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Motivating students to learn remotely: Emphasising social norms

People’s behaviour is influenced enormously by social norms.  If people are unsure what to do, they are guided by what’s expected of them and what they see others doing.  Panic buying is a good illustration of the power of social norms: once people see others stocking up, they assume they should too. 

Emphasising social norms is a powerful strategy for teachers looking to encourage students to engage with remote learning opportunities.  There are three ways to emphasise social norms: clarifying expectations, using peer groups to reinforce positive habits, and highlighting positive trends. These principles apply both to students and parents, and it’s worth keeping them in mind when communicating with both groups.

1.    Clarify expectations by specifying exactly what you expect

People respond to what’s expected of them. Therefore, it is essential to ensure that students are clear about what you expect.  Students can’t comply with a request unless they understand exactly what they are being asked to do.  This is fundamental to teaching, but it’s worth emphasising because the chances of a misunderstanding are higher when the situation is unfamiliar, students can’t ask questions easily and teachers can’t see students’ reactions.

The key idea is to specify what’s essential (and by when), what’s optional, and what students should do if they get stuck. Not only is this useful for students, it will also help parents to ensure they understand what their children need to do and when.

Having written your instructions for an online or independent task, it’s worth reviewing them for clarity and specificity.  It often helps to explain both what you want and what you don’t want.  The result might read something like this:

‘Each week, we will share six maths worksheets with you.  We expect you to spend at least an hour a day on your maths work, and to complete one worksheet in that time.  If you get stuck, skip the question and move on.  Worksheet 6 is an extension project if you finish worksheets 1-5 – it’s optional, but we’d love you to try it if you have time.

We don’t expect you to spend more than an hour a day on these tasks.  You should be able to complete all of them without the help of your parents, using your notes and the resources we share.’

In the same vein, the clarity of the tasks that teachers are creating is even more important than normal.  It’s probably worth cutting into the time you spend choosing tasks to give yourself more time to edit the instructions and developing worked examples to show what you want students to do.

2.    Use peer groups to reinforce positive habits by emphasising that most students are doing what you expect

Students will be influenced by what the school expects, but they’ll be even more influenced by how their peers respond.  Teachers see this among students all the time: when a new student arrives, for example, they’ll seek to fit in by aligning their behaviour with the social norms of the class.  Since students measure themselves against their peers, informing them about their peers’ positive habits and behaviour can have a big influence on their actions.

The key idea is that if most students are doing what you want them to do, make sure everyone knows about it. The same applies to parents, who are more likely to support positive working habits if they know that most other parents are doing the same.

Teachers can tell students that the majority of their peers are responding as requested: ‘I was delighted to get last week’s task in on time from almost all of you, and that helped me plan today’s session.’  Or, more simply, ‘Twenty students submitted last week’s task on time’ (although it’s important that the information you convey is true). This conveys a powerful message about what’s possible, what’s expected and what students can do to fit in.

3.    Highlight positive trends

If most students didn’t hand in the task on time, complaining that hardly any of them did last week’s tasks emphasises a negative norm: this can be tempting, but it won’t spur change.  However, it seems that highlighting positive trends can be powerful too.  A trend is a future norm: if students know everyone will be doing the work next week, they won’t want to get left behind.

The key idea is that if not everyone is working, but the numbers are increasing, make sure everyone – students and parents – knows about it.

Instead of saying ‘Ten students completed the task last week’, tell students that ‘I got the highest number of tasks in on time so far last week – next week, I’d like to see everyone’s task in on time.’

 The bottom line is that students are more likely to do what you want them to do if:

  • They know exactly what you want
  • They know that most of their peers are doing it, or;
  • They know that increasing numbers of their peers are doing it

It’s worth reinforcing these ideas every time you share a set of tasks or give students feedback. This is one of a series of four posts on motivating students remotely.  For an overview, click here.

By Harry Fletcher-Wood

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