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How do students think and learn?
Dasha Bunks
Liberty University
PSYC 775 - Teaching of Psychology
Dr. Winn
Students who believe intelligence is malleable and not fixed are more likely to adhere to an
“incremental” or “growth” mind-set about intelligence. Those who hold the opposite view, that
intelligence is a fixed trait, tend to adhere to the “entity” theory of intelligence. Students holding to the
latter view focus on performance goals and believe they continually need to demonstrate and prove
their intelligence, making them more hesitant to take on highly challenging tasks and more vulnerable to
negative feedback than students holding an incremental view. Students with an incremental mind-set
generally focus on learning goals and are more willing to take on challenging tasks in an effort to test
and expand (as opposed to defensively prove) their intelligence or ability. Hence, they rebound more
easily from negative feedback and failure. Accordingly, students who believe that intelligence and ability
can be enhanced tend to perform better on a variety of cognitive tasks and in problem-solving
situations. One evidence-based approach to fostering a growth mind-set is framed in terms of the
attributions teachers assign to student performance. When students experience failure, they are likely
to ask “why?” The answer to that question is a causal attribution. Causal attributions, which relate to
growth and entity mindsets, respectively, distinguish motivated from unmotivated students. Attributions
that tend to blame one’s ability (“I failed because I’m just not smart enough”) are associated with the
view that intelligence is fixed. In contrast, attributions that blame lack of effort (“I failed because I didn’t
try hard enough”) generally reflect an incremental or growth view of intelligence.
Students are better able to cope when failure is attributed to a lack of effort rather than to low
ability because the former is unstable (effort fluctuates over time) and controllable (students can
generally try harder if they want to).
Relevance for Teachers
When teachers attribute a student’s poor performance to controllable and modifiable causes,
such as lack of effort or poor choice of strategy, they afford students the expectation or hope that things
can be different in the future. Teachers can foster student beliefs that their intelligence and ability can
be developed through effort and experiences with applying different strategies:
• Teachers can convey to students that their failure at any given task is not due to lack of ability
but rather that their performance can be enhanced, particularly with added effort or through the use of
different strategies. Attributing failure to low ability often leads students to give up when they
encounter failure. Hence, when students believe their performance can be improved, they are fostering
a growth mind-set that can bring motivation and persistence to bear on challenging problems or
• Teachers should avoid generating ability-based attributions when a task is moderately easy. For
example, when teachers praise a student by saying “You’re so smart” after the student has finished a
task or quickly figured out an answer to a relatively unchallenging problem, the teacher may
inadvertently encourage that student to associate smartness with speed and lack of effort. These
associations become problematic when students are later presented with more challenging material or
tasks that require more time, effort, and/or the use of different approaches.
• Teachers need to be judicious in their use of praise, making sure the content of that praise is
tied to effort or successful strategies and not ability. Indirect and subtle cues about low ability can be
unintentionally communicated by teachers, especially when they are attempting to protect the self-
esteem of failure-prone students. For example, offering praise for success on a relatively easy task may
not be reassuring or reinforcing to the student. In fact, such praise may undermine motivation because
it suggests a student does not have the ability to succeed at a more difficult task (e.g., “Why is my
teacher praising me for getting these easy problems right?).
2 • When presenting students with challenging materials and tasks, teachers may want to be
aware of situations in which students expend minimal, modest, or incomplete effort. This self-
handicapping may reflect a student’s fear of embarrassment or failure (“If I don’t even try, people will
not think I’m dumb if I fail”).
• When teachers are consistent in their offer of help to all students and communicate mild and
constructive criticism following failure, students are more likely to attribute their failure to lack of effort
and to believe teachers’ expressions of high expectations that they will do better in the future.
Unsolicited offers of help by a teacher, especially when other students do not receive help, and
sympathetic affect from a teacher following student failure can be interpreted by students as indirect
and subtle cues about low ability. To be clear, we are not suggesting that teachers should never praise
or help their students or that they should always express disappointment (rather than sympathy) or
offer constructive criticism (rather than compliments). The appropriateness of any feedback will depend
on many factors based on teacher judgment of the situation. The general message is that attribution
principles, which are intricately linked to mind-set, help explain how some well-intentioned teacher
behaviors may have unexpected, or even negative, effects on students’ beliefs about their own abilities.
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