraged’ to develop their short term power of recall in committing the material to memory. However, despite the continued presence of SATs and memory testing practices in education, cramming for a test arguably has limited use or benefits in today’s world of smart phones and Google. This educational model may force the students to complete the reading, but falls short in the following ways:

  • As the students are reading, they do not always know what to look for. In the case of a chapter from a novel, students usually pay attention to developments in the plot, but it may not occur to them to look for themes, symbols, imagery, or linguistic techniques.  Analyzing text in this manner requires practice, but unless students have the opportunity to do this with a guide, they are not going to build this skill.

  • If there is no grade related to the content of a class discussion, intrinsic motivation or willingness to please the teacher will only go so far.  Some students may be passive, answering questions only when called upon and asking no questions of their own.  Others may not listen or take notes – why bother?

  • There is no opportunity for the students to review their work and improve it.

   Consider, then, instead, the following scenario: the teacher assigns reading material for homework and s/he also provides questions to guide the students. As the students read, they complete these questions to the best of their ability and submit their document (electronically) to the teacher.  The teacher checks that every student has made a good attempt at the study questions (there is a grade associated with a basic level of completion).  Then, in class, the students and teacher ‘unpack’ the questions. During the discussion, the students can edit their answers (on their computers/tablets or even phones), before re-submitting them to the teacher. After the class, the teacher grades the students’ answers for content/understanding and adds this grade to the earlier completion grade. In this model, the following critical learning behaviors are developed:

  • Analytical reading skills through guided ‘practice’ reading assignments; the ability to look beyond the basic content for connections, themes, and analogies;

  • Active learning habits during class discussions: asking questions, volunteering answers, and taking detailed notes;

  • The ability to review work with a critical eye and to edit the work.

   In this model, the focus is on the process of learning and developing habits rather than the outcome of a quiz or test.  The students have the opportunity to demonstrate their understanding and are assigned a standards-based grade.  However, their final grade accounts not just for right answers, but also for the behaviors listed above.

   This model also provides the opportunity for the summative assessment to include material/questions that challenge the students beyond the questions in a tradition read/test scenario.  Because there will be the ability to discuss the reading and add to answers, students can tackle questions during the class discussion that they may find too difficult when reading/ studying in isolation.

There are two caveats for this model:

  • Attention should be given to preventing students from merely copying/ transcribing answers: they should still have to piece some of the puzzle together during the class discussion;

  • This model should not be used exclusively: clearly, there comes a point when we need to ascertain whether students have the appropriate measurable skills or knowledge.

   Tests, particularly those measuring the memorization of content, are not representative of what students will be expected to do in their future careers.  Rather, their ability to solve problems, to research, analyze and synthesize, the ability to meet deadlines, and the habit of reviewing and revising their work to ensure the highest quality are attributes that will serve them well in their lives beyond academic institutions.


   The development of good learning habits and behaviors is important,  particularly at the elementary and secondary developmental levels, for the future success of our students.  It is important to ‘grow’ students who work consistently, who are conscientious and thorough, who persevere, who can solve problems, who are creative, collaborative and have great communication skills. Maybe frame the front end as less anti summative

   However, it is also important for students to measure up to a standard. They should not be able to pass a course without meeting core competencies in both knowledge and skill acquisition; passing students along creates a compounding learning deficit issue for the students and a lowering of standards for the school. However, when a heavy emphasis (or sole) is placed on summative assessments to measure these competencies, we miss opportunities to grow essential work habits and behaviors in our students.  Summative assessments that measure core competencies are surely part of the puzzle, but our curricula need to be wider than this: the outcomes for our courses should not only include tests and exams, but also projects, collaborative presentations, journals, portfolios, creative assignments, and even everyday homework completion. When we give these kinds of assessments weighting in the calculation of our final grades, we signal to our students that growing these work habits is a similarly important goal of our courses.

   While benchmarking students’ knowledge and skills does have an important place in our schools, this practice should remain as one of many assessment techniques rather than as the dominant one. For example, there are numerous studies, including the one cited in this ABC News article that have shown a lack of correlation between SAT scores and success in college which surely is the first place that the standards to which we have held our students are tested. Success in college and beyond is not dependent upon the ability to score well on standardized tests, but rather on the attainment of behaviors and habits that help young people to struggle to solve a problem, to maintain their focus, to show up consistently and be present, and to be an active learner in their lifelong journey as a student.


© David Doherty, March 2013