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How to think differently about midterms and other exams

Rodolfo Mendoza-Denton, professor of psychology | March 4, 2011

As any working parent knows, sometimes you have to think creatively to juggle work and childcare. Just recently, it was my turn: I had to teach, my spouse was busy, and our 5-year old son was out of school. So I decided to take him to my 250-person lecture.

There he sat in the front row, flanked by two students. I was proud of him when he shared his candy with them; they in turn gave him paper and a pencil. As he settled into drawing, I started class, and was soon comfortably in my teaching groove.

That is, until about ten minutes into the lecture, when my son suddenly raised his hand. It wasn’t a cool, college hand raise. It was one of those incredibly eager, hyper-extended, falling-out-of-your-chair hand raise of a grade schooler competing to be called upon. Five hundred eyes immediately went to him, and the room went totally silent. Trying not to grimace, I called on him.

His eyes went wide with delight, and with a huge grin, he blurted,

“Blah blah blah blah blah!”

The auditorium roared. In this magical moment, somewhere between Peanuts and Monty Python, everyone understood a 5-year old’s perspective on the Socratic method.

The next class, with my son back at school, we all laughed again at the moment. But — now serious– I took the chance to tell them my fear that when I begin talking about statistics, some students only hear, well, blah blah blah blah blah. One student told me so point blank after lecture recently, disclosing that she mostly followed the lecture, but that when I started in on the lingo, her eyes literally glazed over.

It was a gesture that I deeply appreciated, because she was admitting a trouble spot for her at the same time that she was giving me feedback and reaching out. It was also courageous: instead of taking the path of least resistance– disengagement– the student chose to face the fear many students share of simply and irreducibly not being good at math.

This type of self-narrative– I’m just no good with numbers, or my natural gifts lie in this and not that, or I was born to do X — all share a common assumption that what we are good at comes from deep within, and is somehow pre-programmed within us. In other words, it is not subject to change, and our task in school then becomes to find what we are bad and what we are good at. Consider for a moment how much our culture emphasizes this immutable notion of ability and personal qualities– from the personality tests in magazines that promise to tell you who you really are, to IQ tests on the internet that can quantify your intelligence, to the reliance on ability tracking throughout the educational system. It even shows up in the praise for our children, when we say to them, “you’re smart!” In each of these instances, the culturally shared assumption that our abilities are fixed is both reified and promulgated.

This assumption can be dangerous for learning.

Imagine yourself as a youngster, faced with some easy math problems. You get all of them right, and proud of your achievement, you show them to a teacher or a parent. They smile approvingly and say “Wow, you’re so smart!” This is exactly what Claudia Mueller and Carol Dweck did in an experiment in 1998, but they added an additional twist. While some of the children received the feedback that they were smart, other children received the feedback “you must have tried really hard!” Both types of feedback praised the children, but the key difference was that one of them emphasized innate or fixed ability (you’re so smart!) and the other emphasized the role of the kids’ effort (you tried hard!).

Here is where the experiment got interesting. In the second phase of the study, all of the children were given really difficult math problems, which all of the children– by design– did poorly on. The third phase of the study was the critical one. Having all experienced failure, all of the children were again given simple math problems, very much like the first ones they all did well on. The results were startling– whereas the children who had been given effort praise did better on these new problems the second time around, the children who had been given ability praise did considerably worse on these new, similarly easy problems.

Research shows that when we adopt a view that our abilities are fixed or immutable, things go great as long as we keep doing well– but really fall apart when we experience difficulty. Why? Because if you have an immutability mindset, experiencing difficulty or doing badly can only mean one thing– that you are in fact not smart, or, at best, simply bad at this subject. Given this, what is there left for you to do? Disengage, dismiss the lingo, and let your eyes glaze over. By contrast, when we adopt a view that we can grow our abilities through effort, we experience difficulties as challenges and as learning opportunities, and adopt a goal of learning. In short, an effort mindset buffers us against the difficulties that all of us are bound to face when learning new things (see also this blog by PT blogger Heidi Grant, who did much of this research).

My students are about to take a midterm in the lecture class that my son sat in. I showed them this clip on the first day of class, and I can think of no better time to remind them of it than now.

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Cross-posted from Psychology Today