Thursday, December 20, 2007

In praise of task praise

We've talked a good bit about learning and motivation at In Socrates' Wake, and of the educational psychologists working on such questions, Carol Dweck has the most interesting things to say. This article from Scientific American summarizes her fascinating work on how praise impacts learners' conception of knowledge, and in turn, the motivations that govern their learning efforts. I'd encourage everyone to read it themselves, but here are a few key ideas.

Central to Dweck's work is a distinction between two ways that learners come to understand intelligence:

... I developed a broader theory of what separates the two general classes of learners—helpless versus mastery-oriented. I realized that these different types of students not only explain their failures differently, but they also hold different “theories” of intelligence. The helpless ones believe that intelligence is a fixed trait: you have only a certain amount, and that’s that. I call this a “fixed mind-set.” Mistakes crack their self-confidence because they attribute errors to a lack of ability, which they feel powerless to change. They avoid challenges because challenges make mistakes more likely and looking smart less so.

The mastery-oriented children, on the other hand, think intelligence is malleable and can be developed through education and hard work. They want to learn above all else. After all, if you believe that you can expand your intellectual skills, you want to do just that. Because slipups stem from a lack of effort, not ability, they can be remedied by more effort. Challenges are energizing rather than intimidating; they offer opportunities to learn. Students with such a growth mind-set, we predicted, were destined for greater academic success and were quite likely to outperform their counterparts.

It's easy to imagine how students with a helplessness mindset would struggle academically: The slightest adversity will be taken as evidence of an innate deficiency, and so the helpless learner will figure out to avoid the tasks that manifest this deficiency. As we've discussed a lot here at ISW, studying philosophy can be awfully intimidating and can bring to the surface various insecurities about one's academic abilities. It would not shock me if intro to philosophy classes are places where this difference in how students see learning and intelligence play a huge role in their motivation and subsequent performance.

The practical upshot of Dweck's work is that praise — and in particular, how we praise — shapes whether learners acquire the helpless or mastery learning outlook:

How do we transmit a growth mind-set to our children? One way is by telling stories about achievements that result from hard work. For instance, talking about math geniuses who were more or less born that way puts students in a fixed mind-set, but descriptions of great mathematicians who fell in love with math and developed amazing skills engenders a growth mind-set, our studies have shown. People also communicate mind-sets through praise. Although many, if not most, parents believe that they should build up a child by telling him or her how brilliant and talented he or she is, our research suggests that this is misguided.

In studies involving several hundred fifth graders published in 1998, for example, Columbia psychologist Claudia M. Mueller and I gave children questions from a nonverbal IQ test. After the first 10 problems, on which most children did fairly well, we praised them. We praised some of them for their intelligence: “Wow … that’s a really good score. You must be smart at this.” We commended others for their effort: “Wow … that’s a really good score. You must have worked really hard.”

We found that intelligence praise encouraged a fixed mind-set more often than did pats on the back for effort. Those congratulated for their intelligence, for example, shied away from a challenging assignment—they wanted an easy one instead—far more often than the kids applauded for their effort. (Most of those lauded for their hard work wanted the difficult problem set from which they would learn.) When we gave everyone hard problems anyway, those praised for being smart became discouraged, doubting their ability. And their scores, even on an easier problem set we gave them afterward, declined as compared with their previous results on equivalent problems. In contrast, students praised for their effort did not lose confidence when faced with the harder questions, and their performance improved markedly on the easier problems that followed.

So a question for us philosophy instructors: Is it too late in the academic careers of the students we teach (i.e., college leval) to think that the forms of praise (or criticism) would have any impact on their conception of learning? Suppose that it's not too late. Do we praise (or criticize) students in ways that encourage the fixed intelligence view or in ways that encourage the mastery/effort view? It seems like the message from Dweck is that our praise and criticism needs to be very task-specific, referring not to alleged facts about students but facts about their work and the efforts that produce it. I'd be interested to hear about the styles of feedback or feedback mechanisms that people use and whether these provide feedback along the lines recommended by Dweck.

(On a side note: I don't think most of us are given a lot of directions early in our teaching careers about how to provide feedback to students. One bit of advice I've heard is that we should always something positive on a student paper, no matter how awful it is. Is that good advice?)


  1. I'd like to register a comment in favor of the mastery-oriented view. I've heard many student comments to the effect that reading philosophy is often overwhelming in the details, and often a comment like that is followed by a question like this: "Can you help me with suggestions on how I should study?"

    It's an appropriate question, and most of my answers are geared to answering it. Mostly what I tell them is to use rote memorization, to take copious notes, to use labels to remember people who hold various positions, to listen to their own intuitions about arguments, and to go back to a point they aren't confused about (if they get confused) and try to see how the author gets from the point they aren't confused about to the point they are confused about. The method rewards effort, and I generally get positive feedback from it.

  2. It's hard for me to determine what kind of philosophical assignment this sort of praise would be apt for.

    I mean, when I was an undergraduate, none of my papers involved my working very hard, so I would've laughed off any remarks about how much work I'd put into it. Similarly for any logic assignment. But then, maybe I'm not the kind of student who would benefit from such remarks.

    Maybe this sort of comment would work in the classroom: "That's a good question, Nancy. You must be thinking really hard about these issues."

    Really, though, I'd like to know how to encourage the mastery-oriented mindset when I'm giving criticism rather than praise.

  3. Justin - I really like the spirit of your approach. One of the messages of Dweck's work is that students with the 'fixed' mindset often feel disempowered by the academic tasks set before them. Your suggestions are ways of illustrating that, with the right kinds of efforts, success is possible (which of course is a necessary precondition of success being actual!).

    Kevin - I guess I don't see the kind of assignment as being the relevant issue, but the tone and message of the feedback we provide. Consider a three-part classification of feedback:
    - praising/criticizing people
    - praising/criticizing products
    - praising/criticizing efforts or processes

    I imagine few of us literally praise (or criticize) our students in 'fixed' terms (i.e., you're good at/suck at philosophy). But I suspect we give a lot of product-based feedback, in part, because products (exams, papers, etc.) are the natural opportunities for feedback. And when I look at the comments I provide to students on their writing, much of it is about the product (your thesis is succinctly stated, this text is integrated well into the argument, etc.) and not much about how the product got generated. Maybe for students with Dweck's fixed mindset the lack of comments concerning the process reinforces their belief that either you have or do not have the intellectual facility to do these tasks. I.e., they take our comments as evidence concerning what their fixed abilities are. I'm not saying I'm an expert on providing feedback that refers to efforts and processes, only that I recognize that such feedback could counteract the fixed mindset and encourage the mastery mindset.

    It might also be valuable to think of 'feedback' broadly, not just as feedback to individual students on individual tasks they've already completed. Here are some things I've tried that seem to be more in the mastery mindset:
    - If you have the time and resources, write an end-of-term evaluation for each student: just a couple of paragraphs noting their areas of progress, areas they need improvement on, etc. I've found that not only do students appreciate something narrative instead of simply an impersonal letter grade, they seem pleased to see that their efforts do, over time, lead somewhere.

    - Have students write about their plans and efforts. I've occasionally made it a condition of students doing paper rewrites that they write a plan for the revisions they intend to make. Again, this helps forge a mental link between the need to be deliberate about one's learning efforts and the eventual outcomes of those efforts.

    - Do a survey of students with regard to a single academic task. I once took a simple survey of a class after the midterm paper, asking each student how long they spent on different components of the writing task (developing the thesis, revising, etc.). I distributed the results to the students, highlighting the positive (albeit imperfect) correlations between time and effort on the one hand and paper grades on the other.

  4. Those are interesting ideas. I'll have to give them some thought. Thanks!


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