Making the effort
Learning is not a competition
Richard Campbell of Effort Tracking looks at how tracking a student’s effort and application using a new formative – based assessment system is having an effect on student motivation and learning.
The Singapore experience
Singapore, the country which came top of the OECD PISA rankings for Maths, Science and Reading, has just abolished examination rankings in a bid to turn its back on procedural rote learning and high-stakes summative assessment, proclaiming: “learning is not a competition”.
Singapore understands only too well the hidden costs of high-pressured, exam-driven classrooms, and is attempting to mitigate against escalating rates of student depression, anxiety, suicide and other mental health issues by increasing the focus on developing ‘human-focused’ or ‘soft’ skills.
The same issues face all countries disposed to standardised testing of students and an educational emphasis on academic results . Schools’ systems, parental expectation and cultural capital are all focused on academic grades as the main success-indicator of student achievement. This is to the detriment of valuing development and growth as driving objectives of holistic education.
Growth-mindset and Grit
Recent research has radically changed the way we perceive learning. Carol Dweck’s influential research into mindsets  shows that those with a ‘growth-mindset’ believe ability is not a fixed attribute but can be improved by application and targeted effort. Angela Duckworth’s research into grit  illustrates how this development can lead to accomplishment, concluding that ‘grit’ is the most influential indicator of ‘success’; persistence and effort in the long-term beating raw talent alone. These ideas, although relatively new as research findings, have long been in the common psyche, embodied by the belief that “if at first you don’t succeed, try, try again”.
Measuring students with a common yardstick
We all know that students are at widely differing academic levels and yet we compare them all against each other using a common benchmark rather than measuring the effort they put into their studies. This has a detrimental effect on lower-achieving students’ intrinsic motivation for learning and reinforces fixed-mindset beliefs in all students that ‘those who are smart don’t have to try’ and ‘those who are not smart will not succeed’. More concerningly, this causation is often reversed in student’s minds to: ‘those who don’t try are smart’ and ‘those who have to try are not smart’, leading to disillusionment and even self-sabotage in test-taking strategies . This, of course is the antithesis of what education, growth and development are all about.
So how can we make the required paradigm shift in our systemic success-focus?
How do you measure student effort?
Over the past decade, Robin Nagy has developed a system to measure and track student effort  which has shown to have great effect in mitigating against the negative effects of high-stakes summative assessment.
By systemically measuring and valuing effort, students can focus on the processes rather than the outcomes of learning and develop those soft-skills and character strengths such as persistence, diligence, focus and self-control.
Effort Tracking is a methodology which has been progressively refined, breaking-up student effort into three components:
Each is described by its own rubric and grading levels, which accommodate both teacher and student perspectives. Results look forwards, not backwards, and are described using formative rather than traditional summative language. By aggregating the individual grades across all subjects, a higher-order Effort Score is established for each student, showing to what extent a student is ‘doing their best’ or ‘pushing down on the gas pedal’ at any particular time.
Nagy seems to be winning users over. Michael Parker, former Head of Oxley College, Bowral and the current Headmaster of Newington College, Sydney considers that Effort Tracking “goes straight to the heart of focusing on kids’ effort and growth at the same time. It’s made a real difference to our students.”
Perhaps more importantly, a Year 10 boy thinks the system “has given me the ability to reflect on my efforts during the school year. I think that the results make you think about changing your attitude to learning”
Conversations and goals
Effort Scores are used by students to frame forward-looking, student-led, goal-setting conversations with teachers at the beginning of each new school Term, creating the impetus to improve in areas of potential growth. These coaching conversations allow students to reflect on differences in student and teacher perceptions of effort and help to align shared expectations of observable classroom behaviours. They allow for a meaningful goal-setting activity, based on measurable targets, highlighting explicit strategies for improving effort in specific areas or more broadly across subjects.
According to a Year 9 girl,
“It gives me confidence and reassurance . . . . to make sure I understand how to improve and be on the same page as my teachers”
Richard currently teaches Law, Politics and International Studies at Taylors College, Australia, on a foundation course for Sydney University and is a Director of Effort Tracking Pty Ltd,
 Based on 2015 PISA Assessment data published at http://www.oecd.org/pisa/pisa-2015-results-in-focus.pdf
 A quote from Singapore’s Education Minister, Ong Ye Kung, from Oct 2018 World Economic Forum article: https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2018/10/singapore-has-abolished-school-exam-rankings-here-s-why/
 See Harlen and Dekin Crick 2002: A systematic review of the impact of summative assessment and tests on students’ motivation for learning at https://dspace.stir.ac.uk/bitstream/1893/19607/1/SysRevImpSummativeAssessment2002.pdf
 See Carol Dweck’s 2006 best-selling book ‘Mindset’. https://mindsetonline.com/
 See Angela Duckworth’s 2016 best-selling book ‘Grit’ https://angeladuckworth.com/grit-book/
 Paris, Lawton, Turner and Roth’s 1991 paper: A Developmental Perspective on Standardized Achievement Testing finds that test results for low-achieving students become increasingly less valid, due to strategies adopted to decrease personal anxiety having a detrimental effect on performance and an ironic self-fulfilling prophecy of low scores.
Feature Image: ShadOwfall – Pixabay