How Can Teachers Develop Students’ Motivation — and Success?

Carol Dweck

Here is an excerpt from an interview of Carol Dweck by Gary Hopkins, editir-in-chief of Education World magazine. To read the complete interview, please click here.

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What can teachers do to help develop students who will face challenges rather than be overwhelmed by them? Why is it that many students seem to fall apart when they get to junior high or middle school? Can the “gifted” label do more harm than good? Do early lessons set girls up for failure? Is self-esteem something that teachers can or should “give” to students? Those are some of the questions Carol Dweck, professor of psychology at Columbia University, answers for Education World. Some of her responses will surprise you!

Carol S. Dweck is a leader in the field of motivation, personality, and developmental psychology, and her research contributions have been widely recognized. Her book, Self-Theories: Their Role in Motivation, Personality, and Development, is published by Psychology Press.

Dweck shares with Education World readers some of her thoughts about the role of motivation in learning.

Some students are mastery-oriented; they readily seek challenges and pour effort into them. Others are not. Have you been able to pinpoint in your research any direct associations between students’ abilities or intelligence and the development of mastery-oriented qualities?

This is a really interesting question, and the answer is surprising. There is no relation between students’ abilities or intelligence and the development of mastery-oriented qualities. Some of the very brightest students avoid challenges, dislike effort, and wilt in the face of difficulty. And some of the less bright students are real go-getters, thriving on challenge, persisting intensely when things get difficult, and accomplishing more than you expected.

This is something that really intrigued me from the beginning. It shows that being mastery-oriented is about having the right mind-set. It is not about how smart you are. However, having the mastery-oriented mind-set will help students become more able over time.

What can teachers do to help develop mastery-oriented students — students who will face a challenge rather than be overwhelmed by it?

Students who are mastery-oriented think about learning, not about proving how smart they are. When they experience a setback, they focus on effort and strategies instead of worrying that they are incompetent.

This leads directly to what teachers can do to help students become more master-oriented: Teachers should focus on students’ efforts and not on their abilities. When students succeed, teachers should praise their efforts or their strategies, not their intelligence. (Contrary to popular opinion, praising intelligence backfires by making students overly concerned with how smart they are and overly vulnerable to failure.)

When students fail, teachers should also give feedback about effort or strategies — what the student did wrong and what he or she could do now. We have shown that this is a key ingredient in creating mastery-oriented students.

In other words, teachers should help students value effort. Too many students think effort is only for the inept. Yet sustained effort over time is the key to outstanding achievement.

In a related vein, teachers should teach students to relish a challenge. Rather than praising students for doing well on easy tasks, they should convey that doing easy tasks is a waste of time. They should transmit the joy of confronting a challenge and of struggling to find strategies that work.

Finally, teachers can help students focus on and value learning. Too many students are hung up on grades and on proving their worth through grades. Grades are important, but learning is more important.

In your latest book, Self-Theories, you share the story of a conversation you overheard between two college students, Charles and Bob. Could you share that story with Education World’s readers?

Charles and Bob were two college students on a bus who were discussing their school experiences and their plans for the future (while I listened attentively). They both had struggled through an exceedingly difficult computer science course. One had to take it twice before he earned a decent grade. Yet they were seriously discussing whether to major in computer science! And for them the decision rested on whether they wanted to pursue something that required so much effort. The question of “ability” never entered into their discussion. Not once did either of them entertain the idea that he might not be good at computer science. For them, it was simply a matter of what they were willing to put into it.

Charles and Bob were very different from how I had been at their age. Had I needed two attempts to master a course, I would not have aired this fact in public. Nor would I have remotely considered pursuing that course of study in the future. I greatly admired Charles and Bob for their mastery-oriented qualities, and had no doubt that if they went into computer science, they would do what it took to succeed.

Learning goals were obviously more important to Charles and Bob than grades and test results (performance goals) were. Are Charles and Bob typical of most college students you meet? Or do more students seem to be performance goal-oriented? Is either of those groups of students better off?

It’s true that Charles and Bob were very learning-oriented and seemed not to be too concerned with their grade point averages. We find that many students value learning above grades. They tell us directly that it is more important to them to learn and be challenged than it is to earn the best grades. Many other students, however, tell us the reverse. They care far more about their grades than they do about learning anything or being challenged.

To my mind, it’s the balance that counts — keeping a balance between valuing learning and performance. Let’s face it, grades often matter a lot, and many students who want to go on to top graduate and professional schools need good grades. Problems arise when students come to care so much about their performance that they sacrifice important learning opportunities and limit their intellectual growth.

Problems also arise when students equate their grades with their intelligence or their worth. This can be very damaging, for when they hit difficulty, they may quickly feel inadequate, become discouraged and lose their ability or their desire to perform well in that area.

For me the best mix is a combination of (a) valuing learning and challenge and (b) valuing grades but seeing them as merely an index of your current performance, not a sign of your intelligence or worth.

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To read the complete interview, please click here.

Carol S. Dweck, Ph.D., is widely regarded as one of the world’s leading researchers in the fields of personality, social psychology, and developmental psychology. She has been the William B. Ransford Professor of Psychology at Columbia University and is now the Lewis and Virginia Eaton Professor of Psychology at Stanford University and a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Her scholarly book Self-Theories: Their Role in Motivation, Personality, and Development was named Book of the Year by the World Education Fellowship. Her work has been featured in such publications as The New Yorker, Time, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Boston Globe, and she has appeared on the Today show and 20/20. She lives with her husband in Palo Alto, California.


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