We know what skills we want college students to learn. We list them in institutional mission statements, descriptions of our programs and majors, and our syllabi. We know what skills employers want graduates to obtain ...
My husband just took a wood-turning class, and the night before, he slept very little, worrying about his skills and whether he’d be able to complete the course projects. This from a person who builds houses, boats, and furniture, who forges knives, can repair just about anything, and already has an impressive collection of bowls that he’s turned. How could he possibly imagine he wouldn’t do well in the course?
At issue here is accurately assessing one’s skills and the difficulty of doing so. It’s a problem for many of our students whose ill-founded confidence makes them think nominal study and practice time will be enough or others who reach only for low standards because they’re convinced they aren’t capable of anything more. The inability to accurately assess skills can compromise one professionally and personally.
As the years pass, beliefs about potential accomplishments settle in and become difficult to change—case in point, my husband. But our students, particularly the newer ones, are still in the process of discovering what they can do and drawing conclusions from those discoveries. How can teachers help students find out what they can do and what they should conclude from those experiences? In lots of ways, I think.
Students muddle distinctions between skills and abilities. Plenty of research documents their belief that ability determines what a person can do. They tend to think being good at math or writing or swimming derives from natural ability and learning those skills comes easily and without much effort. Much research supports the opposite conclusion: effort matters more than ability. As the work of Ericsson and colleagues (1993) makes clear, expertise at a skill develops out of hours of practice—and not just practice that repeats the skill but deliberate practice with its improvement focus as well. Teachers can challenge student assumptions about ability and encourage them to expend effort on skills they don’t think they can develop.
Accurate skill assessments derive in part from comparisons with the skills of others. Competitive course environments encourage those comparisons for good and for ill. The idea that some students are better can motivate other students to work harder. But often troublesome conclusions result. Success—in this case, besting someone better—cultivates overconfidence, and for those who don’t measure up, a sense of inadequacy descends. Truth be known, it doesn’t matter how good we are; someone else is better. Too much focus on those who excel diminishes efforts to improve. Why bother trying when there’s no chance of being exceptional? Teachers can create more collaborate environments that encourage students set their own goals and then learn from and support each other.
Feedback can influence beliefs about abilities, although that influence isn’t automatic. How many times did I tell my husband he was being ridiculous? Feedback tends to influence beliefs when it comes from a trusted source, like a teacher, and when it comes from someone with expertise, like a teacher. Often teachers have firsthand experience with the skill; they studied and worked to develop it in themselves and countless students. Teachers know ability when they see it. That doesn’t mean they always accurately predict who will expend the effort needed to develop the skill, but they do recognize potential and can point it out to students. Having a teacher who believes in them has made a difference in the lives of many students.
Teachers can motivate skill development and the accurate assessment of it by setting realistic course goals—high but not impossible standards. Clear assessment criteria for every assignment let students see how to reach course goals. And those clear maps model pathways to skill development that students can then replicate.
Most persuasive of all to skill development are accomplishments. By the end of the week, having turned three bowls and a platter, my husband was ready to admit that he did fine in the class. Accomplishing the projects provided indisputable proof that he had enough basic skills to learn the new skills the course projects required. For students to accomplish course assignments and activities can change their minds as well. Will the conclusion drawn from course experiences be narrow or wide? Will my husband be up all night before the next class? I’d put money on it. For many students as well, it takes multiple successful experiences before beliefs about ability gain accuracy.
Ericsson, K. W., Krampe, R. T., & Tesch-Römer, C. (1993). The role of deliberate practice in the acquisition of expert performance. Psychological Review, 100(3), 363–406. https://doi.org/10.1037/0033-295X.100.3.363