How to Empower Students with One Simple Phrase (that can boost student effort by 40%)

Daniel Coyle, the author of The Talent Code, recently looked at a study on feedback from teachers. This study showed that one simple phrase could boost student effort by 40%. I was shocked when I read this, but in the back of my mind I was already guessing what the phrase would be…and I was right on the money. See for yourself:

A team of psychologists from Stanford, Yale, Columbia, and elsewhere recently set out to explore the question: What’s the secret of great feedback?. They had middle-school teachers assign an essay-writing assignment to their students, after which students were given different types of teacher feedback.

To their surprise, researchers discovered that there was one particular type of teacher feedback that improved student effort and performance so much that they deemed it “magical.” Students who received this feedback chose to revise their paper far more often that students who did not (a 40 percent increase among white students; 320 percent boost among black students) and improved their performance significantly. (See the study here.)

What was the magical feedback? Just one phrase:

I’m giving you these comments because I have very high expectations and I know that you can reach them.

That’s it. Just 19 words. But they’re powerful because they are not really feedback. They’re a signal that creates something more powerful: a sense of belonging and connection.

As a teacher, my students always responded when learning was presented as a challenge. Specifically, a challenge that I “expected” they would reach. This phrase (and the effect of 40% more effort) is so important.

Are we teaching pre-service teachers about simple things like this? Are we focusing professional development on boosting student-teacher relationships?

Are we focusing professional development on boosting student-teacher relationships?

When we talk about moving away from compliance-based education to one where students have voice and choice, it still matters what the teacher is doing and saying in every class.

Relationships are one of the most impactful ways to empower students to pursue their own passions, interests, and futures.

But, in order to be empowered, they must first believe in their abilities to pursue those dreams.

With one simple phrase, we can continually build the mindset that they can do anything, and the possibilities are endless.

How to Empower Students with One Simple Phrase

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Join the discussion 16 Comments

  • Thanks AJ- this is really great- Now- how do we get teachers to buy in- what is the “magic” phrase that we can share with teachers that would have the same affect this phrase has with students?

    • I think the same phrase would work with teachers. As someone moving into administration, I feel like this phrase would give them the same sense of belonging and connection.

      • Bob says:

        I immediately thought the same! If our teachers are not empowered, then how can we expect them to empower the students.

  • L. Valenciana-Ruiz says:

    Didn’t the researchers care about the results among Latino/as, Native Americans, English Learners, or immigrants/refugees? These are all important groups that would also benefit from this alleged phrase.
    Obviously, the researchers don’t care about other students. Hope your book does.

    • It looks like it was a small study, based on a few students at one school. I imagine they differentiated between students in a way that was most applicable to the cohort they were studying. I wouldn’t read too much into their choice of dividing students into “white” and “African American” groups. It doesn’t necessarily mean they didn’t care about other students – there were probably too few students from the other groups you mention, to be able to do a statistical analysis. Could be great to do a replication study at another school with different student make-up though?

  • Joe Hirsch says:

    Thanks for the great post, AJ. For more insights on how this study transformed student outcomes, as well as other high-impact strategies for giving better feedback in the classroom and beyond, check out “The Feedback Fix” (Rowman & Littlefield, 2017).

  • […] How to Empower Students with One Simple Phrase (that can boost student effort by 40%) – A.J. J… […]

  • Julie says:

    When students realize that their teachers have high expectations of them, they will do their best. But you’re right, we have to show them that they can do it. That is what teachers are for. We show the students how, they will realize why and then they have to apply what they have learned to the best of their ability. Good old “rubric” helps students know what your expectations are. When you are reviewing their work, show them which part they did well and which part did not meet your expectations. Give them the chance to improve…and when they do…celebrate. 100% of the time, the students will from then on, give you their best work. Spoken from experience!

  • Kausar Begum Khan says:

    Ye, its true that high expectations from our students boost their morale and motivate them to improve but at the back of my mind, I am always thinking of those I have given a lot of encouragement and they are struggling to keep up. I keep reminding myself to rephrase the encouragement and motivational phrases so that all my students are striving to improve in one way or the other. Sometimes it takes many months of encouragement to see even the smallest change – but I dont give up.

  • Natalia says:

    Great is simple! We know this from our childhood. Thank you to remind and apply it to students.

  • Absolutely. Such a powerful message! In my experience, students who know that their teacher knows them, cares about them, and believes in them, are much more motivated to persevere in moments of difficulty, and to produce higher quality work. I’d be interested what researchers would find if they included feedback that was personalised eg. feedback that shows that the teacher has spotted a particular habit / tendency or past success.

  • johna says:

    As a kindergarten teacher I think it is so important that children understand I have high expectations of them because I respect them. “You got this” is often heard in our classroom. Positive messages allows children to take risks. If this is practiced from an early age, imagine what these students look like when they land in middle school and beyond!

  • Cheryl says:

    I started telling students they were scholars which means you enjoy learning and work at it. This one word had profound changes. However, it can’t be fake and it’s not a one and done. The film Paper Tigers points out how major stress impacts student learning and the importance of teacher relationships in overcoming it, but it’s a tough road. Teacher expectations are a great place to start but teachers really have to believe and not give up! I’ll be sharing my own journey through this on my blog.

  • Dr. MMG says:

    Believe! Students need to believe in themselves; we must believe in them! Teachers must believe in themselves; administrators must believe in them! #believe

  • Lynn Cashell says:

    That phrase truly gave me pause…I thought about what I write on my students papers and while I show them what they did that met the expectations, I realize I do not do enough to encourage them to reflect on their work to see how they can improve it. I have a sign in my room that says “Welcome to Success” I made it 15 years ago when we moved into our classrooms in our new school. It is faded and one end is falling down. What ‘s that message!? Time to change the sign and raise the expectations.

    One thing I have always done in math class before any fact quiz, topic quiz, or test is to have the students write a positive message on their papers–anything from “I can do this” to “I believe,” etc. This strategy is a habit in my class and has made a difference. It grew out of my then 3rd grade daughter’s frustration because her rocket ship was not moving up on the weekly timed test chart. She began writing “I can do this” on her paper, and her self-esteem and self-confidence rose with her rocket ship. It dawned on me that I have not developed this habit in the other subject areas. Time to change that expectation, too.

    • Marilyn Yung says:

      Love your ideas! Am adding them to my list of new things to try next year! The Welcome to Success poster is such a positive message and having students actually write inspiring messages on their papers makes sense, too. Thanks!

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