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For Teenagers, Praising ‘Effort’ May Not Promote a Growth Mindset

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March 29, 2018, News

Teachers have long been told to praise students’ effort, rather than simply saying they are “smart,” as a way to encourage students to think of their intelligence as something that can grow over time. A new review of research in the journal Child Development suggests just praising the effort of middle and high school students to boost their “growth mindset” can have the opposite effect, with those adolescents praised becoming less likely to believe their work can improve their intelligence or skills. Prior research has suggested educators can encourage students to have a growth mindset by praising students’ process rather than ability. Process includes students’ effort, but also the successful strategies they use. David Yeager, an associate psychology professor and mindset researcher at the University of Texas at Austin, agreed. In his own national study of students’ learning mindsets, he said when teachers reported preferring to praise students’ effort alone, students weren’t particularly likely to think teachers’ had a growth mindset themselves. In fact, Yaeger and Carol Dweck, the Stanford University researcher who first coined the term “growth mindset,” have come to consider a focus on effort praise alone to be a “false growth mindset.” Mary Murphy, an associate psychology professor and mindset researcher at Indiana University, was not involved with the article but agreed with its findings, noting that students of all ages can lose trust in adults who praise them for effort without specifying what was “effective” about their effort. Murphy suggested educators can give adolescents a better foundation for a growth mindset by, among other things:

  • Providing opportunities for students to reflect on their own learning. For example, instead of using assessments primarily for the teacher, let students assess themselves regularly and report back on how they have developed.
  • Highlight mistakes in the everyday practice of learning. “Tell students, ‘I don’t want to know what you found easy, I want to know what you got wrong because that’s where the learning will be,'” Murphy said in an email. “This naturally gets students to think about how much they are learning and developing, and will get them to think about what other strategies they could try.”
  • Use group work where peers discuss what they each struggled with and explore individual strengths of different students.

Read the full article online in Education Week. The study abstract is available here.

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