Enhancing Learning through Zest, Grit, and Sweat

student studying in library

Early in my career, I focused most of my efforts on teaching content. That is, after all, what most of us are hired to do, right? With experience and greater understanding of how learning works, my attention shifted toward metacognition. I began investing lots of time and energy reading and identifying ways to help students grow as learners while they learned the content.

It was an improvement, but I had nagging suspicions that important contributors to learning were still missing from my teaching repertoire. I considered the ways teachers influence student behaviors (generally lots of carrots and sticks). What about motivation? What makes students want to learn and want to become better learners? My research identified three overlooked aspects of learning that teachers should consider promoting through their instructional practices: student curiosity (zest), an academic growth mindset and persistence (grit), and an understanding that true long-lasting learning takes effort (sweat).

Fueling zest
Zest is my word for intellectual curiosity, student interest, and enthusiasm. When we’re interested in what we’re learning, we pay closer attention. We think more carefully, make more connections, and dig below the surface. When we’re curious, we are motivated to work harder and longer. Zest isn’t about entertaining. It’s about leveraging the mind’s natural tendency to attend to and expend energy on that which engages and stimulates.

Addressing metacognition without considering students’ curiosity and motivation is like heading out on a long bike trip to an unfamiliar destination. Simply having the roadmap doesn’t ensure the desire to ride or the will to finish. Zest entices us to hop on the saddle; it’s a call to adventure. Teachers incorporate zest when we

  • Connect to students’ interests and make work relevant. Tap into questions, topics, and issues that matter to students. Ask students to identify topics or questions they care about. Use their questions as a means of learning content.
  • Make it real. Study real-world events, analyze historical cases, incorporate web-based writing, and provide opportunities for service learning.
  • Bring passion to the table. Teacher enthusiasm covers a multitude of sins and fosters student interest. Enthusiasm can be contagious.

Promoting grit
Terms like grit, tenacity, perseverance, and persistence describe students who approach learning with a long-term focus. These students endure; they view challenges as temporary setbacks. Students with a fixed mindset focus on performance measures like grades, not learning. Mistakes are perceived as failures, not a necessary part of learning. Resilient learners persist in assignments, courses, and programs like cyclists who dust themselves off and get back on the trail after a mishap. Gritty learners view academic difficulties and confusion as speed bumps, not roadblocks to learning. Teachers promote grit when we

  • Identify appropriate challenges. If goals are too easy or too difficult, student motivation is decreased. Too easy suggests the value or worth is low. Likewise, students may not put forth sufficient effort if a task seems “impossible.”
  • Provide low-stakes practice. Learning requires practice. Multiple, low-stakes opportunities, with timely feedback, promote grit.
  • Offer specific feedback. To be most effective, feedback needs to be specific, and timely. It should identify strengths, weaknesses, and recommendations for future action.

Encouraging sweat
Completing a cycling trip requires stamina and good planning. It’s common for novice riders to underestimate the challenges, overestimate their ability, and fail to plan or plan poorly. Inexperienced learners face these issues too. Learning, like cycling, is hard. It takes time, things go wrong, and you’re not going far without putting forth effort. Fortunately, teachers can help students work smarter, harder and longer when we

  • Incorporate reflection. Reflective questions can be part of class time or incorporated into assignments. Why was this question asked? How is X related to Y? What is the most challenging topic in the chapter? How does this material connect to what you learned before? When students make these connections, learning takes on a long-term perspective.
  • Provide study tips. Provide or develop with students a list of strategies that promote deep learning. Suggest a timeline for study based on “spaced learning” principles. Or better, ask students to submit a timeline or project plan for studying, writing a paper, or completing a project. Develop practice tests or ask students to write questions to use as part of a “testing to learn” strategy.
  • Mind cognitive load. Complex assignment instructions, confusing website navigation, and disorganized course materials increase unproductive cognitive load. Cognitive load should focus energy on the subject, not on the periphery.

 Lifelong learning is more about the ride than the destination. Integrating zest influences what students think and motivates them to start the journey. Strategies attending to grit and sweat influence what students do and the efforts put forth by helping them advance along the paths of learning, now and in the future.

Watch this preview of Developing a Growth Mindset, a three-pack of 20-Minute Mentors led by Lolita Paff. Learn More »

Recommended Reading:

Ambrose, S.A., Bridges, M.W., DiPietro, M., Lovett, MC., Norman, M.K. (2010). How Learning Works Seven Research-Based Principles for Smart Teaching. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Benassi, V.A., Overson, C.E. & Hakala, C.M. (Eds.). Applying Science of Learning in Education: Infusing Psychological Science into the Curriculum. Available at the Society for the Teaching of Psychology web site: http://teachpsych.org/ebooks/asle2014/index.php

Brown, P.C., Roediger, H. L, & McDaniel, M.A. (2014). Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Carey, B. (2015). How We Learn and Why It Happens. NY: Random House.

Duckworth, A. (2016). Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance, NY: Simon & Schuster.

Dweck, C. S. (2008). Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. NY: Ballentine.

Dr. Lolita Paff is an associate professor of business and economics at Penn State Berks.

This article originally appeared on Faculty Focus on November 28, 2016. © Magna Publications. All rights reserved.