How Do We Think About Learning?

By Jaclyn Zubrzycki — March 28, 2012 3 min read
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When people are stressed, their ability to perform various tasks can be compromised. This stress can be created by high-stakes situations, especially when achievement is thought to reflect on a group of which you are a member (i.e., gender or race). But new research from the Université de Poitiers and Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique in Poiters, France, indicates that this stress can also be created by some of our unspoken assumptions about intelligence and learning.

In Western societies, intelligence and achievement are often equated with one another, which means that “experiencing difficulty or failure may then constitute a potential psychological threat to self-image because it may be interpreted as revealing intellectual incompetency,” the researchers write. This leads to stress: “We argue that merely experiencing difficulty spontaneously generates interfering thoughts about incompetence that can tax working memory.” Working memory capacity, or WMC, is the amount of information we can hold in our heads while working on another task, and is related to general intelligence and complex cognition.

In “Improving Working Memory Efficiency by Reframing Metacognitive Interpretation of Task Difficulty,” published in March’s Journal of Experimental Psychology, researchers Frédérique Autin and Jean-Claude Croizet conducted three tests to examine how framing the learning process affected 6th graders’ performance on a test.

In the first, 111 6th graders were given a ten-minute-long anagram task that was challenging enough that no student answered it correctly. The students knew the tests would not impact their academic grades. The children were placed in one of three groups: one that simply took the test (the treatment conditioned referred to as normal in the study); one that was questioned about the difficulty they experienced in the task (the “difficulty without reframing” group); and one that was told that that experiencing difficulty was normal and an indicator that learning was occurring (referred to as “difficulty with reframing”). Afterwards, the students took a listening span task, in which students had to listen to a sentence and indicate whether it made sense and what the last word was. The students who were in the “difficulty with reframing” group performed better on the listening span test, while the other two groups had close-to-equivalent performance.

In the second task, 131 different 6th graders were given a similar anagram task before taking a reading-comprehension test. The students were assigned to four groups: “difficulty without reframing,” “difficulty with reframing,” “normal,” and “success.” Students in the “success” group were given an easier priming task than the other students. The reading-comprehension scores of the students in the “difficulty with reframing” group were again notably higher than the scores of all other groups. The students in the “success” group had marginally higher scores than the “difficulty without reframing” and “normal groups.”

In the final task, yet another group of 68 6th graders was divided into groups (this time, just “difficulty without reframing” and “difficulty with reframing”) and given the anagram test. After taking the test, the students were asked to take a self-description test. The students in the “difficulty without reframing” group were more likely to take longer to reject words associated with incompetence and to select words that indicate competence and warmth.

Though the researchers don’t use these terms, this seems to be speaking to the idea of promoting a growth (rather than a fixed) mindset. The researchers say their results back the hypothesis that reframing the experience of difficulty can improve student performance, though reframing is likely to be more powerful in Western cultures than in cultures that understand failure as part of growth. They call for more research into the cultural variability of the influence of reframing.

But the potential of telling students that difficulty and even failure are part of learning is great, the researchers write. “Being able to increase, at virtually no cost, children’s ability to retain and manipulate information...offers promising prospects for application in education.”

A version of this news article first appeared in the Inside School Research blog.