Last week Jason G wrote a post on starting the year out right by setting effective classroom rules. I would argue that this is one of the most important things you can do at the start of a school year (or semester). In addition to setting appropriate rules, there are other things you can do anytime of the year that can help “prime” your students for success (even if they don’t realize it). I’ve highlighted a few studies below that will hopefully help explain what I mean.
Priming is the idea of preparing someone for a situation or task. While classroom rules and expectations are meant to help prepare students for an entire school year, priming is much more specific. Scientists have known for years about social priming, but unfortunately many studies, especially those not specific to education, rarely make it to the classroom setting.
Take the example of a now famous study I first read about in Dan Ariely’s book Predictably Irrational. He discusses a study where students were asked to do a word puzzle, then walk down the hall to speak with someone else. The trick to the study (know that there is always a trick involved when you volunteer for a study like this) was that the researchers weren’t interested in how well students did on the puzzle. Instead they wanted to know how fast students walked down the hall afterwards. What they found was that students who completed the puzzle using words like Florida, gray and bald walked much slower than other students. In other words, the study primed the students to think of being old without ever even mentioning the word old!
Another similar example is mentioned in Daniel Kahneman’s book titled Thinking Fast and Slow. He discusses a study where researchers calculated the amount of money contributed to the “honesty box” for community coffee and tea in an office kitchen. After establishing a baseline of what was typically collected in a week, researches then began placing an image above the coffee pot. One week the image was a random floral design and the next week it was a set of eyes. This alternated (week 1 floral, week 2 eyes, week 3 different type of floral pattern, week 4 different set of eyes, etc…) for several weeks. At the end of the study researchers found that there was a significant increase in the amount of money contributed during weeks when the image of eyes was in place. Those using the coffee felt as if they were being watched even though they didn’t consciously realize it.
So what does all of this have to do with education and increasing performance? Unfortunately I have to answer this with a question… What type of images do you have in your classroom? What words are you using with your students prior to assigning a task? Are these things promoting success? For better or worse, they can have a much bigger impact than you may think.
I know this all may sound crazy, but don’t think it is unique to students. In a study titled Pygmalion in the Classroom: Teacher Expectation and Pupils’ Intellectual Development, teachers were told prior to the beginning of a school year about 3 students who would likely outperform other students based on a specific test score. They were also told not to treat these students any different and that researchers would be watching to make sure of this. To no surprise at the end of the year the 3 students turned out to score higher than other students just as the researchers predicted. The surprising part was that the initial test never existed. The 3 students were just randomly chosen prior to the start of class! Even after being specifically told to not treat these students differently teachers unconsciously helped them to outperform all others.
I find these studies incredibly interesting to say the least. I hope you do as well and that they may jumpstart your thinking about what you could say or show in your classroom to help increase performance. I would love to hear your thoughts on the topic (or similar situations that have occurred in your setting) in the comments section below.