Lessons for teachers

Bouquets at Peirce Reservoir

Lessons about how to motivate our students to learn are lessons for all of us. Not just for teachers. These are lessons which apply to supervisors and managers who coach their team and staff. They apply to mentors, team leaders, and workshop trainers. And they apply to parents coaching their kids to be the best they can be. Basically, everyone.

So, what’s the recipe for success?

1. Stop saying the word “fail”
Telling students that they’re going to fail in their exams isn’t the best way to motivate students. It just makes it more likely for them to do so. A 2014 study has data to support this idea. In this study, students who were frequently reminded about failure by their teachers were not only less motivated to study, they scored worse in exams than students whose teachers did not use fear messages with their students. So parents, don’t threaten your kids about failing the exam. Instead, set realistic and specific goals for them. And reward and affirm their achievements to build self-confidence in them.

2. Have high expectations
That teachers’ prejudices have a profound effect on students and their performance is not new. It’s a robust effect. Known as the Pygmalion effect in a study by Rosenthal and Jacobsen in 1968, the study showed that when teachers place high expectations on students, students are likely to perform to those expectations. But a new study also finds that teachers’ opinions about their students’ abilities (or perception of their lack of abilities) adversely affects the exam performance of these students years later. Teachers’ biases matter. Be careful what you wish for.

3. Encourage active participation
A 2014 study showed that students’ test performance improved with teaching methods which encouraged active learning. Pre-class assignments and small group discussions helped students retain information about key concepts about calculus. But it’s not just for calculus, physics or engineering. Here are some ideas and resources for incorporating active learning into the classroom. Like this lesson plan for learning about nutrients and this one on chemistry.

4. Explain in your own words and do it again soon
We’re most likely to remember something we’ve learnt if we get the opportunity to remember it on more than one occasion, and if we receive feedback about our mistakes earlier. These methods yield better exam performance, according to a recent study on undergraduate students. And we remember it better if we generate explanations in our own words. A 2014 study shows that this works with kids too. Here’s a summary of the best practices for learning.

5. Less distractions are better
A 2014 study showed that young children performed better on test questions and were better at attending to the lesson when their classroom was more sparsely decorated. But this applies to us adults, not just children. Think about the last time you were at a workshop, lecture, or seminar: How much information were you absorbing while you were replying Whatsapp, checking Facebook, and flicking through Instagram? It may surprise you but we’re much more effective at retaining information when we had to take notes by hand (for a recap why, read our earlier post).

6. Natural lighting boosts learning
A 2015 study on classrooms in UK found that learning was influenced by factors such as natural light, temperature, air quality, and the colour of classrooms. And in comparison, the layout of the school such as play areas did not contribute to children’s learning as much as the layout of the classroom. So sunlight doesn’t just help to regulate our sleep routines and help with the production of vitamin D. It’s for learning too!

Happy Teachers’ Day!

Coping with stress at the workplace

Performance pressure and work overload are theme songs sung in workplace surveys (e.g., JobCentral, Robert HalfVMWare New Way of Life), while staff turnover are evergreen issues in high stress professions like nursing (Chan & Morrison, 2008) and teaching (Fang & Wang, 2005; 2006).

Coping with workplace stress is no new stranger to nurses and teachers. In a study of 780 UK teachers, Griffith, Steptoe, and Cropley (1999) have observed that greater use of active coping, as well as greater social support such as from family and peers, is associated with less self-reported job stress. Austin, Shah, and Muncer (2005) have further demonstrated that teachers who use escape-avoidance or accepting responsibility strategies report higher levels of stress. A report on 415 secondary school teachers in Hong Kong reiterates these findings (Chan & Hui, 1995): avoidance coping relates to burnout. Teacher coping strategies clearly play a role in workplace resilience.

In a study with a local sample, Boey (1998) reports coping strategy to influence resilience in nurses experiencing high levels of stress. Nurses who reported greater use of problem orientation, ability enhancement, and change of perspective and less reliance on avoidance coping, reported greater job satisfaction than those who reported using these strategies less. Similar to the findings with teachers, active coping appears to benefit nurses compared to avoidance strategies, which can be viewed as maladaptive.

A study with a sample of 316 participants by Ko, Chan, & Lai (2007) reveals similar coping strategies among local teachers. In a book chapter in “Work Stress and Coping Among Professionals”, the authors report the most frequently used coping strategies to be active coping (scrutinizing and trying to solve the problem, analyzing the problem to prevent it from happening again, working harder to deal with the problem) and accepting responsibility (accepting and living with the problem, looking on the bright side of things). While local teachers appear unlikely to use escape-avoidance strategies (having a drink, smoking), it is noteworthy however, as discussed by the authors, that direct-action coping may not be helpful for problems outside the control of the individual. Importantly, seeking professional help is a coping strategy rarely considered by this sample.

In addition to training interventions which improve the employee’s ability to cope with routine stress, there is support for the view that professional counselling can be beneficial as well. A number of studies have shown that implementing a cognitive-behavioural intervention is better than relaxation training and no intervention control at decreasing teachers’ stress levels (Tunnecliffe, Leach, & Tunnecliffe, 1986; Cecil & Forman, 1990).

A more recent study of 124 secondary school teachers in Hong Kong has found that providing teachers with cognitive-behavioural stress management training to be more effective than a waitlist control at getting teachers to use more stress management behaviours, and therefore reducing the level of their occupational stress (Leung, Chiang, Chui, Mak, & Wong, 2011). Moreover, when faced with life difficulties such as bereavement and mental health concerns, teachers may however benefit from help provided by a professional counsellor. Psychological help such as EAP counselling services have in fact been recommended for teachers who report a high level of job stress (Yang, Ge, Hu, Chi, & Wang, 2009).

Mental wellness education and psychological support for employees in high stress environments such as teachers and nurses are instrumental in the battle against burnout and staff turnover.