Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Is it good to think hard?


We’re in the doldrums of the school year right now.  Winter break is behind us, and the school year still has a few months to go.  It is the time of years when there is still a lot of good learning to go before classes start to focus on reviewing for end-of-year tests.

Invariably, when a student is faced with new topics, some of them are fairly easy while others are a challenge.  A particular concept in math may click, and a student breezes right through a worksheet.  That same day, a science assignment may require some real effort.  How does the amount of effort required to complete something influence whether kids (or adults for that matter) think they understand the material when they finish?

This question was examined in a paper by David Miele and Dan Molden in the August, 2010 issue of the Journal of Experimental Psychology:  General.

They begin by rooting their work in a theory by Carol Dweck that I have discussed before in this blog.  Dweck has pointed out that for many psychological characteristics, people may hold one of two mindsets.  They may believe that a particular characteristic is fixed and unchangeable or they may believe that a particular characteristic can be changed with experience and practice.

In this case, Miele and Molden focus on people’s beliefs about intelligence.  Some people believe that intelligence is fairly fixed and cannot be changed.  Others believe that intelligence is a skill that can be acquired with practice.

In these studies, the authors did a variety of manipulations of text passages that made them feel harder to read.  In some cases, the easy text was well written, while the hard text used bad sentence structure to make the same points.  In other cases, the text for each version was identical, but the font used for the text was made easy or hard to read. 

In each study, the authors looked at how well people believed they understood the material.  Of interest, the people who believe that intelligence is a skill tended to think they understood the material reasonably well regardless of whether the text was easy or effortful to read.  In fact, in some of the studies in this paper, people who believe that intelligence is a skill actually felt as though they understood a text better when it required effort to read than when it was easy to read.

The people who believe that intelligence is fixed showed a different pattern.  They judged that they understood the passages better when they were easy to read than when they were hard to read.  That is, for this group, putting in effort to read something was a sign that they did not understand the passage well.

Of interest, the judgments of how well people understood a passage were not explained by actual comprehension (as measured by tests of understanding).   Passages that were hard to read, were often comprehended more poorly than passages that were easy to read for all groups.  So, people’s beliefs about how well they understood a passage were not always accurate.

Why does this matter?

Effort in school determines performance in school.  Eventually, everyone runs into a task in school that is hard.  For years, a child may find assignments in language arts and English classes to be easy, and then suddenly she may find that the assignments are difficult. 

If that child assumes that intelligence is fixed, then when she reaches the difficult assignment, she will assume she did not understand what she read.  Effort is taken as a sign that she has reached her limits.  Eventually, this effort saps motivation, and leads to poor performance in school, and worse yet slowed new learning.

If that child assumes that intelligence is a skill, then when she reaches the difficult assignment, she will assume that she has to work harder to complete this assignment.  In this case, effort signals that it is time to learn something new.  This effort can lead to good performance in school and lots of new learning.

Happily, there is also evidence that people’s attitudes toward psychological factors like intelligence can be changed.  Many studies (including this one) have conditions in which they manipulate people’s beliefs about intelligence by giving them articles to read.  In one experiment in this paper, people acted as though they believed that intelligence was relatively fixed if they had just read a paper suggesting that intelligence is fixed and they acted as though they believed that intelligence was a skill if they just read a paper suggesting that intelligence is a skill.

The success of these manipulations suggests that we can help children to recognize that intelligence is a skill by reinforcing that belief in the classroom.  In that way, we can help students to realize that effort has real value in the classroom.

1 comment:

  1. Wonderful article. Thank you.

    Two things come to mind;
    1) When I stopped self-medicating, around 30 years ago, I could NOT read a page in a book and remember it - not even rereading helped! It was very difficult. Actually, I was born ADD, and can recall having a very tough time reading in the 3rd grade.

    Now, several decades later, I have persevered, and I am a voracious reader, with no compaints about comprehension except my executive functions cause bits to land on the floor (figuratively) on occasion.

    2) Recently, I read that if we frame hard thinking, like hard exercise for the body, it's basically the same. Both take determination and work, both burn oxygen and glucose, and both work better with exercise.

    Most importantly, as Malcolm Gladwell wrote in his book "Outliers", that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to get real proficient at anything. So, we must be patient with ourselves, and know that that neurons that fire together - wire together (no sure who coined that phrase).

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