Thursday, March 7, 2013

Task praise revisited

Six years back, I praised Carol Dweck's work on how different forms of praise shape our attitudes toward learning. Me quoting me quoting Dweck:

"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.
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.”

Now comes more corroboration for the advantages of task praise over 'person praise': Daniel Willingham reports on a study about how different forms of praise influenced those with low self-esteem. Children were administered questionnaires to measure self-esteem and then  asked to play a computer game that tested reaction time. Children were praised for their performance, either 'process style '("you did a great job!"!) or person style ("you're great!") They then played a second game, in wihch some won and some lost, and were asked how they felt (humiliated, etc.) . Read yourself, but the upshot is that the earlier person praise made  subsequent failures sting more,for those with low-self esteem whereas those who get 'process praise' rebound from failure more quickly:

the person praise makes the children with low-self-esteem feel more invested in the game, more like they have something at stake. So when they lose, they feel more shame. The high-self esteem students, in contrast, shrug off the loss, even after the person praise because they generally feel more secure about their abilities. 

The message that adults are biased to do exactly the wrong thing--try to "buck up" kids with low-self esteem by offering person praise ("you're a great kid!") when these children will actually suffer more after a failure if they have received this praise. 
So I'll ask again: Are we instructors careful about the sorts of praise we give? How should we approach providing students feedback and criticism in ways that  that help Dweck's "mastery-oriented" mindset take root?

1 comment:

  1. I've read Dweck's work and incorporated it how I talk to students about the content and class work, rather than how I praise student work. From the beginning of my classes, esp. intro, I talk about how reading and doing philosophy gets easier with more practice and while it can be frustrating students shouldn't give up or think "i'm just not good at philosophy." I tell them how I failed the first philosophy assignment I ever had, but I kept working at it. In other words, I try to explicitly inculcate a growth mindset. I use the same techniques when discussing paper assignments. I talk about what the early drafts of my papers look like - not pretty and in upper division courses I'll share the early drafts - and point out that their ideas on a topic are likely to change and deepen with time and effort. I require drafts and allow for rewrites, which is possible because I have relatively small classes.


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