Easy or difficult? The possible consequences of the choice of words

Many teachers accompany their instructions with words that are intended to encourage the students. How many times have you wanted to encourage your students by telling them that the task was easy? Or difficult, but that they can do it? Probably often. But is it helping? Our collaborator asked herself the question.

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ATTENTION! The English translation is automated - Errors (sometimes hilarious!) can creep in! ;)

 “I'll leave you some easy homework exercises.
Don't worry, it'll just take you a few minutes. "

Many teachers accompany their instructions with encouraging words for the students. These comments aim to increase the participation of the students so that they have the necessary practice in order to consolidate the notions. How many times have you encouraged students by telling them that the task is easy? Or that it is difficult, but that they can do it? But is this kind of comment helpful? 

In saying “it's easy” the intention is that the students do not anticipate the task as a chore because if it is, they may not do it. But what exactly happens when a task is labeled easy? 

Let's take a few seconds to think about it. If an exercise is easy, the pupil who completes it does not feel that he has a lot of credit for having passed it since the teacher said it was easy. He will have the desired practice, but doing easy tasks does not increase the feeling of self-efficacy. 

Now imagine that the student is unable to complete the task. It is one thing not to be able to find all the answers, but a student who is not able to find them in easy activities, it is difficult for self esteem. From a student's point of view, if he succeeds in an easy task, he has no merit. If he fails, he is truly pathetic. 

"This one is tough, but I'd like you to try it anyway." "

This type of comment sometimes accompanies a more complex or exploratory task. Again, what exactly happens when a task is rated as difficult? 

The strong and motivated student may take this comment as a challenge and put a lot of effort into it. However, others may interpret this comment as a good reason for giving up or even not using the strategies taught. 

The qualification of tasks in terms of difficulty therefore has deleterious, often underestimated, effects on pupils. But how to encourage the pupils and guide them in the necessary effort without using these qualifiers? By focusing on their success and the means to achieve it. Here are some examples.

  • “Now that you have the strategies, all you have to do is apply them in the following exercises. " 
  • “The assignment is one page of reading. " 
  • “It's a practice: the sole purpose of this practice is to make you better. "
  • “We're trying something; at worst, you'll get it. But not trying anything guarantees you failure. "
  • “This is the first time that we have worked on this type of task. Refer to the example given (or to the notes, to the corrected exercises…) »

Accompanying these comments with a plan B is also very relevant and helpful: “if it doesn't work, come see me and I'll find another solution / I'll explain it to you in another way. "

This small change in vocabulary increases the students' sense of self-efficacy and involvement in the task. In addition, it requires little effort on the part of the teacher, gives results, and can be implemented without preparation. 

And you, what are these little things that make you see a difference in your students?

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About the Author

Mrs Prof
Mrs Prof
She holds a bachelor's degree in education and is currently a candidate for a master's degree in education. She is involved with various organizations in order to equip teachers and improve the various facets of teaching and learning in Quebec.

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