Last week, as part of a class on Curriculum Development and Instruction, I attended a lecture by Todd Zakrajsek. The lecture covered several ideas, but one stood out particularly: how to praise students in a helpful manner.
Apparently drawn from a study discussed in Carol Dweck's book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success
, Todd explained that there are several different ways to praise a student, and that they mostly boil down to:
1. "Good job; you're clearly very smart!"
2. "Good job!"
3. "Good job; you clearly worked very hard!"
A study conducted on three groups of students went something like this. All students were given a set of simple anagrams to solve, consistening of three-five letter words that were pretty obvious. Most of the students completed about 50-75% of the anagrams, and all the students were praised (each group of students given a different form of praise from the above list).
Next, all three groups were given an extremely difficult set of anagrams to solve, using eight-ten letter words with much less obvious solutions. Almost all of the students failed, completing only one or two anagrams; no praise was administered (neither were any consequences).
The last part of the study was to give each group a final set of anagrams, this one of comparable difficulty to the first. Theoretically, they should have been able to complete 50-75% of them easily.
That's where the interesting stuff comes in. The middle group---the ones who had simply been told "Good job!"---performed at the expected baseline. Their results were the same as after the first round of anagrams.
The third group, who had been told "Good job; you clearly worked very hard," improved their performance significantly
. More of them completed all or almost all of the anagrams.
The first group, who had been told "Good job; you're clearly very smart," actually performed significantly worse than they had initially, many of them failing despite the fact that they'd done well on the first round.
The reasoning here is pretty simple. When you praise someone by telling them "You are smart," you are assigning a value to THEM. They are smart, which is an intangible thing they can't control, even if it makes them feel good at the time. However, when you then challenge such a student, their reaction is to shut down. They will cease to try, even after the challenging part is over, because they feel they must not be smart enough to continue
. Since the value you gave them is inherent to their nature, it's all-or-nothing situation; things are either easy, or impossible.
On the other hand, when you praise the student by telling them "You worked hard," you are assigning value to the WORK, which is something they can control. When you then challenge these students (for example, by giving them work they cannot complete), rather than shutting down, their response is to work harder and put more effort into their work, even on easy assignments. They feel they can improve, and so they do.
This is something that has come up in several of my classes---praise the work, not the student---but this is the first time I've seen direct study on the subject. And I didn't realize what a negative effect praise could have. Henceforth, my personal policy will be to be extremely careful to talk to students about the work they've done and what they've succeeded at---not about intelligence. This is the kind of error that causes students to (like me) get stuck in a rut such as: "I can't do math; I'm just not a math person." In all actuality, while math might be HARD for me, I would have a much more positive attitude towards it if I'd been praised, while learning it, on the basis of my effort and not my intelligence.
Of course, that doesn't mean you should never comment to students that you think they're gifted in a certain area---but you need to be sure to tie it in to effort, regardless. I'll never tell a student, for example, "This paper is amazing! You really have a talent for persuasive essays," because then---psychologically speaking---if they ever have an 'off day' and turn in a poor paper, they will begin shutting down. They'll know they're talented, but they'll feel they've hit the limits of their talent, and can progress no further
. Instead, I'll say, "This paper is amazing! When you work this hard, your talent really shines through."