It is hard to understand why any students would predict, on the first day of class, that they would get a low grade or even fail the class. It was especially difficult to understand this phenomenon during my first teaching years at West Jordan Junior High School.
The eighth-grade students in the history classes seemed to be vigorous and optimistic during those first days of school. I sensed that many intended to turn over new leaves and try harder. A new year is a good excuse for a fresh start. I would ask the students to write down their prediction for their final term grade and turn it in to me with an explanation.There were always a few that would predict failure for themselves and then spend the entire term defying my efforts and proving the prediction was correct.
It was especially discouraging to look at the permanent records of the students who predicted failure for themselves. Often there would be a record of failure juxtaposed with considerable ability as measured by standardized tests. Frequently this was paired with a low self-concept. Someone may have told these kids at some time that they couldn't do the work, or maybe they just didn't get any support at home. These kids are often labeled underachievers; I called them discrepant achievers in future research.
Three factors seem to distinguish these discrepant achievers from the other students. The students that would predict failure and then fail seemed to have low self-esteem, poor study habits or simply lacked motivation. This isn't just the observation of a new teacher. Conferences with parents and other teachers along with consultations with the school counselor supported this observation.
Later when I moved to Butler Junior High, I became involved with some people who tried to help these students. These same discrepant achievers were identified, and counselors and teachers tried to help. Some students were asked to participate in a study skills class once each week, another group attended weekly counseling sessions, and a third group checked with the counselor each day before and after school for a moment and were rewarded with poker chips for taking assignments home and doing them. The chips were redeemable for candy bars at lunchtime. There was also a group that continued school as usual and served as a comparison or control group.
After a quarter the groups of students were compared. The researchers wanted to know if self-concepts, study habits or grades had improved. The researchers also wanted to know if there was any long-term change in school grades for these students who dared to predict failure for them selves on the first day of school.
A couple interesting things happened. The kids who were being paid off with chips didn't turn them in for candy; they collected them and tried to run the counselor out of chips. Another interesting thing happened. Every method improved self-concept, improved study habits and improved school grades.
Since the experiment took place the first term of the school year, teachers were interested in the long-term effects of this special help. Even though school grades dipped a bit over the year, each group got better grades than they had the previous year and better grades than the students who didn't get the extra help. (One can't help but wonder about the morality of not helping some students by putting them in a "control" group. One parent recently commented to me that she thought her child spent his total elementary years in a control group.)
There are a couple possible conclusions; perhaps all of the methods work to help students. Another possible explanation may be that each approach has some common denominator that helps students achieve.
Some educators point out that any personal, concerned attention is helpful. Students seem to achieve when they are helped on an individual basis or have some sense that they are getting extra help.
The lesson is that concern and care do work. Often, the method is just a vehicle for the help. Students will respond to help that is perceived as helpful when they sense that the help is genuine. The point is that we need to do something, especially when it appears that almost anything will work to some degree.
This is an argument, not only for parents and teachers that care, but for a system that allows a harried teacher time to care and time to do something for the one who predicts failure. It is an argument for small, manageable classes and a work ethic that promotes action rather than benign neglect. Educators and parents need to feel free to act and be willing to try something. The trying seems as important as the method used.