Saturday / June 22

“No Secrets” Teaching That Supports Student Agency

Our underperforming, low-confidence students need teachers who understand how they learn and who communicate that they care. The instructional strategies listed below are productive for all students, but they are essential for underperforming, low-confidence students. These students can’t mobilize effective effort if they don’t know exactly what they’re supposed to learn and be able to do. They can’t focus on improving if they don’t know (and we don’t know) exactly where the gaps are in their learning. “No secrets teaching” aims at making this information crystal clear. Our underperforming students quickly conclude that the extra effort we exert to make sure they understand the objectives and criteria for success represents our genuine desire for them to succeed and our belief in their ability to do so.

Communicating objectives

Communicating objectives to focus student effort and attention involves far more than just saying the objectives or writing them on the board. These objectives should be written in student-friendly language, free of jargon and full of common sense. And at that point we need to spend a minute or two unpacking them with the students, asking them what we think they mean, what their “understandings and their wonderings” are. The list below presents a larger picture of communicating objectives.

  1. Identify the most worthwhile learning target for these students at this time by analyzing the materials you’ve picked or that the curriculum presents.
  2. Determine whether the students have adequate prior knowledge for the target you have in mind. This is especially important for low-confidence, underperforming students who can get overwhelmed and tune out if this isn’t considered.
  3. Compose the learning target in mastery language so you yourself know what student performance (“will be able to do”) you would take as evidence of mastery.
  4. Communicate the learning target to the students in student-friendly language.
  5. Check for a minute or two to be sure the students understand the learning target (i.e., unpack it).
  6. Be sure the learning target is posted somewhere in the room so students can refer back to it.
  7. Tell the students the series of steps they’ll be going through to meet the learning target.
  8. Get the students to understand why the learning target is something worth learning (i.e., the reason it is important).
  9. Establish the criteria for success for performances or products the students will be producing.
  10. Have the students self-evaluate according to the criteria for success.
  11. Return to what the learning target is, at least once during the lesson and again at the end.
  12. Be sure to distinguish in your planning between thinking skill objectives and mastery objectives in the academic disciplines.

Also check out The Guide to Motivating Students that describes 9 classroom scenarios for confidence-building messages. 

Criteria For Success

It is quite common that underperforming students don’t actually know what we’re looking for in a quality product, so it’s helpful to go through the success criteria with them personally.

The criteria for success are usually a bulleted list that says what a student product will include if it meets the standards of the objective. These criteria, in essence, define what the objective means in performance. For example:

Your learning log

  • summarizes the major events in the chapter
  • identifies the central conflict and progress toward its resolution
  • includes your own reflections on the decision that the protagonist is making in her attempt to deal with and solve her problem

The lab report

  • lists all the steps for the process of titration
  • explains your observations
  • explains your conclusions about the relationship between ______ and ______
  • Uses technical terms correctly

The clarity of the criteria plus the implicit message of valuing when we take the time to go through criteria personally with them can have a big impact. In case studies our participants have done with students in the past, this action has stood out as having surprising results.


Showing students exemplars of quality work, perhaps saved from previous classes, accomplishes the same clarity as sharing criteria for success, with this addition: Exemplars are models. They show what it actually looks or sounds like to have a good performance. And exemplars can be analyzed in detail to identify where each criterion is represented.

Checking For Understanding

High expectations teachers don’t want any students going out the door with the teachers not knowing where the kids stand on today’s content. So checking for understanding (or doing formative assessment) becomes a dedicated and passionate commitment in every lesson. Checking questions, over-the-shoulder looks at student work, exit tickets, listening in to partner talk—these and many other moves can be seen to permeate the classes of high expectations teachers. Otherwise they have no way of deciding who is going to be in a support group for that skill in the next class.

Make the Change

Like these strategies? You can teach your students to believe that “Smart Is Something You Can Get” by acting powerfully in the zone you control—the school—to transform the educational trajectory for struggling or disengaged students. Download the guide below for more information on classroom scenarios and do’s and don’ts for transforming student confidence.

Download All 9 Classroom Scenarios

This post was excerpted from Chapter 5 of High-Expectations Teaching.


Written by

Dr. Jon Saphier is the Founder and President of Research for Better Teaching, Inc. He is an author and co-author of eight books, including The Skillful Teacher and High Expectations Teaching.  His research is used as a text in 60 university teacher preparation programs, including Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Columbia, Dartmouth, Brown, Middlebury, and Williams. More information at

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