Summer learning loss is real, at least for some students. According to the National Summer Learning Association, academic gaps widen between high- and low-income students during the summer months. While some children spend the time between school years enriching their lives through camp, travel, or internships, others languish intellectually, hanging out or taking unstimulating jobs.
So summer school offers an important opportunity to keep academic gaps stable and to potentially even shrink them. Unfortunately, for many students summer school carries with it a number of negative associations. It’s the place you have to go because you’re struggling or dumb. In summer school, you drill basic skills while others have fun. Who would want to go to summer school?
Activating Three Learning Mindsets
The Mindset Scholars Network defines three learning beliefs, or mindsets, that drive students’ willingness to take on and respond productively to academic challenges. I suggest we can leverage these three learning mindsets—purpose/relevance, growth mindset, and belonging—to help students see summer school in a new light. After all, if students believe that summer school is relevant to their lives and can help them achieve their goals, they are more likely to want to participate. If they believe that improvement is possible, and that their abilities and intelligence aren’t fixed, they’re more likely to put in the effort. And if they believe that peers and others they care about won’t make fun of them for going to summer school and, in fact, will support and cheer their growth, then they’re more likely to feel valued for their persistence.
So how do we do it? Here are some suggestions.
1. Make summer school normal, like sports camp.
One reason students may resist summer school is that it’s seen as something of a punishment, something you do because you need to rather than choose to. However, building and honing skills over the summer, during the off-season, is actually a very common practice in sports or the arts. Children and adolescents often spend summers at soccer, baseball, or music camps. Even elite athletes and performers are constantly seeking to improve. They will work on conditioning or learning a new skill or improving an old one in the off-season to give them an advantage during the regular season. So let’s position summer school in that same way. Offer sports camps, art camps, and brain camps. They are all about improving.
2. Teach about learning as brain change.
Of course, students need to believe that learning is possible. So let’s give them a window into the learning brain. When we learn, we physically change our brains. New neural pathways are created and strengthened as we struggle to master new content and skills. And the cool thing is, we can all do it. None of us are fixed in our abilities. Mindset Works, a company co-founded by Mindset author Carol Dweck, offers a whole research-validated program around mindset, called Brainology, along with free resources to get you started. I suggest teaching everyone about learning and the brain. This isn’t a message just for learners who are lagging behind grade-level expectations. Even students for whom school, or music or sports, has come easily can still improve (and change their brains). We don’t want students or their teachers to think that low performance = a fixed mindset. That isn’t true. We all need to be challenged to learn.
3. Use productive words and tone.
Our language and tone don’t just convey information. They also reflect our beliefs and values. If you and your summer school teachers see summer school as summer drudgery, your students will pick up on it. Even if that belief isn’t explicit in what you say, it will be apparent in how you say it. So we need to make summer school genuinely valuable, a time commitment that fulfills the promise of brain change and getting ready for next season. And then we need to convey our belief that our students are up to the challenge. It’s not fair to ask students to have a growth mindset about their ability to learn if we don’t share that belief.
4. Write, don’t tell, why it’s important.
Multiple studies have shown that a brief self-affirmation exercise can turn a potentially anxiety-provoking experience into something more positive and productive. The impact of writing about important values or why something you’re about to learn is important to you has been particularly powerful for disenfranchised students. So, rather than telling students that summer school matters, let them generate related sentiments themselves. As summer school approaches, have students pick a value that matters to them—friendship, family support, hard work, etc.—and spend a little time writing about it. The link above describes examples, rationale, and impact. You may be surprised at the difference it makes.
5. Find ways to give social status for summer school participation.
Adolescents care how others see them. For that matter, so do I. Who doesn’t? Making summer school a normal way everyone gets better (as suggested above) can help decrease the sense of being an embarrassed outsider as a summer school student. Getting status for summer school can really fuel that sense of belonging. Now, different schools and peer groups have different values. Ideally you have a school culture (or are creating one) that values and celebrates growth. Not everyone can be a winner, but everyone can grow, and the students most behind have the most potential to demonstrate the most growth. Let’s celebrate it and welcome others in celebrating individual improvement. If you don’t have that supportive culture yet (notice the growth mindset word yet), look for other ways to acknowledge students that elevates them in the eyes of those they care about.
6. Make progress transparent.
To help students believe in their ability to learn, we need to give them evidence that their productive efforts are paying off. Make sure you have ways to track and display student growth while students are in summer school. Some students may move slowly, so you may need to measure small increments. I’ve written before about how learning stagnation feels like being stuck in traffic. No one likes to be in the lane that’s not moving, especially if other cars are passing you by. We need to give students a sense of motion, even if they’re just edging forward. And make it about the individual student’s progress, where he or she was before versus where he or she is now, rather than about comparisons to others. Seeing progress motivates effort in the moment and gives you something to celebrate for my prior suggestion.
Feeding the learning mindsets can help sustain students in summer school, but they still need good instruction. Let’s make sure we have that in place too.
Here’s to summer learning!
Dr. David Dockterman is an author of MATH 180, a math intervention program for Grades 5–12 that focuses on the essential skills and concepts necessary to unlock algebra and advanced mathematics.
This blog was updated in February 2020.