An ‘A’ for effort?

Andrew Stables considers whether schools should assess a pupil’s effort as well as their achievement

Boy workingAlthough – perhaps because – the examination system only gives marks for achievement, many schools have informally given various kinds of credit, including grades and even prizes, for ‘effort’. But what is ‘effort’ in the context of school, and is it enough to guarantee success? Indeed, might there be a flipside to assessing effort, as some students consider it ‘cool’ to succeed with little effort while others find it demeaning to be rewarded for effort while still achieving little?

Concept and convention

As a researcher, I have had an interest for some years in how key terms and concepts are understood by teachers and students. In the discourse of everyday schooling, words like ‘ability’, ‘effort’ and ‘behaviour’ are important in enabling teachers to communicate with each other and with their students.

However, schools, like all professional contexts, are distinctive: there is no reason to believe that ‘effort’, for example, has the same meaning for teachers as it does for anyone else, and there is surprisingly little research on the professional or lay conceptions of these ideas.

A negotiating tool

The literature suggests that ‘effort’ in schooling is defined as:

  • achievement (if it is good, hard work must have gone into it)
  • perseverance (time taken is an indicator of energy expended)
  • reliability or good behaviour
  • student interest

In a study funded by the British Academy, we used these definitions as a preliminary framework to investigate how Year 8 students, their teachers and parents understood and used the term ‘effort’ within an English comprehensive school.

Overall, students, parents and teachers differed somewhat in their conceptions of effort. For students, effort was important, but not strongly connected to time spent or good behaviour. It was linked more with enjoyment than with difficulty. As people who are not yet in charge of their career trajectories, younger students may not yet associate increased effort with attaining desired goods. Rather, they make more effort when they are having fun, and see effort as an element in a virtuous circle of enjoyable lessons, interesting work, a sense of achievement, and work for which there is an obvious point or purpose. As such, effort is to some degree a negotiating tool.

Teachers, contrastingly, regarded both quantity and quality of work, presentation, and level of engagement as indicators of student effort. However, while prepared to acknowledge a link between effort, achievement and time spent on work, they did not feel that perseverance alone was sufficient, or even in all cases necessary, for success. As with students, teachers saw effort partly as a negotiating tool, in attempting to develop a virtuous circle of motivation and success.

Parents drew their judgments about effort primarily from teachers and other school sources, secondly by reading their children’s work, and lastly directly from their children.

So should schools assess effort?

Effort is a multi-faceted, personalised, flexible tool of negotiation in the teacher-student relationship, rather than something with a clear, universal meaning. Whether this validates or invalidates it as something worth assessing must remain a matter of professional judgment.

However, assessing effort can backfire. For example, students may be humiliated by being told they have made a good effort but achieved little. They may also blame teachers for their lack of effort on the grounds that the lessons are not interesting. Effort is, after all, neither easily measurable (or definable) nor a guarantee of success. If I were running a school, I would be disinclined to grade, or give prizes for it. If an alternative source of reward to raw achievement is sought, ‘progress’, though potentially also patronising, is at least more concrete than ‘effort’.

This is not to say that praising a child for making an effort informally may not be useful, though specifying rather more precisely what you are praising would be more useful still.

Andrew Stables is Professor of Education and Philosophy and Head of Research at the School of Education, University of Roehampton, London.

References: 

Murakami, K, Stables, A. McIntosh, S. and Martin, S. (2014). Conceptions of Effort among Students, Teachers and Parents within an English Secondary SchoolResearch Papers in Education 

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