Can comforting students who struggle in math demotivate them—and decrease the number of students pursuing math-related subjects?
Four recent studies say yes on both counts. The studies investigated whether holding a fixed theory of ability—that is, believing that ability is innate—leads teachers not only to comfort students for their perceived low ability following failure but also to use practices that promote students’ long-term low achievement.
These are the report’s major findings:
Instructors who held a fixed theory of math intelligence more readily judged students to have low ability in math than those who held a malleable theory, which supposes that people can improve their abilities through hard work and practice.
Instructors who held a fixed theory of math intelligence were more likely to judge that a student had low ability on the basis of a single initial poor performance. They were also more likely to comfort students for their apparent lack of ability and use “kind” strategies that failed to motivate the students to improve, such as assigning less homework and not calling on them in class.
Students who received comfort-oriented feedback—as opposed to more strategy-focused feedback—assumed the instructor had low expectations for what they might accomplish as well as lower engagement in their learning, even when that feedback was expressed positively—as in, “I know you’re a talented student in general; it’s just that not everyone is a math person.” Moreover, these students had lower expectations and motivation concerning their own abilities and performance. According to the authors, “It is not the case that instructors who believed math intelligence to be fixed failed to consider students’ best interests. Instead, it appears that their fixed view of intelligence led them to express their support and encouragement in unproductive ways that ultimately backfired” (p. 716). The authors conclude that an education system that focuses on accepting weaknesses is not as positive as intended.
Authored by Aneeta Rattan, Catherine Good, and Carol S. Dweck, the report is titled, “It’s OK—Not Everyone Can Be Good at Math: Instructors with an Entity Theory Comfort (and Demotivate) Students.” The report appeared in the April 2012 issue of the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology.