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Homework answers / question archive / 1) “Brainology : Transforming Students’ Motivation to Learn ” by Carol S

1) “Brainology : Transforming Students’ Motivation to Learn ” by Carol S


1) “Brainology : Transforming Students’ Motivation to Learn ” by Carol S. Dwec k

This is an exciting time for our brains. More and more research is showing that our brains change

constantly with learning and experience and that this takes place throughout our lives.

Does this have implications for students' motivation and learning? It certainly does. In my research in

collaboration with my graduate students, we have shown that what students believe about their brains —

whether they see their intelligence as something that's fixed or something that can grow and change — has

profound effects on their motivation, learning, and school achievement (Dweck, 2006). These different

beliefs, or mindsets, create different psychological worlds: one in which students are afraid of challenges

and devastated by setbacks, and one in which students relish challenges and are resilient in the face of


How do these mindsets work? How are the mindsets communicated to students? And, most important, can

they be changed? As we answer these questions, you will understand why so many students do not

achieve to their potential, why so many bright students stop working when school becomes challenging,

and why stereotypes have such profound effects on students' achievement. You will also l earn how praise

can have a negative effect on students' mindsets, harming their motivation to learn.

Mindsets and Achievemen t

Many students believe that intelligence is fixed, that each person has a certain amount and that's that. We

call this a fixed min dse t, and, as you will see, students with this mindset worry about how much of this fixed

intelligence they possess. A fixed mindset makes challenges threatening for students (because they

believe that their fixed ability may not be up to the task) and it makes mistakes and failures demoralizing

(because they believe that such setbacks reflect badly on their level of fixed intelligence) .

Other students believe that intelligence is something that can be cultivated through effort and education.

They don't ne cessarily believe that everyone has the same abilities or that anyone can be as smart as

Einstein, but they do believe that everyone can improve their abilities. And they understand that even

Einstein wasn't Einstein until he put in years of focused hard w ork. In short, students with thi s growth

mindse t believe that intelligence is a potential that can be realized through learning. As a result, confronting

challenges, profiting from mistakes, and persevering in the face of setbacks become ways of getting

sma rter .

To understand the different worlds these mindsets create, we followed several hundred students across a

difficult school transition — the transition to seventh grade. This is when the academic work often gets

much harder, the grading gets stricter, and the school environment gets less personalized with students

moving from class to class. As the students entered seventh grade, we measured their mindsets (along

with a number of other things) and then we monitored their grades over the next two years.

The first thing we found was that students with different mindsets cared about different things in school.

Those with a growth mindset were much more interested in learning than in just looking smart in school.

This was not the case for students with a fix ed mindset. In fact, in many of our studies with students from

preschool age to college age, we find that students with a fixed mindset care so much about how smart

they will appear that they often reject learning opportunities — even ones that are critica l to their success

(Cimpian, et al ., 2007; Hong, et al ., 1999; Nussbaum and Dweck, 2008; Mangels, et al ., 2006). 2

Next, we found that students with the two mindsets had radically different beliefs about effort. Those with a

growth mindset had a very straightforward (and correct) idea of effort — the idea that the harder you work,

the more your ability will grow and th at even geniuses have had to work hard for their accomplishments. In

contrast, the students with the fixed mindset believed that if you worked hard it meant that you didn't have

ability, and that things would just come naturally to you if you did. This mea ns that every time something is

hard for them and requires effort, it's both a threat and a bind. If they work hard at it that means that they

aren't good at it, but if they don't work hard they won't do well. Clearly, since just about every worthwhile

pur suit involves effort over a long period of time, this is a potentially crippling belief, not only in school but

also in life.

Students with different mindsets also had very different reactions to setbacks. Those with growth mindsets

reported that, after a setback in school, they would simply study more or study differently the next time. But

those with fixed mindsets were more likely to say that they would feel dumb, study less the next time, and

seriously consider cheating. If you feel dumb — permanently d umb — in an academic area, there is no

good way to bounce back and be successful in the future. In a growth mindset, however, you can make a

plan of positive action that can remedy a deficiency. (Hong. et al ., 1999; Nussbaum and Dweck, 2008;

Heyman, et al ., 1992)

Finally, when we looked at the math grades they went on to earn, we found that the students with a growth

mindset had pulled ahead. Although both groups had started seventh grade with equivalent achievement

test scores, a growth mindset quickly pro pelled students ahead of their fixed -mindset peers, and this gap

only increased over the two years of the study.

In short, the belief that intelligence is fixed dampened students' motivation to learn, made them afraid of

effort, and made them want to quit after a setback. This is why so many bright students stop working when

school becomes hard. Many bright students find grade school easy and coast to success early on. But later

on, when they are challenged, they struggle. They don't want to make mistakes a nd feel dumb — and, most

of all, they don't want to work hard and feel dumb. So they simply retire.

It is the belief that intelligence can be developed that opens students to a love of learning, a belief in the

power of effort and constructive, determined reactions to setbacks.

How Do Students Learn These Mindsets?

In the 1990s, parents and schools decided that the most important thing for kids to have was self -esteem. If

children felt good about themselves, people believed, they would be set for life. In some quarters, self -

esteem in math seemed to become more important than knowing math, and self -esteem in English seemed

to become more important than reading and writing. But the biggest mistake was the belief that you could

simply hand children self -estee m by telling them how smart and talented they are. Even though this is such

an intuitively appealing idea, and even though it was exceedingly well -intentioned, I believe it has had

disastrous effects.

In the 1990s, we took a poll among parents and found th at almost 85 percent endorsed the notion that it

was necessary to praise their children's abilities to give them confidence and help them achieve. Their

children are now in the workforce and we are told that young workers cannot last through the day withou t

being propped up by praise, rewards, and recognition. Coaches are asking me where all the coachable

athletes have gone. Parents ask me why their children won't work hard in school. 3

Could all of this come from well -meant praise? Well, we were suspicious o f the praise movement at the

time. We had already seen in our research that it was the most vulnerable children who were already

obsessed with their intelligence and chronically worried about how smart they were. What if praising

intelligence made all chil dren concerned about their intelligence? This kind of praise might tell them that

having high intelligence and talent is the most important thing and is what makes you valuable. It might tell

them that intelligence is just something you have and not someth ing you develop. It might deny the role of

effort and dedication in achievement. In short, it might promote a fixed mindset with all of its vulnerabilities.

The wonderful thing about research is that you can put questions like this to the test — and we did (Kamins

and Dweck, 1999; Mueller and Dweck, 1998). We gave two groups of children problems from an IQ test,

and we praised them. We praised the children in one group for their intelligence, telling them, "Wow, that's

a really good score. You must be smart at this." We praised the children in another group for their effort:

"Wow, that's a really good score. You must have worked really hard." That's all we did, but the results were

dramatic. We did studies like this with children of different ages and ethnic ities from around the country,

and the results were the same.

Here is what happened with fifth graders. The children praised for their intelligence did not want to learn.

When we offered them a challenging task that they could learn from, the majority opte d for an easier one,

one on which they could avoid making mistakes. The children praised for their effort wanted the task they

could learn from.

The children praised for their intelligence lost their confidence as soon as the problems got more difficult.

Now, as a group, they thought they weren't smart. They also lost their enjoyment, and, as a result, their

performance plummeted. On the other hand, those praised for effort maintained their confidence, their

motivation, and their performance. Actually, their performance improved over time such that, by the end,

they were performing substantially better than the intelligence -praised children on this IQ test.

Finally, the children who were praised for their intelligence lied about their scores more often than the

children who were praised for their effort. We asked children to write something (anonymously) about their

experience to a child in another school and we left a little space for them to report their scores. Almost 40

percent of the intelligence -praise d children elevated their scores, whereas only 12 or 13 percent of children

in the other group did so. To me this suggests that, after students are praised for their intelligence, it's too

humiliating for them to admit mistakes.

The results were so strikin g that we repeated the study five times just to be sure, and each time roughly the

same things happened. Intelligence praise, compared to effort (or "process") praise, put children into a

fixed mindset. Instead of giving them confidence, it made them fragi le, so much so that a brush with

difficulty erased their confidence, their enjoyment, and their good performance, and made them ashamed of

their work. This can hardly be the self -esteem that parents and educators have been aiming for.

Often, when children stop working in school, parents deal with this by reassuring their children how smart

they are. We can now see that this simply fans the flames. It confirms the fixed mindset and makes kids all

the more certain that they don't want to try something difficult — something that could lose them their

parents' high regard. 4

How should we praise our students? How should we reassure them? By focusing them on the process they

engaged in — their effort, their strategies, their concentration, their perseverance, or their improvement.

"You really stuck to that until you got it. That's wonderful!"

"It was a hard project, but yo u did it one step at a time and it turned out great!"

"I like how you chose the tough problems to solve. You're really going to stretch yourself and learn new


"I know that school used to be a snap for you. What a waste that was. Now you really hav e an opportunity

to develop your abilities."


Can a growth mindset be taught directly to kids? If it can be taught, will it enhance their motivation and

grades? We set out to answer this question by creating a growth mindset workshop (Blackwell, et al .,

2007). We took seventh graders and divided them into two groups. Both groups got an eight -session

workshop full of great study skills, but the "growth mindset group" also got lessons in the growth mindset —

what it was and how to apply it to their schoolwork. Those lessons began with an article called " You Can

Grow Your Intelligence: New Research Shows the Brain Can Be Developed Like a Mus cle ." Students were

mesmerized by this article and its message. They loved the idea that the growth of their brains was in their


This article and the lessons that followed changed the terms of engagement for students. Many students

had seen school a s a place where they performed and were judged, but now they understood that they had

an active role to play in the development of their minds. They got to work, and by the end of the semester

the growth -mindset group showed a significant increase in their math grades. The control group — the

group that had gotten eight sessions of study skills — showed no improvement and continued to decline.

Even though they had learned many useful study skills, they did not have the motivation to put them into


The teachers, who didn't even know there were two different groups, singled out students in the growth -

mindset group as showing clear changes in their motivation. They reported that these students were now

far more engaged with their schoolwork and were pu tting considerably more effort into their classroom

learning, homework, and studying.

Joshua Aronson, Catherine Good, and their colleagues had similar findings (Aronson, Fried, and Good,

2002; Good, Aronson, and Inzlicht, 2003). Their studies and ours also found that negatively stereotyped

students (such as girls in math, or African -American and Hispanic students in math and verbal areas)

showed substantial benefits from being in a growth -mindset workshop. Stereotypes are typically fixed -

mindset labels. The y imply that the trait or ability in question is fixed and that some groups have it and

others don't. Much of the harm that stereotypes do comes from the fixed -mindset message they send. The

growth mindset, while not denying that performance differences mi ght exist, portrays abilities as acquirable

and sends a particularly encouraging message to students who have been negatively stereotyped — one

that they respond to with renewed motivation and engagement. 5

Inspired by these positive findings, we started to think about how we could make a growth mindset

workshop more widely available. To do this, we have begun to develop a computer -based program called

"Brainology." In six computer modules, students learn about the brain and how to make it work better. They

follow two hip teens through their school day, learn how to confront and solve schoolwork problems, and

create study plans. They visit a state -of-the -art virtual brain lab, do brain experiments, and find out such

things as how the brain changes with learnin g — how it grows new connections every time students learn

something new. They also learn how to use this idea in their schoolwork by putting their study skills to work

to make themselves smarter.

We pilot -tested Brainology in 20 New York City schools. Vir tually all of the students loved it and reported

(anonymously) the ways in which they changed their ideas about learning and changed their learning and

study habits. Here are some things they said in response to the question, "Did you change your mind abou t


I did change my mind about how the brain works…I will try harder because I know that the more you try,

the more your brain works.

Yes... I imagine neurons making connections in my brain and I feel like I am learning something.

My favorite thin g from Brainology is the neurons part where when u learn something, there are connections

and they keep growing. I always picture them when I'm in school.

Teachers also reported changes in their students, saying that they had become more active and eager

learners: "They offer to practice, study, take notes, or pay attention to ensure that connections will be


What Do We Value?

In our society, we seem to worship talent — and we often portray it as a gift. Now we can see that this is

not motivating to our students. Those who think they have this gift expect to sit there with it and be

successful. When they aren't successful, they get defensive and demoralized, and often opt out. Those

who don't think they have the gift also become defensive and demorali zed, and often opt out as well.

We need to correct the harmful idea that people simply have gifts that transport them to success, and to

teach our students that no matter how smart or talented someone is — be it Einstein, Mozart, or Michael

Jordan — no one succeeds in a big way without enormous amounts of dedication and effort. It is through

effort that people build their abilities and realize their potential. More and more research is showing there is

one thing that sets the great successes apart from their equally talented peers — how hard they've worked

(Ericsson, et al ., 2006).

Next time you're tempted to praise your students' intelligence or talent, restrain yourself. Instead, teach

them how much fun a challenging task is, how interesting and informative errors are, and how great it is to

struggle with something and make progress. Most of all, teach them that by taking on challenges, making

mistakes, and putting forth effort, they are making themselves smarter.



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