25 August 2011

Reacting to Results

On Monday I attended a lecture given by Carol Dweck of Stanford University on her theory of Mindsets, which I wrote about in an earlier post. One of the interesting aspects of this theory is the response to success or failure on tasks. 

When students receive marks back from tasks completed, Carol Dweck suggests their responses can often fall into two categories: mastery oriented versus helpless oriented responses.

Those with a mastery oriented approach see the feedback as a chance to confront and overcome obstacles and reach a higher level of performance. Their lack of success in the task is not tied to their self-worth so they don’t see the poor result (whatever that might be) as a reflection of who they are as a person. Rather, they see the result for what it is - an indicator of their learning at that time. As these students are self-monitoring, they are able to consider how they might go about improving. This could take the form of meeting with teachers, rewriting tasks for both content and stylistic improvements, conducting research into more sophisticated concepts, or peer discussions/tutoring. What stands out about these students is that they do not see themselves as failing and they do not blame anyone or anything for their result.

Students with a helpless response quickly denigrate their abilities and blame their intelligence for the poor result (failure).  A poor result (in their eyes) is seen as proof that ability is lacking, often despite recent or present successes. Students with this response find themselves with few strategies to overcome the problem and can stop applying themselves altogether. Occasionally they will call attention to other successes, but more often the perceived failure may swamp any successes they have experienced. When asked to persist, many claim that they are bored or they choose not to engage fully in the task in order to manage their stake in the situation.

What can we do about this?

We need to make students aware of some of the current brain research so they can understand that their brains are constantly in a state of flux. When one realises that change is possible, one is able to see all experiences as opportunities for learning.

We have to encourage students to see all tasks as assessments for learning. Using the language around this concept enables students to see themselves as being on a learning journey. 

We can challenge their thinking each time it is verbalised. As Carol Dweck said, every time a student says "I can't do this", we respond with, "yet". This may also mean structuring tasks so that students get the opportunity to resubmit in order to show what they have learnt from the first result.

We can reward the effective learners as well as the high achievers. This needs to be high stakes reward too, the equivalent of awards given at prize-giving days or the like. 

These are just few ideas. It would be great to have other suggestions in the comments section below. 


  1. Some of this material I also covered in an earlier post called Tinkering for the 21st Century Learner: http://thethinkingteacherchronicle.blogspot.com/2011/02/tinkering-for-21st-century-learner.html

  2. I completely agree with the comments above about assessment and how students use it to either move ahead oras a tool for self criticism . My concern is though, how do we provide enough regular, individual feedback to students? Is marking the only way? I know students self assessing their work is really important to their learning but ultimately it's our assessment of them which they place most value in...were their any good ideas offered in regards to how we can assess more but not increase an already crowded marking schedule? Particularly in those classrooms where there are 30 students?

  3. cant believe i spelt there incorrectly? i must self assess more!