“Mindset” Author Carol Dweck on Student Motivation

from the website EducationWorld

[Carol Dweck is a psychology professor at Stanford and best known for her pioneering book, Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. She is a leading researcher in the field of motivation.]

Education World: Some students are mastery-oriented–they readily seek challenges and pour effort into them. Have you found any direct relation between students’ abilities or intelligence and the development of mastery-oriented qualities?

Carol Dweck: No. Some of the brightest students avoid challenges, dislike effort, and wilt in the face of difficulty. And some of the less bright students are real go-getters, thriving on challenge, persisting intensely when things get difficult, and accomplishing more than you expected. Being mastery-oriented is about having the right mindset, not about how smart you are.

EW: What can teachers do to help students face a challenge rather than be overwhelmed by it?

Dweck: Students who are mastery-oriented think about learning, not about proving how smart they are. When they experience a setback, they focus on effort and strategies instead of worrying that they are incompetent.

When students succeed, praise their efforts or strategies, not their intelligence. When students fail, teachers should also give feedback about effort or strategies — what the student did wrong and what he or she could do now. Too many students think effort is only for the inept. Yet sustained effort over time is the key to outstanding achievement.

Rather than praising students for doing well on easy tasks, teachers should transmit the joy of confronting a challenge and of struggling to find strategies that work.

Finally, teachers can help students value learning. Too many students are hung up on proving their worth through grades. Grades often matter a lot. Problems arise when students start to care so much about their performance that they sacrifice important learning opportunities and limit their intellectual growth.

Problems also arise when students equate their grades with their intelligence or worth. This can be damaging, for when students hit difficulty, they may quickly feel inadequate, become discouraged, and lose their desire to perform well in that area.

EW: How can teachers change students who have a fixed view of their intelligence so that they do better when facing a challenge?

Dweck: Students who believe intelligence is a potential that they can develop fare better when faced with challenge. We have found with students of all ages, from early grade school through college, that they can be taught that their intellectual skills can be cultivated — through their hard work, reading, education, confronting of challenges, etc. When they are taught this, they become more eager for challenges, harder working, and more able to cope with obstacles. Students’ grade point averages go up when they are taught that intelligence can be developed.

EW: Can a classroom that is very performance-oriented succeed in developing learners who welcome challenges?

Dweck: A classroom that teaches students to equate their intelligence and their worth with their performance will, in general, stifle the desire to learn and will make students afraid of challenges. After all, the next challenge may show you up and lead you to be branded as less intelligent or less worthy.

However, this doesn’t mean that a classroom that stresses performance can’t also stress the importance of facing learning challenges. It must be made clear to students that their performance reflects their current skills and efforts, not their intelligence or worth. If students are disappointed in their performance, there is a clear implication: Work harder, learn to study better, ask for more help.

By the way, this stance characterizes many top athletes. They are very performance-oriented during a game. However, they don’t see a negative outcome as reflecting their underlying skills or potential to learn. Moreover, in between games they are very learning-oriented. They review tapes of past games, trying to learn from their mistakes, they talk to their coaches about how to improve, and they work ceaselessly on new skills.

EW: In your research, have you seen a correlation between a student’s history of success and his or her ability to face future challenges?

Dweck: There is no relation between a history of success and seeking or coping with challenges. This is one of the great surprises in my research. It shows that the ability to face challenges is not about your actual skills; it’s about the mindset you bring to a challenge.

EW: Educators praise students’ intelligence because they believe that helping them feel smart will help them achieve their potential. Are there better messages educators could send students?

Dweck: I was aware of the widespread belief that praising students’ intelligence would help them feel smart. Yet, I had years of research showing that students who had fragile self-esteem and motivation were the ones obsessed with their intelligence. They worried about it all the time: Will this task make me look smart? Will that task show I’m dumb? So it struck us that praising intelligence could actually do harm by conveying to students that intelligence can be measured from their performance.

We set out to test this in our research. In these studies, later grade school students worked on a task, succeeded nicely on the first set of problems, and received praise. Some received praise for their intelligence, and others received praise for their effort. It turned out that praising students’ intelligence, even after truly admirable performance, made them feel good in the short run, but it had many negative effects. In contrast, praising students’ effort had many positive effects.

First, when students were praised for their intelligence, they became so invested in looking smart that they became afraid of challenge. Most of them preferred a sure-fire success over a challenging opportunity to learn something important. When students were praised for their effort, 90% of them wanted the challenging learning opportunity.

Second, when students then experienced a second, difficult set of problems, those who had been praised for their intelligence now told us they felt dumb. In other words, if the success meant they were smart, the failure meant to them that they were dumb. Any self-esteem that had been promoted by the praise was very fragile. In contrast, the students who had been praised for their effort saw the setback not as a condemnation of their intellect, but as simply a signal for more effort.

Third, the students who were praised for their intelligence told us they no longer enjoyed the task. A feeling of failure made them reject a chance to practice their skills and improve. In contrast, the ones who were praised for their effort enjoyed the second task just as much as the first. In fact, some of them liked the harder task even better and were more determined to master it.

Fourth, we gave the students a third set of problems, similar to the first set (the one on which they had succeeded). The students who were praised for their intelligence now did significantly worse than they had initially; the students who were praised for their effort did significantly better than they had done before. This means that two groups of students, who had started off with similar performance, were now far apart.

We should praise our students, but we should praise the right things. Praise the process (the effort, the strategies, the ideas, what went into the work), not the person.

EW: Is self-esteem something that teachers can “give” to students?

Dweck: No. It’s important to show students respect and give them a sense they are cared for, but apart from that, the best thing teachers can do for students is to put them in charge of their own self-esteem. This is by teaching students how to love challenges and learning and how to cope with setbacks.

EW: In all your years of research, what findings have intrigued you the most?

Dweck: The power of motivation. Motivation is often more important than your initial ability in determining whether you succeed in the long run. In fact, many creative geniuses were often fairly ordinary people who became extraordinarily motivated. By motivation, I mean not only the desire to achieve but also the love of learning, the love of challenge, and the ability to handle obstacles. These are the greatest gifts we can give our students.

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