Credibility Signaling and The Stuff We Think With

Part 1: The Best Pedagogical Book I’ve Read in Years

For a number of reasons, both personal and related to my school, last year was a particularly challenging year for me in the classroom. It was a struggle to build the class culture that’s been so central to what I love about teaching APES. Now I’m normally not a fan of getting too caught up in the myriad factors beyond the walls of our classrooms that make our jobs more difficult, but it did really feel like I was battling a distinctly new wave of student apathy and disengagement.

I knew that coming into this school year I was going to have to work to intentionally rethink my approach to student motivation and engagement. Some of this work was done over the summer and focused on myself and my attitudes about my students. Specifically this looked like journaling about letting go of the things I can’t control and redirecting energy and planning toward the things I can.

Coming into the new school year, I also wanted some professional help. Enter Dave Stuart Jr. and “The Will to Learn''. I’ve been reading Dave’s awesome blog and newsletter for a few years now and have found so many valuable tidbits. But it was actually the subtitle of his book that sold me on it: Cultivating student motivation without losing your own. 

The promise of Dave’s book is precisely what I had failed to do over the past few years. Working on so many projects at such a frantic pace over the past 4 years, my patience and care for crafting the delicate, precious thing that is student motivation had worn thin. 

I don’t know Dave personally (although he lives a few miles up the road in West Michigan and I want to) and this is not a paid endorsement for the book; I just truly think it is a must-read for educators, especially those in a challenging place with regard to student or teacher motivation. I’ve found it especially well-suited for a course like APES with so much dog-gone content to get through that it’s easy to let the intentional crafting of student motivation fall by the wayside.

Part 2: Signaling Credibility With Previous Student Data

Five Key Beliefs: The Source of Abbe's Superpowers - Dave Stuart Jr.

Source: Dave Stuart Jr. Blog: 5 Key Beliefs

At the base of Dave’s pyramid of the 5 key beliefs that underlie student motivation is teacher credibility. In short, we can’t expect students to buy-in to what we’re teaching if they don’t feel like we’re competent, caring educators, capable of helping them master the discipline of Environmental Science.

And since we’re teaching AP Environmental Science, a vital part of signaling credibility to students is our ability to help prepare them for success on the AP exam in May. Unfortunately, AP exam scores are a lagging indicator of success, since students won’t know how well we prepared them for the exam until after they’ve taken it.

This is where leveraging past student data can be credibility rocket-fuel. There are a few ways to do this, but one of the most powerful is to go through your previous year’s grade book and calculate average unit test and FRQ scores based on AP exam score. 

Here’s a sample of my unit 3 test score averages by AP exam score. For reference, I’m using mostly 2010 and 2016 released MCQs for unit exams, which still have 5 answer options instead of 4.

When you pass back tests and FRQs in class, you can show students how their peers who passed the exam last year did on similar tests and FRQs. This allows you to signal to students that you know what it looks like to be on track for a 3, 4, or 5, even in early November. It also empowers students to objectively measure their own progress toward the exam score that they want to earn. This kind of objectivity can allow for really honest and fruitful student conferences around this time of year when students are starting to accumulate 3-4 units worth of data to reflect on and measure against previous years.

Part 3: Knowledge is What We Think With (3 Keys Quizzes)

I’ll conclude today’s account of The Will to Learn, with a simple, yet profound story Dave shared from a freshman student of his. When asked to write a letter to fellow ninth graders around the country convincing them of the value of a high school education, Jake wrote that “putting knowledge in your head allows you to think thoughts that you couldn’t otherwise think.”

In the age of smartphone ubiquity, Google and Chat-GPT can make the value of committing information to memory less self-evident, especially to teenagers. But this idea that knowledge is the raw material of thought, the “stuff we think with” as Dave puts it, is such a powerful argument for the hard work of mastering a complex discipline like environmental science. 

It is not hyperbole to suggest that our students will look at the world differently and think different thoughts about it as a result of committing to memory the thousands of vocab terms, facts, and processes outlined in the Course and Exam Description (CED.)

At the risk of over-philosophizing, I’m going to put a pin in this idea and circle back to it in the future. I know most of you subscribe to this newsletter for concrete, actionable strategies and resources to make your life as an APES teacher a little easier and that’s what I want to deliver here. 

In my classroom this year, the concrete instantiation of all of this meta-cognitive rabble has been a set of “3 Key Facts” for each unit that every single student must memorize. In constructing these lists, I asked myself: “what are the most foundational ideas from this unit that will continue to reappear in the course?” “ What three facts, if memorized, will maximize the ability of students to understand content in future units and integrate new knowledge into a cohesive, broadening understanding of environmental science?”

At the end of each unit, I have students write down these 3 key facts on a notecard and then self-quiz themselves until they’re able to rewrite them on a new note card from memory. There’s not a set date for the quiz and there’s no limit on the number of attempts students have to complete the quiz. 

The only rule is that they must complete the unit 1 “3 Keys” quiz before the end of unit 2. While there are definitely some kinks to be worked out in the logistics of this quiz method, I recommend just allowing students to take these “3 key quizzes” in place of whatever normal do now/bell ringer or exit quizzes you have in place. If you have lab tables, it’s easy to have students leave their phones in their backpacks and go to the lab tables to take the quizzes, or just to have them close notes/computers, and set their phone on your desk while they take it in their seat. 

If you want to see my list for units 1-3, you can check those out here. I’ll continue to update this document for units 4-9.




If you've made it all the way to the end here, thank you for taking the time today to read my thoughts and reflections on this wonderful book. I really hope you found something that can be useful and actionable in your classroom as soon as this week. If you want to check out Dave's blog you can do so here.

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