How to Motivate Students to Work Harder

In an era of rising academic standards, more kids than ever will struggle and fail. But research suggests new ways to help them thrive in the face of adversity.

Over the past five years, more than $200 million has gone toward launching the new Common Core standards, with the goal of closing achievement gaps in public schools. But for all their meticulous detail about math and language curricula, the standards fail to address one important factor: the psychological barriers that stand between many students and deeper learning. Unless students are motivated to take on the new standards, and persuaded that they’re up to the challenge, the Common Core could have the unintended effect of leaving many students even further behind. 

Researchers like Stanford psychology professor Carol Dweck—best known for her 2006 book Mindset—have been gathering insights into student motivation for three decades. New work by her colleagues makes a strong case for focusing on students’ perceptions of themselves. In a variety of studies, these researchers have found that students who doubt their academic abilities, or question whether students with their particular backgrounds belong at their schools, frequently fall behind or fail at school—regardless of their innate intelligence or the quality of the teaching they receive.

The good news is that students can be buttressed psychologically to tackle academic challenges. In one instance, David Yeager of the University of Texas at Austin, who studied with Dweck, and Stanford psychology professor Geoffrey Cohen report that students of color more frequently take steps to improve their performance when they trust their teachers' commitment to helping them. For a study that was recently published in The Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, Yeager and Cohen had 7th-graders at a middle-class, racially diverse New England public middle school each write an essay on a personal hero. The teachers graded the essays the way they typically would, adding routine critical comments like "unclear," "give examples," and "wrong word."

Then the researchers randomly attached one of two sticky notes to each essay. None of the students were aware that they were part of a study and thought their teachers had written the notes. Half of them received a bland message saying, "I'm giving you these comments so that you'll have feedback on your paper." The other half received a note saying, “I’m giving you these comments because I have very high expectations and I know you can reach them”—a comment intended to signal teachers' investment in their students' success.

Then teachers offered the students an opportunity to revise their essays.

The results were striking. Among white students, 87 percent of those who received the encouraging teacher message turned in new essays, compared to 62 percent of those who got the bland note. Among African American students, the effect was even greater, with 72 percent in the encouraged group doing the revision, compared to only 17 percent of those randomly chosen to get the bland message. And the revised essays received higher scores from both the students' teachers and outside graders hired for the study.

Yeager and Cohen concluded that students were more motivated to take an extra step academically when they perceived their teachers' critical feedback as a genuine desire to help rather than as an expression of indifference or disdain toward their racial group. To further test that hypothesis, Yeager and Cohen surveyed students' trust of their teachers going into the study and found that the encouraging note had the largest effect on a subgroup of African American students who had previously reported trusting their teachers the least (as measured by survey questions such as, "My teachers … have a fair and valid opinion of me"). 

Another of Dweck's protégés, Stanford researcher David Paunesku, studied 265,000 students learning basic math through the online Khan Academy last year. Students can take Khan courses anytime, anywhere, and the program attracts students of all ages. As part of the courses, students work through practice problems on the Khan website. Paunesku found that fortifying students with a belief that hard work enhanced their academic ability—what Dweck calls a "growth mindset"—improved their performance.

In Paunesku's study, students studying fractions were randomly placed in five groups that received different types of short messages at the top of their screens. One group got a generic encouragement: "Some of these problems are hard, so just do your best." Another message shared irrelevant scientific facts, such as the relative weights of human and elephant brains. A third flashed a growth-mindset message, such as, "Remember, the more you practice, the smarter you become." A fourth included a similar message and a link to a fictitious article about "growing one's brain." And a control group of students, also randomly selected, received no message.

Paunesku found that the students who were given one of the growth-mindset messages mastered new math concepts at a rate nearly 3 percent higher than the students who received the placebo messages or no message—a significant improvement given the number of students involved and the simplicity of the strategy.

In new, not-yet-published research on students at the University of Texas at Austin, Yeager and Gregory Walton, an assistant professor of psychology at Stanford, found that "belonging uncertainty"—a sense that many students have that “people like them” don't belong in college—is also a substantial psychological barrier to student success. Working with university officials, Yeager and Walton studied belonging uncertainty among 7,335 of the university's 8,092 incoming freshman in the fall semester of 2012. As part of the campus's routine online student orientation, which included information on such things as how to sign up for courses and where to go for required vaccines, the new students worked through material compiled by Walton and Yeager (and presented to students simply as information about attending college).

Presented by

Thomas Toch is a senior partner at the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. 

Susan Headden is a senior associate at the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. 

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