Using the Fresh Start Effect to Improve Student Motivation, Habits, and Beliefs

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I was lucky enough to recently read an advance copy of Troy Hicks and Andy Schoenborn’s upcoming book, Creating Confident Writers, and while I will undoubtedly be posting about it again once it comes out (it is wonderfully smart and practical), they reference a concept that I’d somehow never heard before that felt both timely and important to explore in this first post of a new decade: the Fresh Start Effect.

The Fresh Start Effect is the idea that while most of the moments in our lives are spent engaged in a “seemingly unending stream of trivial and ordinary occurrences that happen to us every day,” there are occasional points in time that standout from those trivial and ordinary moments. These landmark moments (as they are referred to in the literature) can be artificial constructs (for example, new years, new semesters, or in our case right now, new decades) or natural milestones (birthdays, losing a loved one, etc.), but what makes them noteworthy for this blog’s purposes is that during those moments we are more open than usual to changes in motivation, identity, and behavior.

As humans we intuitively know about the power of this Fresh Start Effect at some level; it is why we often make resolutions or changes when we celebrate the new year, move to a new location, or reach a major birthday. As teachers we know this too; it is why almost every teacher I know sets new goals for their practice before each new year/semester/trimester in the pursuit of doing it better this time.

Yet, as teachers we rarely invite our students to take advantage of the Fresh Start Effect. Numerous fresh starts populate the school year–ranging from the first day of school to the first day of each new unit–but teachers hardly ever give students the opportunity to use those moments to make meaningful changes. Instead we tend to push ceaselessly towards the horizon, with hardly a glance at the landmarks passing us by.

And even when we do have students set goals or reflect on changes they’d like to make during landmark moments, we even more rarely commit serious time to helping them create specific plans to work towards those changes and goals, which is a big deal because the vast majority of resolutions without specific plans don’t work.

I, too, have been plenty guilty of both not being mindful of fresh starts or committing enough class time to helping students enact real change, so one of my resolutions in 2020 is to be better about those things.

My plan for doing this starts with simply taking what I already do–like having students set goals near the beginning of new units and engage in reflection near the end of quarters–and relocate those activities to landmark moments where students are the most open to change. Previously, I didn’t always pay close attention to when I set goals or engaged in reflection, but I now plan to be more careful with placing these moments of looking forward or backward in the natural landmark moments of the school year that match them.

Further, because of the essential role having a specific plan plays in the success of goals, I am going to ask my students in these moments to be even more specific about where they’ve been and where they plan to go. I already started doing this with goals in my classes at the start of this year by having students use the following frame to set goals, and the results have been a rather dramatic increase in students making meaningful progress on their goals:

My Goals Stem
An example of tracking goals from one of Sarah’s students

Lastly, I plan to finally start doing something that I saw Sarah Zerwin, author of the upcoming book Point-Less, discuss at NCTE several years ago, and have my students reflect at the end of each week in their writer’s notebooks on the improvements they’ve made and setbacks they’ve encountered in the pursuit of their goals. As I’ve discussed before, the amount of time we allocate to something generally signals its importance to students and revisiting something is often a cognitive prerequisite to truly learning it. Sarah’s approach checks both these boxes, as it makes student reflection and goals regular features of class.

It is easy to feel hopelessly bound to our current habits and beliefs. Even if they are less than ideal, the shackles with which they are chained to us can feel unbreakable. This is why the Fresh Start Effect is so powerful. It offers, for a moment, a glimmer of an alternative future, one that if we make a right turn today might be ours tomorrow. And as teachers, if we are careful in our approach and a bit lucky, we can help our students nurture that alternative reality into their new reality!

Yours in teaching,



Teachers are busy–too busy–so we need to share with each other. That is why this blog exists. I’ve studied and written about writing instruction for over ten years and would love to share what I’ve found with you. Join my mailing list now and I will send you a thoughtful post about teaching writing each week. As a thank you, you will also receive a copy of my free ebook A Game of Inches: Making the most of your feedback to student writing and deals on my upcoming book from Corwin Literacy on how to give feedback faster and better.

2 responses to “Using the Fresh Start Effect to Improve Student Motivation, Habits, and Beliefs”

  1. […] in early in the year in the same way that McGee does. I actually shared my base goal setting stem in my post last week, but here it is again, in case you missed […]


  2. […] changes in perspective, behavior, and motivation in moments that mark a “fresh start” (more on this “Fresh Start Effect” here) and the second students walk into our rooms, they begin doing the calculus concerning the value of […]


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