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For Teenagers, Praising 'Effort' May Not Promote a Growth Mindset

Teachers have long been told to praise students' effort, rather than simply saying they are "smart," as a way to encourage students to think of their intelligence as something that can grow over time. 

But teenagers can be a prickly, contrary bunch with a finely tuned skepticism for adults, and a new review of research in the journal Child Development suggests just praising the effort of middle and high school students to boost their "growth mindset" can have the opposite effect, with those adolescents praised becoming less likely to believe their work can improve their intelligence or skills.

"It seems to have this backfiring effect," said Jaime Amemiya, a University of Pittsburgh psychology researcher who co-wrote the article with psychology colleague Ming-Te Wang, University of Pittsburgh associate professor of psychology and education.  

Prior research has suggested educators can encourage students to have a growth mindset by praising students' process rather than ability. Process includes students' effort, but also the successful strategies they use. "The strategies part is really important, because that gives kids information on what they did correctly and what they can keep improving. ... But it seems like the effort praise is what has been reaching parents and teachers the most and seems the most intuitive to do."

David Yeager, an associate psychology professor and mindset researcher at the University of Texas at Austin, agreed. In his own national study of students' learning mindsets, he said when teachers reported preferring to praise students' effort alone, students weren't particularly likely to think teachers' had a growth mindset themselves. In fact, Yeager and Carol Dweck, the Stanford University researcher who first coined the term "growth mindset," have come to consider a focus on effort praise alone to be a "false growth mindset."

Problematic Culture?

That's particularly a problem in middle and high school, when many students move to bigger schools with more academically tracked classrooms and social cliques. Students become aware of class rankings and schools are more likely to promote academic stars.

"There's a shift in the environment at this time. Effort isn't seen in such a positive light as we get older, especially in the American culture," Amemiya said.  "We really admire people who are effortless achievers; they just 'get math' or 'get science' without having to work too hard."

In forthcoming research, Yeager also found that older students are less likely to believe teachers who tell them they can "make a difference" in the world unless the teacher first builds trust with her students. "When told to 'try harder,' adolescents may read between the lines and wonder 'how come other people don't have to work so hard?' At some level, we shouldn't be surprised if teenagers get offended by what adults say even when they're not trying to be insulting," Yeager said. "But it's easy to forget that, with teachers, what goes unsaid can, many times, be louder than what was said explicitly."

A Better Approach to Growth Mindset

Mary Murphy, an associate psychology professor and mindset researcher at Indiana University, was not involved with the article but agreed with its findings, noting that students of all ages can lose trust in adults who praise them for effort without specifying what was "effective" about their effort. Murphy suggested educators can give adolescents a better foundation for a growth mindset by, among other things:

  • Providing opportunities for students to reflect on their own learning. For example, instead of using assessments primarily for the teacher, let students assess themselves regularly and report back on how they have developed.
  • HIghlight mistakes in the everyday practice of learning. "Tell students, 'I don't want to know what you found easy, I want to know what you got wrong because that's where the learning will be,'" Murphy said in an email. "This naturally gets students to think about how much they are learning and developing, and will get them to think about what other strategies they could try."
  • Use group work where peers discuss what they each struggled with and explore individual strengths of different students.

The Knowledge Is Power Program, or KIPP, charter schools have been trying to teach growth mindset directly for more than a decade, and spokesman Steve Mancini said the group has changed its approach over time. "Maybe 10 years ago it was simply praising hard work, but the reality has been a lot different," Mancini said. 

Educators can also leverage teenagers' rapid social development to reinforce growth mindset, according to Leyla Bravo, a former KIPP teacher in Harlem who is founding a KIPP school in Miami. "At KIPP Infinity [middle school in Harlem] we also capitalized on positive peer pressure so that the messages of 'you can' were sent not only through the teachers but also through their peers," Bravo said in an email. "For adolescents this is particularly key because they are doing so much learning from peers during adolescence."

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