Friday, 11 May 2012

Be careful when comforting struggling students

Previous research tells us that students who see intelligence and ability as fixed will tend to give up when confronted by a difficult problem, whereas those who see intelligence as growable will persevere. But how do teachers' beliefs about ability affect the way they perceive and respond to their students' performance?

A new investigation led by Aneeta Rattan, together with Carol Dweck, the doyenne of this area, and Catherine Good, began by asking 41 undergrads about their beliefs regarding maths ability (e.g. did they agree that "You have a certain amount of math intelligence and you can't really do much to change it"?). Asked to imagine they were a maths teacher responding to a student's initial poor maths exam result, those undergrads who endorsed this fixed "entity" theory of maths ability tended to jump to conclusions - assuming that their student had struggled because he or she lacked maths ability.

A second study was similar but went further and showed that undergrad participants who believed ability is fixed were more likely to say that they'd comfort their student for his or her poor maths ability (e.g. they said they'd "explain that not everyone has maths talent"), and that they'd pursue strategies such as setting the student less maths homework.

A third study elevated the realism levels a little by recruiting postgrads who worked as teachers or research demonstrators in their university departments. The same findings emerged - participants who saw maths ability as fixed were more likely (than those who saw ability as malleable) to make premature, ability-based assumptions about the reasons why a student was struggling, and they were more likely to respond by comforting the student for their poor ability and by pursuing counter-productive teaching strategies, such as encouraging the student's withdrawal from the subject.

So, what's it like for a struggling student to receive this kind of treatment from their teacher? A final study with 54 students asked them to imagine they'd struggled at an initial maths test. Some of them then received comforting feedback ("I want to assure you that I know you're a talented student in general, it's just the case that not everyone is a maths person. I'm going to give you some easier tasks ... etc"); others received constructive strategy tips (e.g "I'm going to call on you more in class and I want you to work with a maths tutor"); and others received neutral, control feedback. The key finding here was that the students who received the comforting feedback felt their teacher had low expectations for them and felt less encouraged and optimistic about their future prospects in the subject.

Rattan and her colleagues said their findings pointed to some important real-world implications. University teachers who form fixed-ability judgements about their students and who provide comfort may be well-intentioned, but they risk derailing their students' chances before they've even had the opportunity to get going. "As upsetting as poor performance may be to a student," the researchers concluded, "receiving comfort that is oriented toward helping them to accept their presumed lack of ability (rather than comfort that is oriented toward helping them to improve) may be even more disturbing."
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ResearchBlogging.org


Rattan, A., Good, C., and Dweck, C. (2012). “It's ok — Not everyone can be good at math”: Instructors with an entity theory comfort (and demotivate) students. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 48 (3), 731-737 DOI: 10.1016/j.jesp.2011.12.012

Post written by Christian Jarrett for the BPS Research Digest.

7 comments:

  1. I agree with this I mean if I was struggling at any point, I would hate to be comforted. Overall, an excellent piece of research

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  2. It depends on what you mean by "comfort". If it consists of assuring a student that this is just the first step on a journey of exciting discovery so they should't expect too much of their walking skills yet, then I think comfort is good.

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  4. Anonymous12:18 am

    As a teacher of Special Education, it is important to focus on the pluses of a student's ability; what they CAN DO, rather than on what they cannot do. To strengthen and reinforce the plus, while neither diminishing nor downplaying their weaknesses, is the goal.
    I struggled all through middle school, high school, and college, but did not expect any special favors or help in the process. I believe this was what made me realize I WAS THE ONE IN CONTROL and had to either pull it together, or sink.
    Now, as an itinerant Special Education teacher who works mainly with at risk adolescents, I think I can truly identify what so many of these struggling kids are going through..............I was one of them!!!
    Comforting a student has its place, but should only be utilized to give that student confidence in HIS OWN ABILITIES; not to be used as a crutch or excuse for poor performance.

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  5. Very interesting studies. There is much to consider when planning lessons for my students.

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  6. I love this study as it corrobates my own teaching experience. I have taught many children with learning challenges such as dyslexia and dyspraxia. I prefer to approach their learning with an external obstacle approach rather than an internal failing. Eg with students challenged by dyslexia I continually place the blame with Samuel Johnson and his dictionary compilation and also the wierd English language where one sound can be made by a stunning combination of letters, eg 'oo' is blue, youth, tooth (though look is 'ugh') through,and so on. With this approach learners are empowered to confront the challenges rather than be overwhelmed by a feeling of inadequacy.

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  7. Anonymous10:39 pm

    I wonder how the student's perspective on fixed vs malleable ability affects how he interprets such messages. The safest guess is that they will add up to some extent.

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