Tova was 14 years old, bright, driven, and, most apparent to me, conspicuously loud. Whether it was her mood, her weekend plans, or how many hours she studied for Chumash, she made sure we knew. As her Algebra teacher, helping Tova find the right space and time for these comments was paramount – a loud student breaks the flow of a class like a cell phone ringing in (what I hoped was) an engaging program with an impending punchline.
As the weather began to cool and we tiptoed into October, I began to notice that (a) Tova’s comments did have a recurring theme and (b) many of Tova’s classmates were expressing similar comments; it just took me longer to process given the difference in volume and frequency. I reflected more deeply on my class – not just “are the students meeting our learning goals?” but also “what is the general feeling in the classroom?” Notably, most of the comments from Tova and her peers centered around self-efficacy. “I’ve never been able to do math in my life. Why should this year be different?” “This is way too hard for me.” “If I don’t get it on the first shot, I’m going to stop trying.” That last comment really did it.
I wondered: Is it possible for a teacher to help students increase their self-efficacy? Could implementing research-based techniques in my humble classroom (ninth-grade Algebra in an American all-female Ultra-Orthodox school), where we meet just three times per week, make a difference?
What I did
Karin Kirk defines self-efficacy as “the belief in one’s capabilities to achieve a goal or an outcome,” and explains that high self-efficacy leads students to “challenge themselves [to]…be intrinsically motivated, put forth a higher degree of effort… and attribute failure to things which are in their control.”
Based upon her work, I came up with these specific aims to build self-efficacy:
To actively create and cultivate a classroom environment characterized by:
- Positive, solution-oriented talk
- Secure opportunities for students to ask for help
- Opportunities for teamwork and collaboration
- Differentiation for more students, more of the time
- Mastery learning structure
- Partnerships with students to build individual learning plans
- Validation of student anxiety and stress
The following is a sample of one week out of my Self-Efficacy Project (SEP) calendar:
Tuesday: Homework Menu to facilitate personalized goal setting and reflection. Students will consider: How much time do I think this homework will take? How much time did it really take? What resources can I utilize if I have questions? Was this too easy, hard, or just right for me?
Thursday: Small group collaborative work and differentiated instruction based on Homework Menu.
Friday: Make learning a game and a competition.
Other aims I filled out on my SEP calendar included: key elements of mastery learning, shining moment reflections, specific skills feedback, personal regroup, personalized test-prep planning and log, lunch-meeting sign ups, and lots of opportunity for skills practice. After aligning my SEP calendar with my lesson-planning spreadsheet, my “new” Algebra class would have a bright, shiny overcoat of “self-efficacy” painted on top.
I designed the next unit following the mastery learning outline from my research. I began with a diagnostic, then gave direct instruction on the most basic building blocks first. The girls felt very proud and satisfied since they were able to quickly achieve the early learning goals. By the time we arrived at harder material, they understood the prerequisites and felt confident. Already I could tell that they would be better equipped to jump into the tough stuff.
I told myself that it’s okay to slow down. Given that high-school math has a lot of skills-overlap over the course of four years, the required content we didn’t reach in 9th grade could be covered at a different grade level, and, presumably, at a faster pace given their strong skills acquisition. I was convinced that it was worth the time now to have them build their self-efficacy and strong, essential algebra skills. Since mastery was my goal (and not “covering” material), I planned one out of three class meetings for review – either a review game or small-group centered practice – and I incorporated more differentiated work to better reinforce skills.
And then there were Corrections. Not everyone “gets” a skill the first – or even fourth – time they use it, and that is absolutely fine. A student who completed six problems on her homework incorrectly could redo those questions on a separate sheet, submit it with the original, and have the opportunity to earn full points. This policy told my students, “It’s okay if you don’t get it the first time. What’s more important is that you try until you are confident with the results.” Corrections without penalty let my students reflect on their mistakes and actually meet their learning goals, instead of giving up and moving on.
Student self-reflection and positive self-feedback
Before a quiz, students completed a study log detailing the amount of time they studied, whether they felt prepared, and whether they felt they studied in a way that would help them. It’s not that I cared so much about how long they studied. Rather, I wanted them to start synthesizing the idea that working hard directly correlates with better outcomes. I also wanted to cultivate the language of: “I did it. I am prepared. I can do well.” On the back of the quiz, I asked each student to write a “shining moment” – something that happened over the course of that unit or in preparing or taking the quiz about which they were proud – which the students appreciated and felt greater comfort doing as the year progressed. It was heartening to see that good habits can be built.
Opportunities for students to express their emotions
To prevent outbursts in class while affirming my care for the students, I invited students to jot down any feelings they wanted to express on a post-it note with an assurance that every note would be read after class. This technique enabled some of the more verbally emotional students to contain themselves more effectively, and helped me get a “feel” of my more anxious students, allowing me to target those students for one-on-one support after class.
In addition to self-reflection at the end of a test/unit described above, I also included an affect-assessment at the beginning of the new unit, asking them to rate their agreement with statements such as: “This is way too hard and I’ll never succeed,” “I’m looking forward to learning how to do something I didn’t know before,” “I’m curious to know how far I’ll get if I try hard,” “I feel that my teacher is out of touch and thinks I’m capable of more than I actually am,” “I’m excited about this challenge,” and “I’m feeling anxious since I don’t know how to do these problem.” This helped students express their feelings, experience validation, and provided a language of self-efficacy.
Positive, solution-oriented environment
We developed a class mantra: “Learning is messy. Learning takes time.” It’s okay to feel confused and frustrated when faced with a new and different skill, I stressed to my students. That’s normal. Learning doesn’t happen for most people right away, and that’s okay. I’m going to help you through it, I told them, and I will stay with you the whole way. We will celebrate each success, no matter how small, and enjoy the journey.
Already, I recognized a difference in Tova. This student, who was initially one of the more anxious students, began to de-stress somewhat in our classroom. I saw that Tova was now a) less likely to have verbal emotional outbursts, b) more likely to use positive self-talk, and c) demonstrating an overall calmer demeanor in class.
For some girls, like Tova, our language and class activities were enough. Other girls, like Rina, needed more. Rina had very low skills and little interest in algebra. Outside-of-class time suddenly became a valuable asset. I began popping into Rina’s class to say hello and chatted with her before class. The anxiety and stress began to dissolve from our relationship and was replaced with a growing sense of trust and positivity. Rina would never become the top math student, but she did emerge as an active, contributing, and striving member of the class.
At this point, it dawned on me that another secret to building self-efficacy in my class was to make sure I had rock-solid self-efficacy myself. It felt natural to reason that my worth is directly correlated to my effectiveness in the classroom. My students didn’t get it? They’re frustrated? They gave up? I must be a lousy teacher. I worked on my own positive self-talk to help myself through the tough days and began keeping a record of successes from this project to build my own sense of efficacy.
Opportunities to ask for and receive help
At the beginning of the year my announcement that I was available to meet with students during lunch was met with zero response. When I began to implement the SEP I hung up “Lunch Meeting Sign-Up” sheets in my classroom and invited girls to sign up in pairs or small groups if that made them feel more comfortable. Suddenly my lunches booked up. Many of my struggling students met with me and left our ten-minute lunch meetings feeling more confident and capable. For those students who needed it, but were less inclined to initiate, I was more direct with them and asked, “Which day works for you for a lunch meeting so we can practice one-step equations?” Over time, instead of, “This is way too hard. I’m not even trying,” I began to hear comments like, “This is way too hard. Mrs. Rosenbloom. I’m going to need to schedule a lunch meeting so you can show me again.”
What worked? I logged many of our classroom interactions, self-reflection surveys, grades, and shining moments. What I found at the end of the year was that my ninth graders did seem to show an improvement in self-efficacy. Their positive self-talk increased, matched with a decrease in negative, fixed-mindset comments. Grades improved, as did the general vibes in our classroom.
But as soon as I stopped planning these opportunities for resilience-building, I found the class slipping into old habits. Apparently, I couldn’t just “vaccinate” my students against low-self-efficacy. I had to inject it into every lesson like a dose of vitamins. That result was a little disheartening: Did all of that investment yield no lasting effects?
Fast forward to the following year. Tova, Rina, and their classmates are now in my tenth grade Geometry class. I braced myself for another year of low self-efficacy but, to my surprise, I did see subtle but meaningful differences. They took the new material in stride and utilized opportunities to correct their homework, collaborate, or work with me until they felt confident in their skills. There were lingering, although not necessarily dramatic, effects to the work we did. They had grown in their desire and ability to cope with the challenges.
Final Reflection- What I believe underlay the process
Looking back, I believe that with all the techniques a teacher can use to build self-efficacy, there is one essential foundation: emunah (trust, faith) in our students. Perhaps the most powerful element cannot be distilled to any one given tool or technique but relates to the very strong and unequivocal message about the faith I have in them. Whether it was pushing students to persist in mastering difficult material, collaboratively exploring what did and didn’t work for them in test preparation, or embracing the notion that the slow, non-linear process of learning is an inherent part of a successful journey and not an indication of failure, the recurring theme was a clear message of my belief in their ability to achieve. We would struggle, and fail, and work so hard, and we would see meaningful success, together. And perhaps, my faith in them helped them believe in their own capacity to succeed.
Davita Rosenbloom is the assistant principal at Bais Yaakov of Waterbury High School in Connecticut. She has a BA in Molecular and Cellular Biology and an MS in Education from Yeshiva University, and currently teaches a variety of STEM classes including AP Biology, AP Psychology, Engineering, Chemistry and Math.
Ilana Turetsky is a faculty member at Azrieli Graduate School of Yeshiva University. She has worked with teachers and administrators throughout North America and Israel on strengthening pedagogy, improving the social-emotional climate, and developing Limudei Kodesh curricula. She has a B.A., M.S., and Ed.D. from Yeshiva University and a Te’udat Hora’ah from Israel’s Ministry of Education.