Monday, April 28, 2014

Self-theories: Their role in motivation, personality, and development

Self-theories For the past year Carol Dweck has been at the top of my reading list. I first encountered Dweck's work via Jo Boaler on the Stanford How to Learn Math MOOC - still by far the best MOOC I have participated in and the only one which has any lasting influence on my world view. It's taken me a year to get there because life got in the way, but here is a summary of my feelings about Dweck's research.

Dweck, Carol S. Self-theories: Their role in motivation, personality, and development. Psychology Press, 2000. Carol Dweck's overview of fixed versus incremental intelligence. This is the academic version of Dweck's popular book Mindset.

What's this book about?
The contrast between fixed and incremental theory of intelligences, and how to foster learning by encouraging the latter. This is a staggering indictment of the education system, with its increasing emphasis on performance goals, and yet further evidence that no-one is really interested in evidence-based practice, or at least, policy.

Dweck's work is interesting because it arises from observations of helplessness in the face of failure or challenge, in comparison to a mastery-oriented mindset which is unfazed or even stimulated by challenge. She is particularly concerned about the damaging effect of person-oriented praise in engendering "contingent self-worth", which results in helplessness in the face of failure (I am a hopeless case because I have failed rather than I need to approach this differently next time). Praising inherent "intelligence" is particularly dangerous, reinforcing the entity framework rather than fostering adaptability (Dweck (2007) The perils and promises of praise). Counter intuitively, praising good work creates vulnerability to helpless responses in the face of future failure. In contrast, she views self-esteem as non-inherent - based on what students do rather than what they are.

What are the implications of Dweck's work for higher education? Dweck believes that patterns of helplessness versus mastery-oriented responses are primarily environmentally driven and fixed early in childhood. Too late then to do much about inherent qualities when students present for HE. However, there are implications for feedback design in that strategy-oriented feedback is likely to be more effective than person oriented feedback. Disturbingly little work has been done on applying Dweck's ideas in HE, although there are a few examples that stand out, notably:

How can we instill productive mindsets at scale? A review of the evidence and an initial R&D agenda. (2013) In: A White Paper prepared for the White House meeting on “Excellence in Education: The Importance of Academic Mindsets.
Contains examples of interventions in HE, e.g. as a part of online freshman orientation activities - in which students filled out medical forms and learned how to sign up for classes - all incoming students were required to complete a 30 minute overview of the “university mindset.” This had a significant effect on academic outcomes (N = 7,342).

Is no praise good praise? Effects of positive feedback on children's and university students’ responses to subsequent failures. (2012) British Journal of Educational Psychology, 82(2), 327-339.
Independent confirmation of Dweck's results.

All of which brings me to the idea of applying strategy feedback as opposed to person-oriented disapproval for staff training.

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