Athletics, the Arts, Clubs, Service Projects: They All Lead to Improved Student Performance

We do a lot of things in schools because we’ve always done them.  Some of the things we do almost universally actually have little or no grounding in research.  (Please see: start times, school calendar, homework and the way we grade for starters!)

Research does tell us, however, that student activities are a powerful strategy to improve student performance.  What the NASSP (National Association of Secondary School Principals) shares about student activities ( is this:

participation in student activities is associated with higher test scores, increased GPA, enhanced civic skills, better future job prospects, lower drop-out rates, and lower incidence of adverse behaviors.

That’s a long list of positive outcomes for one strategy!  It’s research, however, that we don’t always pay attention to.  For something so valuable, student activities are often the first to go when there’s a deficit, regardless if it’s a deficit of time or finances.

In lean financial times, often the first things to go are “frills” like art, music, and drama.  The same is true about time.  When we are in a crunch to “cover everything” we are quick to take away time for creativity, for activities, for physical education, the arts, clubs, and other activities.  The problem with that line of thinking?  It is fatally flawed.

Students have a choice every day at school that you can’t take away from them.  You can encourage them in their choice, but ultimately it’s up to them, no matter what you do as an adult.  Their choice, day in and day out, is how much effort will I expend today?   Their answer to that question is one that is delivered by action (or inaction) more than by words.


Students can decide to give their greatest effort:  to try their best.  They also can decide to only expend the amount of effort needed to keep out of trouble (try enough).  Finally, some students give hardly any effort at all.

These three categories can describe a student or a group of students efforts at their academic work and in school in general.  This is a beginning.  The next question is “what causes some students to give more effort than others?  ” Aubrey Daniels International  explored that question in the realm of business.  They created the Discretionary Effort Model (seen below).  It describes the difference in performance between individuals who only do enough to stay out of trouble (away from negative consequences) and those who do their best because they want to.


That huge gray area on the chart labeled “discretionary effort” is the area of which should be of great interest to educators.  How do we move students from giving a minimal effort to giving more effort?  If you could nail that one down, you’d be on the way to making a great difference in the performance of your students.

It’s not homework.  It’s not your calendar.  It’s not even making sure that you cover every single standard.  What we DO know is that student activities tend to have a positive impact on nearly every metric we are using to measure student progress and performance.  It’s because… they care about those activities.  Student activities can be the cause of the discretionary effort shown above.  Isn’t that plenty of reason to get started on a voluminous and exhaustive effort to serve all of your students via student activities?

More to come on this subject this week here on Principal Matters!



Feldman, A. F., &Matjasko, J. L. (2005). The role of school-based activities in adolescent development: A comprehensive review and future direction. Review of Educational Research, 75(2).

Klesse, E. J. (1994). The third curriculum II: Student activities. Reston, VA: National Association of Secondary School Principals.

Klesse, E. J. (2004). Student activities in today’s schools: Essential learning for all youth. Lanham, MD: Rowman &Littlefield.


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