Today: Tue Feb 18 18:27:39 2020

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Academic Tenacity: Mindsets and Skills that Promote Long-Term Learning (Carol S. Dweck, Gregory M. Walton & Geoffrey L. Cohen)

In a nationwide survey of high school dropouts, 69 percent said that school had not motivated or inspired them to work hard. In fact, many of the students who remain in school are not motivated or inspired either, and the more time students spend in K–12 education the worse it gets. This lack of motivation to do well in school represents a serious loss of human potential, with implications for students’ well-being later in life and for our country’s future economic growth. What prevents students from working hard in school? Is it something about them or is it something about school? More important, is there a solution to this problem?

Most educational reforms focus on curriculum and pedagogy—what material is taught and how it is taught. However, curriculum and pedagogy have often been narrowly defined as the academic content and students’ intellectual processing of that material. Research shows that this is insufficient. In our pursuit of educational reform, something essential has been missing: the psychology of the student. Psychological factors—often called motivational or non-cognitive factors—can matter even more than cognitive factors for students’ academic performance. These may include students’ beliefs about themselves, their feelings about school, or their habits of self-control.

Defining Academic Tenacity

The non-cognitive factors that promote long-term learning and achievement can be brought together under the label academic tenacity. At its most basic level, academic tenacity is about working hard, and working smart, for a long time. More specifically, academic tenacity is about the mindsets and skills that allow students to:

What does academic tenacity look like? Academically tenacious students exhibit the following characteristics and behaviors:


Students’ Mindsets about Their Intelligence:

Students’ beliefs about their academic ability influence their academic tenacity. If students are going to invest their effort and energy in school, it is important that they first believe the effort will pay off. Research shows that students’ belief in their ability to learn and perform well in school—their self-efficacy—can predict their level of academic performance above and beyond their measured level of ability and prior performance. Students’ belief in their ability to be successful in school can be fragile, however, and a critical question for academic tenacity is how well students’ self-efficacy survives when they confront inevitable challenges in school. Are there non-cognitive factors that can help us understand the basis for hardy, resilient self-efficacy?

Students may view intelligence as a fixed quantity that they either possess or do not possess (a fixed mindset) or as a malleable quantity that can be increased with effort and learning (a growth mindset).

Students with a fixed mindset believe that their intellectual ability is a limited entity, and they tend to worry about proving it rather than improving it. They are often full of concerns about their ability, and this can lead, in the face of challenges and setbacks, to destructive thoughts (e.g., “I failed because I’m dumb”), feelings (such as humiliation), and behavior (giving up). By contrast, students with a growth mindset will often perceive the identical challenge or setback in an entirely different light—as an opportunity to learn. As a result, they respond with constructive thoughts (e.g., “Maybe I need to change my strategy or try harder”), feelings (such as the excitement of a challenge), and behavior (persistence). This mindset allows students to transcend momentary setbacks to focus on long-term learning.

Analyses showed that the students with a growth mindset earned higher grades because they valued learning over looking smart. They saw effort as a virtue, because effort helps to develop ability. And they tended to perceive academic setbacks as a call to increase their effort or to try new strategies. Students with a fixed mindset, on the other hand, were less likely to welcome challenges that could reveal shortcomings. They saw effort in a negative light, because many believed that effort is a factor that indicates low ability rather than a factor needed to express or increase ability. They also tended to see academic setbacks as evidence that they lacked ability.


... Self-control was an even stronger predictor of success than a student’s IQ score...

Even if students have the mindsets and goals that encourage tenacity, they may still perform below their potential. But self-regulatory skills—those that allow students to rise above the distractions and temptations of the moment, stay on task, and navigate obstacles to long-term achievement—also contribute to academic tenacity and school achievement.

Most educators are familiar with the “marshmallow” studies conducted by Walter Mischel and his colleagues in the 1970s. In these studies, preschoolers in the Bing Nursery School at Stanford University were given a choice between having one marshmallow whenever they wanted, simply by ringing a bell and summoning the experimenter, or having two marshmallows if they waited for the experimenter to return on his own. Children’s responses varied greatly. Some rang the bell only seconds after the experimenter had left the room, while others waited the full time—an interminable 15 minutes. Years later, Mischel and his colleagues followed up with the participants and found a significant positive correlation between children’s ability to wait as preschoolers and their SAT scores when they were seniors in high school. The longer students waited for two marshmallows at age 4, the better their SAT scores.

In an age in which children encounter more and more distractions—such as Facebook, Twitter, and text messages—the ability to turn off distractions to focus on a difficult academic task may become increasingly important for success in school and in life.

Another important factor in academic tenacity is grit, or “perseverance and passion for long-term goals.” Self-control involves the ability to resist temptation and control impulses in the short-term, whereas grit emphasizes perseverance in the pursuit of long-term goals.

As psychologist Angela Duckworth and her colleagues wrote in 2009, “An individual high in self-control but moderate in grit may, for example, effectively control his or her temper, stick to his or her diet, and resist the urge to surf the Internet at work—yet switch careers annually.” Because high levels of achievement require sustained effort on difficult tasks, grit will be an important predictor of remaining in and succeeding in school.

Students who have a growth mindset about intelligence, learning goals, a higher-order purpose, and a sense that they belong in school may well show more grit in their academic work. Academic success requires more than ability. It requires the application of ability and the growth of ability through sustained hard work. Mindsets, goals, and self-regulatory skills—non-cognitive factors that contribute to academic tenacity—play key roles in this enterprise.

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