Why Aren’t My Advanced Students Completing Challenge Assignments?

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Whether through remote learning or in the classroom, it can be frustrating when our most capable students do not embrace the challenge and enrichment activities that teachers assign. What is holding these students back, and how can teachers provide additional support to help students achieve their potentials? 

Re-energizing students to embrace both in-school and remote learning challenges starts with reflecting upon and addressing issues that may underlie three, sigh-wrapped excuses sometimes overheard from advanced learners:

Student Excuse #1: “This Challenge Work is Boring.”

Potential Issues and Suggestions for Teachers…

Issue: My “extra challenge” work generally engages students in my classroom. But with remote learning, even my advanced students seem disinterested.

Suggestion: Because your assignment works well in the classroom, the problem may exist within the lesson delivery. Try creating a motivating “hook” by providing different contexts to introduce learning such as online chats, videos, podcasts, or snail mail.

Issue: The inquiry project I provided centered around engaging video clips and current events, but the advanced students didn’t even click the links.

Suggestion: Do students feel that these assignments matter? Is the assignment personally and culturally relevant to students in the classroom? Try centering the project around a topic that directly impacts the student and/or the student’s community. Students can create a presentation, solution, or opinion letter to share with other students in a school display, in the local news, or with a panel of stakeholders. At the outset of a project, motivate students by letting them know the “audience” with whom they will have the opportunity to share purposeful work.

Issue: I chose an engaging enrichment project for students about oceans; surprisingly, my advanced students didn’t dive in.

Suggestion: Perhaps it is time to provide students with more choice. For limited choice, try challenging your students to come up with questions about oceans–such as questions that cannot be answered with a single “Google search.” To provide even more choice, allow students to choose a topic of interest and then come up with several questions about that topic. From their own lists, students can evaluate questions and choose the most provocative one to explore. 

Issue: My student was initially interested in the biographical research project about famous women in STEM but never turned in the poster.

Suggestion: Students may stay engaged with projects that challenge them to create something new, so think of some fresh ways for students to show what they have learned. The possibilities for new products are limitless… a student-written “page” from a diary that talks about an important day in the subject’s life and why it mattered, a drawing of three “gifts” that would have been most appreciated by the subject, a movie clip about the life of the subject, a mobile featuring several symbols that represent the subject with a written rationale for each symbol…

Student Excuse #2: “This Challenge Work is too Difficult!”

Potential Issues and Suggestions for Teachers…

Issue: I know the work is not too difficult for my student. If he would just read the directions… 

Suggestion: Sometimes it is tempting to assign challenge work to advanced learners with the assumption that they can embark on their own. However, sorting through directions, especially with a multi-step, challenge assignment can be daunting, even for capable learners. Try setting aside time to meet with students to read and talk through directions together.  If enrichment is being offered to the entire class, take a moment to fully explain the project and the directions during a weekly or daily “enrichment project highlight.” Another idea–ask students to outline or repeat the directions to you before starting the project.

Issue: My student seemed enthusiastic about solving this multi-step math problem, but as soon as she came to the tricky part, she gave up.

Suggestion: Advanced learners may shut down when challenges arise because they are used to completing them with ease. Moreover, because some advanced learners become accustomed to knowing the answers and receiving recognition for achievement, they may fear that making mistakes or failing might indicate that they “are not smart enough.” In order to help these students develop a more positive, growth mindset, educators need to help them understand that struggles and mistakes are a part of learning. Like all learners, they need tools and strategies to confront challenges when they arise. Try working with your student to create an “action plan” for meeting challenges when assignments get difficult and help is not immediately available. Strategies may include:

    • When the answer to a question or problem is not immediately apparent, focus on trying the problem for 5-10 minutes. If after that time, a solution is not clear, write a specific question about the problem and/or what is not understood to submit to the teacher.
    • Step away from the problem to do another activity. Return to the assignment later with fresh eyes.
    • Create a list of online/text resources and references that may provide hints or guidance.
    • If computation is the challenge, substitute “easy numbers” and try the problem again.

Issue: My advanced student usually completes enrichment work at school but often does not even finish grade level work at home during remote learning.

Suggestion: Unique challenges can arise during remote learning when teachers are unable to personally observe students. In this case, try reaching out to the student to touch base about the learning experience at home. Be mindful that access, skills with, or preferences for technology can impact learning. Especially for younger students, this may also be an appropriate time to collaborate with a student’s parents or caregivers. In addition to informing you about issues or events happening at home that are impacting student learning, parents can provide valuable insights by sharing observations. A few questions that you might ask parents include the following:

    • Does your child show more sustained attention/interest in certain subjects?
    • Are there activities that your child is especially motivated to complete (e.g., problem-solving, writing projects, videos)?
    • What teacher-assigned challenge/enrichment activities engage your child?
    • Are there activities that your child tends to finish quickly and/or appears to have already mastered?
    • In what subjects does your child struggle or show frustration?
    • Are there patterns that you observe (e.g., times of day, surroundings) in which your child seems more engaged in learning?
    • How does your child respond when challenged? (e.g., Does your child ask questions or try multiple strategies to find a solution? Does your child tend to avoid difficult or unfamiliar learning tasks?

Student Excuse #3: “I Don’t Have Time to Do This Challenge Work.”

Potential Issues and Suggestions for Teachers…

Issue: My advanced students earn 100% on the practice math problems and reading comprehension questions that I assign, but they never take the extra time to do challenge work. 

Suggestion: Although advanced learners may enjoy school work, they may prefer to fill their “extra time” with other interests, friends, or hobbies. So how can teachers encourage them to make time for a more meaningful, deeper project? It may be unnecessary for advanced learners to complete that page of practice problems or a list of reading comprehension questions assigned to students who are working at grade level. Instead, try assigning two or three of the more difficult problems/questions from the grade-level assignment, and replace practice problems and lower level questions with an enrichment activity.

Issue: My student seemed excited about the assigned enrichment project and indicated that she would complete it, but she never turned it in.

Suggestion: Advanced students may not excel in every area, and sometimes executive functioning skills need special focus. Distracted by other time commitments, interests, and misplaced papers or assignments, advanced learners may struggle to follow through with assignments. The following supports may help your students follow through on assignments and increase student ownership:

    • Provide an online or written “checklist” of the components of an assignment that need to be completed during the day/week.
    • When the project is assigned, ask your student to estimate how much time each component will take and create a schedule indicating the days/times reserved for work on the assignment. (It is helpful to have the student approve this schedule with both the teacher and the parent. Encouraging communication between parents and students may help to avoid family scheduling conflicts that can impact progress, especially with respect to long-term assignments.)
    • Sometimes advanced learners have many ideas and find it difficult to settle on one topic or choice for inquiry and research projects, or to settle on a strategy for problem solving. This can be overwhelming for some students and may make it difficult for them to get started. Try front-loading the activity with time set aside for students (1) to engage in divergent thinking and brainstorming, and (2) to evaluate options and choose a question or strategy to explore.

Issue: I give up on coming up with projects for my advanced learners. I have no idea what my students do with all of their time when they could be learning.

Suggestion: We may not be certain about how advanced and gifted students spend their time, but most assuredly their intellectual energy goes somewhere. Asking students about their interests and hobbies can be a great start for understanding conflicts that may impact learning. Even better, it can fuel ideas for individual or small-group interest-based learning projects. Start by asking students to write a “how to” or create a lesson to teach an aspect of their favorite activity.  For students who have intense interests, learning models, such as “Genius Hour,” where students can explore their own passions, provide an engaging springboard to motivate student learning and invention. Try seeing where the journey takes your advanced learners when you give them the reins.

 

 

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