Student Motivation: Are You Accidentally Sabotaging It with the Wrong Mindset?
Did you know that praising your students and children for good grades is the worst thing you can do for them? It sounds counter-intuitive, but Carol Dweck, Ph.D. has discovered, unequivocally, that it is true.
Praising results sabotages effort! In her fascinating book, Mindset, Dr. Dweck explains all motivational challenges, wonderments, and mysteries according to two different mindsets: fixed and growth.
A student with a FIXED mindset will:
- Think that effort is bad.
- Be interested in proving their ability (typically with grades or scores).
- Feel smart when they are flawless.
- Believe that outcome is everything.
A student with a GROWTH mindset will:
- Think that effort is good.
- Be interested in growing and being challenged, rather than focusing on grades and scores.
- Feel smart when they are learning, being challenged, and figuring things out.
- Believe that process is everything.
When we praise grades and scores, students internalize these numbers as reflections of their value. This sets them up to be devastated by a poor grade. Most significantly, they may stop making an effort.
Students with a fixed mindset avoid effort like Superman avoids kryptonite. They believe effort is a sign of weakness. They believe they are either smart, or they are not—and if they have to put effort into being successful, they must not be smart!
As Dr. Dweck explains, “Risk and effort are two things that might reveal your inadequacies and show that you are not up to the task. It is startling to see the degree to which people with the fixed mindset do not believe in effort.”
Unfortunately, we as parents and educators are quick to praise grades, scores, and results. When we do this, however, we risk sending damaging messages to our students that extinguish motivation. For example:
Message given: “You learned so fast! You are so smart!”
Message internalized: If I don’t learn fast, I am not smart.
Message given: “Look at that drawing Maggie did. She is the next da Vinci.”
Message internalized: I shouldn’t draw anything hard from now on or they’ll see I’m no da Vinci.
Message given: “You’re so brilliant; you got an A without studying.”
Message internalized: I’d better stop studying or they won’t think I’m brilliant.
Praising children’s intelligence by praising scores and outcomes harms their motivation and their performance. If success = smart, then failure = dumb. This mindset leaves no room for trial and error, mistakes, and discoveries… the fruits that come from effort.
If any of your students have motivation problems you can bet that, with few exceptions, they have fixed mindsets. It’s no wonder we have a motivation problem in this country; from the top down, more and more pressure is put on performance and scores. As the stakes get higher, students’ motivation gets lower!
But, There Is Good News: A Fixed Mindset Can Grow!
Dr. Dweck describes two ways to help students with fixed mindsets develop growth mindsets:
First, you must focus all your praise on effort. Dr. Dweck’s research found that there are very few exceptions to this rule. In a wide variety of settings, she found that any praise of results, even in small and isolated tasks, changed the nature of the students’ motivation and their level of effort. (The same goes for adults, too.)
Second, teach students about brain biology and mindsets… in the context of study skills! From previous educational research, Dr. Dweck knew that it was important to keep standards high for students, but also to give them the support and tools to reach those high standards. She concluded that this empowering mix of skills was the best way to cultivate a mindset of growth.
From her two scientific studies, she concluded that this instruction worked; motivation and grades skyrocketed! She noted something I have observed in my study skills classes for years: “You may think students are turned off, but I see that they never stop caring. No one gets used to feeling dumb!”
When I was a struggling student, my motivation was completely transformed when I learned how to learn… and learned that I didn’t have to feel stupid. Even though Dweck’s research is relatively new to me, I have always believed in study skills as a powerful key to motivation.
Like Dr. Dweck, I have also found that teaching students about their brains is very motivating. Students love to learn about themselves… and this helps them understand why strategies work. They love to see videos on neuron connections and learn that, when they learn something new, they are making connections… and growing their brains! It’s a very powerful lesson!
“This is more useful and interesting than any other class!”
~ Shane D., 9th Grade Student
The SOAR® Study Skills curriculum includes videos and other multi-media lessons about the brain. Learn more here.
SOAR® is perfectly aligned to meet Response to Intervention guidelines. The team of school psychologists in Prince George County, VA discovered that over 50% of the students referred to them for academic problems simply lacked organization and study skills! This is what the RTI model was intended to fix. The SOAR® model is a natural fit with all tiers of RTI, as illustrated here.
To our students’ success,
Susan Kruger, M.Ed.