Teachers have long been told to praise students’ effort, rather than simply saying they are “smart,” as a way to encourage them to think of their intelligence as something that can grow over time.
But teenagers can be a prickly, contrary bunch with a finely tuned skepticism for adults, and a new review of research in the journal Child Development suggests that 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.
“It seems to have this backfiring effect,” said Jaime Amemiya, a University of Pittsburgh psychology researcher who co-wrote the article with Ming-Te Wang, a University of Pittsburgh associate professor of psychology and education.
Prior research has suggested educators can encourage students to have a growth mindset by praising their process rather than ability. Process includes both students’ effort and the successful strategies they use. “The strategies part is really important, because that gives kids information on what they did correctly and what they can keep improving. ... But it seems like the effort praise is what has been reaching parents and teachers the most and seems the most intuitive to do,” Amemiya said.
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 especially likely to think teachers had a growth mindset themselves. In fact, Yeager 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.”
Afiya Fredericks, a program-implementation manager for Mindset Works Inc., a group co-founded by Dweck that works with schools to educate students about mindsets, said some practitioners have oversimplified the concept in trying to develop tools for teaching, “so praising good effort just becomes a replacement for saying ‘good job.’ It becomes sort of mindless and it’s less meaningful.”
That’s particularly a problem in middle and high school, when many students move to bigger schools with more academically tracked classrooms and social cliques. Students become aware of class rankings, and schools are more likely to promote academic stars.
“There’s a shift in the environment at this time. Effort isn’t seen in such a positive light as we get older, especially in the American culture,” Amemiya said. “We really admire people who are effortless achievers; they just ‘get math’ or ‘get science’ without having to work too hard.”
In forthcoming research, Yeager also found that older students are less likely to believe teachers who tell them they can “make a difference” in the world unless the teacher first builds trust with them.
“When told to ‘try harder,’ adolescents may read between the lines and wonder, ‘How come other people don’t have to work so hard?’ At some level, we shouldn’t be surprised if teenagers get offended by what adults say even when they’re not trying to be insulting,” Yeager said. “But it’s easy to forget that, with teachers, what goes unsaid can, many times, be louder than what was said explicitly.”
In particular, schools can undermine their work to promote growth mindset if they also allow academic or other policies that disproportionately affect certain groups of students, such as having advanced courses that disproportionately include white or wealthier students.
“The type of feedback you may give some students, or opportunities you may give one student to learn and achieve that you don’t give to others—older students are quicker to pick up on that,” Fredericks said.
More Holistic Approach
Mary Murphy, an associate psychology professor and mindset researcher at Indiana University, was not involved with the article but concurred 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 it. She suggested educators can give adolescents a better foundation for a growth mindset by, among other measures:
• Providing opportunities for students to reflect on their own learning. This allows “teachers to act as facilitators and provide constructive feedback to the students to gauge their development,” said Bobby Dodd, the principal of Gahanna Lincoln High School in Ohio.
• 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.
• Use group work where peers discuss what they each struggled with and explore individual strengths of different students.
Saluda High School in rural South Carolina adopted self-paced curricula and personalized learning in part to encourage growth mindset among its students. “Teachers celebrate differences—different learning styles, different preferences, different speeds. And that’s OK, because they’re all eventually going to show mastery of the standards in the end,” said Sarah Longshore, Saluda’s principal.
The move improved school culture, she said. “Students accept personal responsibility, are self-motivated, and feel empowered. That’s growth mindset in a nutshell—the idea that persistence eventually pays off.”
Coverage of social and emotional learning is supported in part by a grant from the NoVo Foundation. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.
A version of this article appeared in the April 11, 2018 edition of Education Week as Does Praise for Good Effort Backfire for Teenagers?