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Six unconventional teacher habits that magically improve student learning

Walk away from the traditional teacher habits that discourage your students from learning.

As educators, we know that the best practices often go beyond the obvious, challenging traditional norms and offering innovative approaches that yield significant impacts in the classroom. These teacher habits may require out-of-the-box thinking, but they lead to greater academic independence, higher-order thinking, and improved reasoning skills among students.

We have curated this list of evidence-based teacher habits that might feel eccentric at first glance but have been shown to bring about remarkable results in student learning. By embracing these practices, you can create a dynamic and engaging learning environment that fosters deeper understanding, critical thinking, and increased student confidence.

We invite you to delve into these six unconventional teacher habits with an open mind and a willingness to explore new teaching strategies. As you incorporate these practices into your classroom, you'll discover how they can positively impact your students' academic journey and contribute to a more meaningful and enriched learning experience.

Teacher Habit One

Do less grading.

In conventional education, there is a common belief that assignments and formal grading are inseparable components. However, a paradox arises when we consider the principle that practice leads to perfection alongside the fact that grading every assignment requires considerable time and effort. This contradiction suggests that as teachers, the more we have to grade, the fewer assignments we can assign, potentially hindering students' learning opportunities. Moreover, excessive formal grading has been found to divert students' focus from the actual learning process to merely pursuing grades, which can hinder their creativity, foster fear of failure, and diminish their genuine interest in the subject.

Fortunately, research offers an unconventional teacher habit to address this issue and optimise student learning. The proposed solution involves shifting towards scalable models of assessment that prioritise peer feedback and self-evaluation. Emphasising peer and self-assessment can alleviate the grading burden on teachers while promoting a more proactive learning environment for students. When students actively engage in providing feedback to their peers and themselves, it not only enhances their academic performance but also fosters improvements in metacognition – the ability to understand and regulate one's own learning process.

To implement this teacher habit effectively, it is crucial to establish clear and attainable expectations before initiating the peer and self-assessment processes. One key aspect of this method is providing students with rubrics and examples to guide their evaluation of their own writing or work. With these tools at hand, students can generate effective self-feedback, identifying areas of improvement and taking ownership of their learning journey. Research suggests that when students have the means to evaluate their work against established criteria, they can improve their future drafts by as much as half a letter grade, demonstrating the efficacy of this unconventional strategy.

By adopting peer feedback and self-evaluation as integral components of the learning process, teachers can create an environment that fosters collaboration, critical thinking, and self-awareness among students. This teacher habit not only empowers students to become active participants in their learning but also reduces the emphasis on grades as the sole measure of success. As a result, students are encouraged to focus on their personal growth and understanding of the subject matter, which can lead to significantly improved academic performance and a deeper connection to the learning material.

Teacher Habit Two

Use challenging text.

Another unconventional way to optimise student learning is to give them texts they aren't fully prepared to read, challenging their reading abilities. This approach, known as levelled reading, involves exposing students to texts that are two to four grades above their current reading level, leading to significant improvements in oral reading fluency and comprehension. While some teachers may fear that such challenges could demotivate students, research suggests that when students are appropriately challenged and their progress is evident, their motivation to read actually increases. This approach is not limited to English language arts but can also be applied across disciplines like science and social studies, as exposure to complex texts strengthens their reading skills.

However, it is essential to strike a balance and not overwhelm students with challenging texts entirely. Moderation is key, especially during the middle grades when students tend to lose interest in reading. Teachers should still make time and space for books that students genuinely enjoy and are at their comfort level. The goal is not to eliminate all texts below their grade level, as occasional reading at or even below grade level is normal, just like it is for adults. The focus should be on providing a mix of texts that challenge and engage students, while also catering to their interests and preferences.

When students encounter texts that push their reading abilities, they become more motivated to read and progress. Experiencing success in handling challenging texts builds their confidence and ability to tackle more complex materials in the future. By exposing them to texts with intricate features, their reading "muscles" are strengthened, leading to improved reading comprehension and fluency. As a result, the fear of discouragement or lack of motivation diminishes because students are aware of their growth and achievement.

Teacher Habit Three

Foster productive failure.

Contrary to the notion that positive emotions always lead to better learning outcomes and negative emotions hinder learning, research suggests that productive failure can be beneficial for students' academic development. By periodically incorporating concepts and prompts slightly beyond students' current abilities, teachers create opportunities for students to struggle and generate incorrect solutions. This approach, known as productive failure, encourages students to embrace challenges and work through difficult tasks, fostering a deeper understanding of the subject matter.

While failure is an integral part of productive failure lessons, it's essential to strike a balance and avoid overwhelming students with constant failures. The goal is not to let students flounder all the time, but rather to strategically use productive failure lessons at critical points during the school year, especially when introducing crucial concepts. By crafting challenging problems that test the limits of students' abilities and allowing them to struggle for a specific period, usually 30–45 minutes, before providing direct instruction, teachers can facilitate significant improvements in students' comprehension compared to traditional direct instruction methods.

In maths classrooms, a variation of the "I do, we do, you do" approach can be employed to promote productive failure. By eliminating the "I do" portion, students are given the opportunity to grapple with challenging tasks independently, encouraging them to think critically and problem-solve on their own. Initiating lessons with difficult puzzles that push students to their limits and incorporating social contexts, such as collaborative group activities and peer review, further enhances the productive failure approach.

The key to productive failure lies in creating a safe and supportive learning environment where students are encouraged to embrace challenges without fear of shame or guilt associated with failure. When students experience the struggle firsthand, they gain valuable insights into their own learning processes, becoming more resilient and better equipped to tackle complex problems. Through productive failure lessons, students learn that occasional frustration and struggle are natural and essential components of the learning journey. As a result, they develop a growth mindset, wherein they view failures as stepping stones to success and become more motivated to take on new challenges.

Teacher Habit Four

Test before you teach.

Despite the initial perception that this method may be harsh, research has shown that pretesting can be more beneficial than traditional review strategies. In a study, students who underwent pre testing before learning the material outperformed their peers who followed conventional study methods by an impressive 49 percent on a follow-up test.

The key to the success of pretesting lies in students making mistakes during the practice test. Contrary to what one might expect, these mistakes play a crucial role in enhancing learning outcomes. When students encounter questions they don't know the answers to during the pretest, it triggers their curiosity and motivates them to seek the correct answers when they finally encounter the new material. Engaging in educated guessing and generating errors before studying the information prompts students to actively participate in the learning process and contributes to better retention when the material is eventually covered.

The concept underlying pretesting aligns with the idea that learning becomes more profound and enduring when students grapple with challenges and have the opportunity to correct their misconceptions and mistakes. By providing students with the chance to explore and make errors, teachers foster a deeper understanding of the subject matter and promote a more active and engaged learning experience.

Incorporating pretesting into teaching practices can lead to significant improvements in student learning outcomes. Instead of merely presenting information to students and then testing their knowledge afterward, pretesting flips the traditional approach by encouraging students to tackle questions before they have learned the material. This process not only sparks curiosity and motivation but also empowers students to take ownership of their learning by seeking answers and correcting their errors. As a result, the knowledge gained through pre testing becomes more enduring and meaningful, promoting a deeper understanding of the subject matter.

Teacher Habit Five

Do not answer questions.

As a teacher seeking an unconventional teacher habit to optimise student learning, one effective teacher habit is to refrain from immediately answering student questions. Instead, model productive discussions and employ discussion mapping techniques to record the progress of student interactions. This method ensures that students' comments are relevant, build upon previous ideas, and provide opportunities for clarifying arguments, disagreements, and elaborations. By fostering more meaningful and constructive student interactions, teachers can enhance engagement and deepen understanding.

When students encounter challenging problems or questions, resist the impulse to provide immediate answers. Instead, encourage students to engage in discussions with their peers, evaluating difficulties independently and promoting critical thinking and problem-solving skills. By posing thought-provoking questions such as "What makes this hard?" or "What have we tried?", teachers prompt students to think through potential solutions before intervening to offer clarity. This approach empowers students to take ownership of their learning process and nurtures their sense of autonomy as learners.

By shifting the focus from providing answers to fostering inquiry and student-led discussions, teachers create a dynamic and engaging learning environment. Students become active participants, collaborating with peers to develop solutions and explore concepts together. This student-centred approach not only deepens their understanding of the subject matter but also boosts their confidence in their abilities. Encouraging independent thinking and problem-solving helps students develop valuable skills beyond rote memorization, preparing them for real-world challenges.

Teacher Habit Six

Embrace noise.

While a consistently quiet and composed classroom may appear successful, it can sometimes mask disinterest or boredom among students. Allowing controlled and purposeful chatting can help students release pent-up energy and foster deeper relationships between students and teachers. By creating opportunities for students to share about themselves and engage with each other, teachers can strengthen the classroom community and make learning more engaging.

One way to implement this approach is by dedicating specific parts of the school day for students to interact and share with one another. By providing moments for students to talk and share stories unrelated to classwork, teachers can tap into their emotional needs and create a more relaxed and supportive learning environment. These small interactions can make a significant difference in how students approach their studies, fostering a sense of trust and openness that can lead to more focused and determined work.

Another effective strategy is to begin or end class with a few minutes of open, unstructured time. During this period, students are given the freedom to take deep breaths, stretch, or simply daydream. While not every student may actively engage in this unstructured time, it is crucial to allow them the opportunity to decompress and refresh mentally. By honouring their emotional needs and providing a mental break, teachers can cultivate a positive classroom atmosphere where students feel understood and supported.

Encouraging a little noise in the classroom doesn't mean allowing disruptions or chaos. Instead, it involves intentionally creating moments for controlled and purposeful chatting, giving students the chance to connect with each other and their teacher. By building strong relationships and acknowledging students' emotional well-being, teachers can enhance the learning experience and promote more focused and determined work.

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