When Content Competency Isn’t Enough…

The Challenge of Repeated Failure

A standardized Algebra test stands in between my students and high school graduation.  For many that test is a walk in the park, but for a few this test is a reoccurring nightmare.  I coach the latter group of kids in a shortened period designed to remedy any Algebra deficiency before the next retake.  If only it were that simple, but frankly, actually knowing Algebra is only half the battle for these whom have repeatedly failed.  A lack of reading and test-taking skills are often root causes.  However, my biggest hurdle is convincing these students that they CAN do it.Why Try

After failing 3 or 4 times (some more), they come to me demoralized, beaten, conditioned to expect defeat.  Mantras like “I’ll never pass” or “I’m just going to drop out” roll of their tongues.  Unless we break through the fallacy that passing the test isn’t possible, student efforts to learn Algebra are half-hearted at best — the Expectancy-Value Theory of Motivation at work in our everyday classroom.

I would love to hear your tips on what works to address this issue.  Here are a few tips that experience has taught me:

Don’t start with a pre-assessment or diagnostic test to see what they know–not for this group. I learned this the hard way.  Identify what holes the students have in their learning and patch them, right?  Wrong!  A test showing me and subsequently them how much they don’t know only reinforces their stated or unstated belief that they will never succeed.  Instead, I now start with a pep talk and an easier skill that requires a lot of street sense.  Ensure success the first few days.

Tell the truth.  Teenagers seem to have a radar for honesty in adults.  I never lightly tell a student that they will pass.    When I say, “He’s ready” like Skipper in the Disney movie Planes, it means something.

Testimonials of friends help.  Thankfully, I have quite a few successful rotations of remediation under my belt now.  Chances are high that my new group of retesters has at least one friend from one of my prior groups.  When former students from this special group greet me in the hall, I ask if they are willing to share how they overcame.  A lot of times this happens informally; on their own initiative, kids do a little background research on their teachers by asking friends, of course.

Tout your track record.  I don’t hesitate to point out how many seniors passed this test and graduated last year.   I talk about success rates from previous groups (not by student name of course).   I tell them how many years I have been teaching Algebra, and only Algebra.   I share with them some of the test-taking strategies such as “Prove your answer right using a different method” that they may not be familiar with in an effort to show them that I have something new to share with them.   If they can’t believe in themselves at the moment, maybe they will believe in you.

Today, I’ll have to make my sales pitch again.  The test date is impending.  In my relatively new group, one girl is just not consistently buying into believing in herself.  About every third day she regresses to the fallacy of “I can’t.”  Maybe today will be our breakthrough.

Dawn is a secondary Algebra teacher in Maryland with a B.S. in Secondary Mathematics Education and a Masters in Information Science and Learning Technologies. Full Bio

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