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."

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.
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