Student 1: Oh no. I worked so hard on this paper, and I still got a lousy grade.
Student 2: Really? I barely worked on this paper, but I did very well.
My first reaction was to feel really bad. It seemed very unfair to me that a student who worked very hard did less well than a student who had not worked very hard. It made me feel as though the grades that these students received validated their innate ability as opposed to the effort they put into their paper.
On second thought though, I realized that these students were comparing the effort that they had put into this one individual assignment; they were viewing their performance on this assignment in isolation. In English, and I would say in any endeavor, no assignment can be viewed completely in isolation. Student 1 may have worked hard on this particular paper, but she barely reads, and her work ethic all year has been spotty and inconsistent. In contrast, student 2 may have dashed off this paper at the last minute, but she is a voracious reader, and she has worked hard all year.
If student 1 did badly despite effort on this assignment, it is less a function of her lack of ability than her lack of sustained effort all year. Had she immersed herself in books and language all year, she would have gained the vocabulary and skills necessary to write a better paper. In contrast, because student 2 worked hard all year, she had honed her skills to the point where she could dash off a solid paper at the last minute.
My point here is that often what students and teachers attribute to innate ability is actually more a function of sustained effort over time. A kid who has been reading voraciously since she was very young has honed and refined her abilities to the point where things now come easily to her. In contrast, a kid who has barely read anything in elementary and middle school is going to struggle with assignments in later years, and often he will feel as though his efforts are futile. What students need to know is that their performance on any one individual assignment is the result of their work ethic and effort over time.
On a related note, I recently read an article on the importance of third grade precisely because it is the point in a student's academic career when the Mathew effect begins to kick in. In other words, from third grade on, kids who work hard get better and better, and kids who don't begin a downward spiral where they fall further and further behind. The discrepancy between strong and weak students gets wider and wider as a result. Because of the Mathew effect, a student who has worked hard for years may very well end up getting a better grade with far less effort than one who has only now started to work hard; what we think of as ability is actually the product of sustained work over time. Why Third Grade is so important is interesting because it documents a very real phenomenon that continues through school.