Plan to be positive

This is an excerpt of an article that was originally published in the December 2010 print edition of Teacher.

We all know intuitively that students who approach a subject or learning task with a positive attitude are more likely to learn than those students who hold a negative attitude.

Research also tells us that what we say and do as teachers in the classroom has a great influence on student learning.

While there is nothing surprising about the need to promote and develop positive student attitudes, what may be surprising is that many of us don’t overtly plan for this critical aspect of learning. Much of our planning stops at curriculum, resources and assessment.

The relationship between student attitudes and learning is complex and has been the subject of literally hundreds, if not thousands, of research studies on student motivation. Robert Marzano and his colleagues, in Dimensions of Learning (Marzano et al., 2006), synthesised much of this research to provide a practical model for teachers that reflects what is known about how students learn.

The upshot of this, and similar syntheses over the past several decades, is that we know some important things about how student attitudes affect learning and how we can foster positive attitudes towards learning in all students.

In linking the motivational research to teacher practice, Marzano et al identified six elements that, when addressed, guide teachers through the critical conditions needed for student learning. From a student’s perspective, these can best be phrased as questions. Do I feel accepted? Am I comfortable? Can I make mistakes? Is this information useful to me? Can I do this? Do I know what is expected?

By attending to the six questions during the planning process, we can create learning environments and tasks that help all students develop attitudes conducive to learning.

Do I feel accepted?

Think of a time when someone remembered your name after a brief conversation. How did it make you feel?

When someone pays attention to us or makes an effort to get to know us, the positive effect can be powerful.

The need to feel valued and accepted by others is particularly important for students in the classroom. If students feel accepted by their teacher and classmates they’re more likely to apply themselves, participate in class discussions and be less distracted.

We can help students feel accepted in the classroom through seemingly trivial yet very important behaviours, such as:

  • talking to students informally in and out of the classroom about their interests;
  • welcoming students by name as they enter the classroom;
  • planning questions that allow all students to experience success;
  • monitoring our own attitudes towards students so that we develop and maintain a positive relationship with every student in the classroom;
  • recognising and providing for individual student interests;
  • replying positively to student responses; and
  • using cooperative learning strategies to promote student interaction and cooperation.

An English teacher once shared with me a survey she invited her students to complete at the beginning of the school year. The survey asked students to tell her about a range of personal interests and goals. Questions included, ‘What would you do if you had a spare hour right now?’ ‘What about a spare five hours or a weekend?’ ‘What is the report comment you would most like to receive?’ ‘If you could choose a career right now, what would it be?’ ‘What is your favourite chocolate?’

Within the first 20 minutes of the first lesson of the school year, the teacher had gained a valuable insight into the motivations of each student in each of her classes. She then planned learning tasks and teacher-student interactions throughout the year around the students’ areas of interest.

While the student survey and the resulting teacher strategies may appear simple, they sent a powerful message to all students about the level of care and interest the teacher had for each student. It was remarkable to see the effect a favourite chocolate given to a student on their birthday had on their motivation. Similarly, it was remarkable to see the pleasure experienced by the student, and teacher, when the student’s most-wanted report comment could be used on the end-of-semester school report. It was plain to see the effect these strategies had on student learning when the same engaged students in English were distracted in other classes.

Am I comfortable?

Providing a comfortable and ordered learning environment can be as central to a student’s success as any teaching strategy or educational tool. If students feel comfortable, they spend less time thinking about the environment and more time focussed on the learning task.

The challenge is creating a comfortable learning environment for all students when individuals have different standards for comfort. What may be stimulating for one student, for example, a brightly coloured poster at the front of a room, may be distracting for another. Similarly, some students may prefer to work in groups while others prefer working alone.

If we are to create environments conducive to learning we must work with students to identify standards of comfort. Strategies to create a sense of comfort and order may include:

  • inviting students to make decisions about the organisation of the classroom;
  • holding regular and organised activities that involve physical movement;
  • offering a blend of whole-class, group and individual learning;
  • monitoring our attitudes so that we may consciously bring a positive tone to the classroom;
  • providing appropriate furniture, seating arrangements, room temperature, sound, smell and lighting; and
  • asking students to identify and describe personal standards for comfort and order around socially accepted behaviours.

If students are to feel comfortable, they must also feel secure and at ease. This can be achieved when students know what to expect and when they feel accepted by their classmates and teacher. Strategies include:

  • clearly defining classroom rules and procedures;
  • inviting students to discuss rules and procedures they think are appropriate;
  • maintaining visual displays of the class routines;
  • warning students of changes to routine in advance; and
  • establishing a positive, supportive environment for all students by letting them know you care about their wellbeing.

We need to tailor our learning environments to student standards for comfort rather than expecting students to adjust to our perceptions of comfort. In a student-centred approach to learning, teachers believe who they teach shapes how they teach.

Can I make mistakes?

Making mistakes is essential in any learning. No one ever learned to surf without falling off. Mistakes provide direction and opportunities for improvement. How else would we know what we need to learn?

Despite the importance of mistakes, students may find it difficult to accept errors as a positive step in the learning process. It can be hard for students not to perceive comments about their work as being comments about them.

The way we respond to students’ mistakes becomes a key element in creating a sense of safety. Like the surf instructor with the novice surfer, we want our students to know it is okay to fall off. In fact, the more they fall off the better surfer they’ll become.

Students are more willing to make mistakes when we:

  • emphasise aspects of an incorrect response that are correct and acknowledge when the student is heading in the right direction;
  • provide guidance so that students may gradually come up with the answer;
  • provide the answer and ask the student to phrase the answer in their own words, or provide another example of the answer;
  • respect the student’s option to pass, when appropriate;
  • ask questions that may not have one correct answer;
  • revise the question so that the student’s answer is now correct before returning to the original question with an extra cue;
  • ask the student to elaborate on their answer to investigate the reasoning behind a student’s response, which may be sound even if they’ve had trouble finding the correct word to explain the answer;
  • adopt a student’s perspective – ‘I used to think that too’; and
  • encourage risk-taking – ‘That’s the kind of thinking we are looking for’ or ‘Let’s have a look at the information again to see if we’re on the right track.’

... Many of the strategies I’ve outlined here are not new. Our challenge is not in knowing what works in enhancing positive student attitudes, it’s in planning and putting these strategies consistently into practice to foster positive attitudes for all students.

Student attitudes are the filter through which all learning occurs. If we truly value academic achievement, we must also value, plan and deliver instructional strategies that enhance positive student attitudes. Highly effective teachers don’t leave this pivotal aspect of learning to chance.


Costa, A.L., & Kallick, B. (2000). Describing 16 Habits of Mind. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

Marzano, R.J., Pickering, D.J., Daisy E Arredondo, D.E., Blackburn, G.J., Brandt, R.S., & Moffett, C.A. (2006). Dimensions of Learning. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development; Aurora, CO: Midcontinent Regional Educational Laboratory; Melbourne: Hawker Brownlow Education.

This is an excerpt of an article that was originally published in the December 2010 print edition of Teacher.