Are your students taking risks in their learning?

Have you ever observed what your students’ attitudes are toward ideas and actions that are new, difficult, or complicated?

Many students may be conservative learners – they worry about grades and want to “play it safe”, they don’t imagine different options, or they have low confidence that impacts their willingness to try new things.

Have you ever considered that your teaching or grading practices may undermine students in taking the intellectual risks that are crucial to learning?

To encourage academic risk-taking behavior and create an environment that views failure as a possible means to success, the following suggestions may help:


Model academic risk-taking behavior:

Showing students examples of valuable risk-taking helps them move beyond a standardized-test mindset. Students should be encouraged to take academic risks when they are learning and through formative assessment. An environment where the fear of failing is only seen as the next step in success motivates and increases student learning and achievement.


Encourage peer-based learning:

Students are more willing to expose uncertainty and try out new ideas with a few peers than in the classroom. Think-Pair-Share (TPS) exercises can help students find the confidence to take a risk. TPS allows students to pose questions, provides time for individual thought and a time to discuss possible answers with a peer, and then ask for shared answers. TPS exercises can increase both student interaction and academic risk-taking behavior.


Start with low thresholds and allow for flexibility:

Not all students have the same level of tolerance to risk. You can scaffold risk-taking behavior, beginning with risks most students can participate in before you move to more complex tasks. Actively encourage, model, and support academic risk-taking actions to help students to increase their level of risk tolerance.


Reward academic risk-taking:

If you truly believe in academic risk taking, examine the practices in your classroom to make certain they align to the risk-taking actions. Be careful not to send mixed messages through your classroom activities and grading. Many students will decide that it’s better to be safe and right than to take a chance and possibly being wrong.

For most summative assessments, errors are not rewarded, but in formative assessment errors can be a powerful means to learning. The Georgia Milestones rubrics allow for students to demonstrate their knowledge in different ways. Students receive credit for what they correctly present – it is not a deficit scoring process.

Think about the Olympics – divers earn higher scores for difficult dives that may not be performed perfectly than the divers who perfectly performed easy dives. It is the rigor or complexity of the dive that is considered in the scoring.

Risk-taking and obtaining the right answer can appear to be contradictory goals for students in your classrooms. The time for students to “not play it safe” is during your formative instructional and assessment time – it is during the process of learning.

If we want our students to take risks in their learning, we need to create classrooms in which academic risk taking is encouraged and is a part of the learning process.