Academic Tenacity

Last year, I wrote a post about student persistence, looking at the different factors that influence student success.

Today I came across a 2014 report by Carol Dweck, Gregory M. Walton and Geoffrey L. Cohen called Academic Tenacity: Mindsets and Skills that Promote Long-Term Learning, which addresses some of the same issues.

[I should say right now that I definitely think it’s important to reduce socioeconomic inequality and structural barriers for students, as well as encouraging them to develop more effective approaches to learning. Not everything can be overcome by changing one’s mindset.]

Stanford University psychology professor Carol Dweck and colleagues have conducted research, featuring ethnically and economically diverse students, that shows that a central factor in this resilience is a student’s mindset about intelligence. Students may view intelligence as a fixed quantity that they either possess or do not possess (a fixed mindset) or as a malleable quantity that can be increased with effort and learning (a growth mindset).

Students with a fixed mindset believe that their intellectual ability is a limited entity, and they tend to worry about proving it rather than improving it. They are often full of concerns about their ability, and this can lead, in the face of challenges and setbacks, to destructive thoughts (e.g., “I failed because I’m dumb”), feelings (such as humiliation), and behavior (giving up). By contrast, students with a growth mindset will often perceive the identical challenge or setback in an entirely different light—as an opportunity to learn. As a result, they respond with constructive thoughts (e.g., “Maybe I need to change my strategy or try harder”), feelings (such as the excitement of a challenge), and behavior (persistence). This mindset allows students to transcend momentary setbacks to focus on long-term learning.

(p. 5-6)

There are a number of factors that lead to fixed versus growth mindsets, including the type of praise students received: the students who were praised for their intelligence tended to exhibit a fixed mindset, while the students who were praised for their effort tended to exhibit a growth mindset.

The report discusses some successful interventions educators can implement to improve student persistence. These fall into four broad categories:

  • teaching students that intelligence isn’t fixed, but can be developed
  • helping build a feeling of belonging for students; helping them feel valued
  • demonstrating the relevance of curriculum to students’ lives
  • helping students learn to set goals, identify obstacles, and develop strategies for self-control

Some of the most fascinating points were in the last section (goal setting): the authors discuss how studies show encouraging student autonomy has a significant impact on student success. I think educators are often too eager to control aspects of student learning (I recognize this tendency in myself and struggle with it sometimes), and it turns out we are actually harming our students when we do this.

…[S]chool environments can impede students’ intrinsic motivation by undermining their sense of autonomy, and…even small environmental cues can have large effects. For example, studies show that positive feedback about performance (“You did well”) can improve student motivation, but adding a tone of control (“You did well, as you should”) undermines it.Even small, instructionally irrelevant choices can be motivating if they support student autonomy. For instance, in a space-fantasy math-education computer game, simply allowing students to choose their own icon and assign a name of their choice to their spaceship improved their motivation and learning—even when measured a week later.A field experiment in which high school students were taught a new exercise (Tai-bo) in their physical education class similarly suggested the importance of nurturing student autonomy: When the new exercise was presented in less controlling terms, simply through differences in wording (“You might decide to learn more” versus “You should decide to learn more”), students learned the exercises better and were more likely to volunteer to demonstrate them to an audience several days later.Studies also find that teachers sometimes unnecessarily constrain student autonomy by giving continual commands; providing solutions before the student has had an opportunity to solve a problem independently; limiting choices for reading and writing exercises; and dispensing unnecessary incentives like gold stars, rewards, and bribes for good work, such as extra recess time. It’s important to note that autonomy-supportive classrooms are not laissez-faire. Instead, they structure activities in a way that advances concrete goals for learning but that simultaneously encourages students to see themselves as agents in their own growth.

(p. 27-28)

Interesting stuff. I’ll be trying to implement more of these strategies into my own teaching this upcoming semester.

2 thoughts on “Academic Tenacity

  1. mrssteinbrink6 says:

    I’ve been teaching students to overcome failure for two school years. The things my students are willing to do by the end of the year is amazing. A growth mindset and learning to learn from failure will create humans that are ready for the world.

    • mworfolk says:

      It really is amazing to see the difference in students when they start to actually believe they’re capable of learning…so many of mine have been beaten down by years of being told about their limitations until they start to believe they’re incapable of learning.

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