Motivate Students by Making Learning Visible

 make learning visible

I've been hearing a lot about student apathy lately. And I know it's real. There are a lot of reasons outside our control that are contributing to this (like viruses, and other adults that don't get it), but there are a few things we can do to get students engaged. And one the most effective ways is to motivate students by making learning visible.

This is also a strategy that can help you with differentiation. That process doesn't always mean you have to create multiple different activities and assignments. Often, it can be done by following the strategies I'm about to share.

Bear with me a minute while I give you some important background - there are some great strategies and freebies coming! 

We all want to feel like we can be successful

Imagine that you were taken to a golf course, handed a club, and told, “go play golf.” Some of you would know exactly what to do and excitedly get right at it. Some would have a rough idea of the game and would pick up the club and try your best. Others, would be completely lost – either because you don’t know the rules of the game, or you feel like you just don’t have the ability to do well.

For those in the second and third group I mentioned above, things would seem less mysterious if we were told that the object of the game is to get the ball in the hole – and that there’s even a little flag waving off in the distance that shows you where it goes. Those of you with a sense of adventure and willingness to try would start swinging and hope for the best. The game would get played, but it may be messy.

Motivating students

Now, imagine the difference if you were told not only the rules of the game, but you were given an instructor who walked you through the process. She explained the difference between an iron and a wood, a chipper and a putter. Not only that, she demonstrated how to use each one, then asked you to try. While you were swinging awkwardly with the putter, she told you to grab the wood instead, and then gave you feedback on your swing. She let you try it a few times until you got the hang of it.

This final scenario may not create the next Tiger Woods, but it will allow the novice golfer to play the game. Instead of being totally lost, he will have the confidence to make his way through the course. The instruction and feedback he received allowed him to feel like he had the power within to do it.

Conversely, if he was just handed a bag of clubs and told to play – even if he could see that tiny flag fluttering in the distance – he may feel powerless, unsure of what to do and how to do it. He may get frustrated and try to take some power back by slamming an iron on the ground and stomping away.

It’s no different in school. When we give kids a target, show them how to get there, give them time to practice, and provide feedback to help them improve, we empower them, and so they are more likely to engage and learn.

Students need to see the target and know how to hit it

Let me step off the golf course, where I have no business being, and draw this analogy to a close. I used it to make a point. I find golf an incredibly frustrating experience, and only my good manners keep me from pounding clubs, swearing and storming away. However, I’ve only ever played during end of the year staff parties. I know which club is which because I grew up with a golf fanatic; I also know all of the terminology and the rules of the game. But no one has ever shown me how to actually play. Therefore, I feel powerless and frustrated with a club in my hand.

You all know where I’m going with this, right? When our students come to us, some of them have mastered the game, some are cruising along, trying their best, and some are completely lost. And yet, so many times, we just tell them to ”go play” (close read this article, analyze this poem, write this essay); often, we’ll “show them the flag” with a mentor text. But we don’t always let them watch us swing. We don’t guide them all the way through the course.

Visible thinking and learning leads to success and engagement

Visible Learning

When the path to learning is visible and obvious, students are much more willing to engage in the work because they can see the path to success. They know what to do and how to do it.

And, when our students' thinking and learning is visible to us, we can give them more effective feedback, the kind that helps students feel like they can be successful.

So, let me make a few things "visible" to you now with some of my favorite learning activities.

Make the thinking process visible

I spend a lot of time explicitly teaching thinking and writing processes and one of my most successful activities is one I do when we start essay writing.

Early in my career, I gave students outlines and told them to complete them before they began their essays. I mean, that’s what I always did, and it worked for me. But I knew how to make an outline work because somewhere along the line, someone showed me, or my desire to do well pushed me to figure it out myself.

visible learning

So, I thought that giving my students a piece of paper with OUTLINE on the top of a whole lot of empty lines would help them too. But it didn’t. Their essays were still unfocused and disorganized and underdeveloped.

I decided to spend more time on this stage of the process and the first few times I did, I felt a little guilty, like I was wasting precious time in a semester that never had enough of it.

However, I soon discovered that spending more time on the prewriting stage resulted in better writing on not only that assignment, but on other ones throughout the semester.

That’s because writing is a thinking process as much as it is a writing one - and I needed to show my students how that worked.

Now, we do an interactive human outline that shows my students the process of thinking their way through an outline, one where they get instant feedback from me on their work. It takes a good portion of a class, but the focus and organization of my students’ essays have gone up exponentially!

If you’d like to try this visible learning exercise, click here. And you can read all about the whole process we follow with essay writing on this blog post.

Making literary analysis visible

Those of us who love to dive deeply into discussion and analysis understand how it's done. But, as with my golf analogy above, kids don't always know how to go about it. So I build in tons of opportunities for them to map out the thinking process.

One activity that is always a hit is hexagonal thinking. Whenever I want my students to connect ideas in a text or to work to figure out a theme, I group them and give each group a series of hexagons filled with all of the significant elements from the text - characters, symbols, ideas, events, etc. Next, they have a discussion to decide which ideas are connected and then choose their favorite connection and create a poster that illustrates and supports it. 

You can read more about this (and my other favorite visible thinking activities) on this blog post and get your copy of the hexagonal thinking exercise here.

Hexagonal thinking exercise

Another visible thinking exercise we do involves "analysis cards." Students record their thinking on the cards I created, and this allowed them to visualize how all of the symbols worked together in the story we were working on. You can get more info on this strategy and grab a card template here.

visible thinking

With all of these activities, not only are students able to see their thinking process, I can also see it too, making it easier to give them good feedback that helps them get that metaphorical ball in the hole. When I can see the work a group or individual is doing (without having to read something) I can quickly tell if they are on track or not. I can walk by their desks, take a quick look, and know exactly what they need help with - or not.

Fill your classroom with learning visuals

Anchor charts and learning cues should be the basis of your classroom decor (but not so much that the room is too visually distracting). Recently I created some posters that can cue students when they are discussing their texts, and help them focus on analysis.

I've been on a mission to help my students write better analytical statements, so we are working on speaking and writing in "literary terms." To remind them of this, they have a handout copied in a bright color that they can easily find, and posters scattered throughout the classroom to remind them how to talk about literature.

When they are having class discussions, they just need to glance at the wall for a quick reminder of ways they can frame their sentences. Read more about that strategy here.

Analyzing text

If you would like to motivate students by making learning visible, most of my resources have a component of that built into them. Here is a selection for you to check out:

🔴 Persuasive & Argumentative Writing: a journey through the process

🟦 Active Learning Activities & Exercises

🟣 The Word Choice Challenge

🟩 Reading and Writing Unit: Extended Simile, Metaphor, and Analogy

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