When Bright Kids Get Bad Grades

1 09 2009

by Adria Steinberg

In elementary school, no one worried about Rhonda. Her sixth-grade teachers found her bright and capable and expected her to do well in junior high. Although sometimes anxious in class, Rhonda was aware of being one of the smartest kids–especially when she go another 100 on a spelling test or was the first to finish a math packet.

But seventh grade was more of a trial for Rhonda than anyone had predicted. Some B’s slipped onto her report card, and her attitude toward school changed dramatically. Most upsetting to her parents was her declaration, after getting a 75 on a pre-algebra test, that she was not good at math and would probably put off taking algebra.

Most teachers and parents expect a child’s grades and achievement test scores in sixth grade to be fairly accurate predictors of success in junior high. But, as Rhonda’s story illustrates, this is not necessarily the case.

Why do some bright children start avoiding academic challenges when they reach junior high and stop liking some or all of their classes? Carol Dweck of Columbia University has discovered three areas in which students who continue to meet or exceed expectations differ from those who become “underachievers”: their beliefs about intelligence, their responses to difficult academic tasks, and the rewards they look for from schoolwork.

Born or Made?

Most children, according to Dweck, start out with an “incremental” view of intelligence: they think a person gets smarter by learning things and trying hard. But by third or fourth grade kids have encountered–and many have begun to hold–an “entity” theory. According to this view, you are born with a certain amount of native ability that determines how smart you are.

The question is whether these beliefs about intelligence affect students’ performance in school. Although Dweck has found a difference between the ways incremental and entity theorists approach academic tasks, she has not found a link between beliefs and elementary school grades. But there is evidence from a recent study that such a link develops when students move on into junior high.

Dweck and Valanne Henderson of the University of Illinois questioned 229 entering seventh grades about intelligence. Nearly two-thirds (139) showed a consistent preference for either an entity or an incremental theory. The researchers then used another measure to divide the students in each group into those with high and low confidence in their own abilities.

Comparing students’ grades and achievement test scores in sixth grade with their seventh-grade report cards, Henderson and Dweck found some surprises. They expected that entity theorists who had been low achievers would remain so. But in fact many of those who had performed well in sixth grade–and had entered seventh confident of their abilities–were now receiving grades below those predicted by previous performance.

Meanwhile, incrementalists maintained their performance at a level equivalent to or better than their elementary school grades. Even those who had not done especially well in sixth grade–and had begun seventh with low confidence–matched or exceeded their predicted performance. Perhaps most surprising, the low-confidence incrementalists earned higher grades than the high-confidence entity theorists.

In fact, students who held entity theories and had high confidence at the start of seventh grade showed the most pronounced decline of any group. When Henderson did a follow-up study of these same kids at the end of eighth grade, she found continued low performance. They had not recovered from the seventh-grade slump.

I Think I Can’t

To explain this decline, Dweck looks at the way children answer the question “When do you feel smart?” Incrementalists cite times when they put effort into something, when they don’t understand something and then get it, or when they figure out something new. In contrast, entity theorists point to times when a task is easy for the, when not much effort is required, when they do not make mistakes, or when they finish first.

Insofar as learning involves putting effort into challenging tasks, entity theorists are caught in a serious bind. What they do to feel smart and what they must do to learn new things are at odds.

For the past decade, Dweck and her colleagues have investigated why and how some children end up in this bind. Dweck has identified two distinct, coherent patterns in the ways children approach difficult academic tasks.

In the maladaptive or “helpless” pattern, children define themselves as having failed soon after reaching a difficult problem, usually attributing their difficulties to a lack of ability and predicting poor future performance. In one experiment they even had distorted recall of past successes: more than a third believed that if the earlier problems were administered again they would have trouble with ones that in fact they had successfully solved.

Children manifesting a more mastery-oriented, adaptive pattern respond to difficulty by issuing more self-instructions and by planning strategies to overcome failures. In the same experiment, many of these students spontaneously expressed confidence that they would succeed in the future. Twenty-five percent began to use more sophisticated problem-solving strategies than evidenced in earlier, simpler tasks, in all, 80 percent of the mastery-oriented children maintained or improved their strategies as the tasks got more difficult.

No Pain, No Gain

In trying to explain these two patterns, Dweck discovered that the two groups focus on different goals, which can lead them to construe and react to events differently. Those who believe that intelligence is a fixed trait tent to pursue the aim or proving they have it. Setting what Dweck calls performance goals, entity theorists seek positive evaluations of their abilities and try to avoid negative ones.

In one experiment, children who focused on performance goals rejected the chance to learn something new if it involved any risk of error or confusion. They seemed very vulnerable to losing confidence in themselves and thus to falling into the helpless pattern.

In contrast, children who focus on mastery and hence set learning goals are likely to persist in the face of difficulty. They see effort as something that activates ability rather than as an indicator of low ability. When facing challenging academic tasks, they view these as opportunities to get smarter–a much more adaptive response.

Girls at Risk

While most of Dweck’s studies involve the upper elementary grades, she and Henderson emphasize that early adolescence is the period most likely to bring out and solidify maladaptive patterns of achievement. The increased importance and uncertainty of success in junior high create a climate in which students want to avoid academic challenges.

What can teachers or parents do to allay anxiety about school and encourage young people to invest effort and pursue challenging studies? One important step is to recognize who may be vulnerable to the helpless pattern.

Asked to single out children with motivation problems, teachers will generally point to those who are not doing well. But the research shows that fifth or sixth graders can be doing fine in school while at the same time holding beliefs and goals that will later make them vulnerable.

Girls may be especially at risk. In one study, brighter girls were twice as likely as bright boys to endorse an entity theory. Three-fourths of the bright girls, but none of the bright boys, preferred academic tasks easy enough to ensure success.

How to Help

Both performance and learning goals, Henderson and Dweck note, are in everyone’s repertoire. In one study, Dweck influenced a group of children to focus on performance by heightening the evaluative aspects of the situation, and got another group to focus on learning goals by emphasizing the value of the task to be learned. In other experiments she successfully trained children to attribute failures to lack of effort rather than to low ability.

But can teachers have a similar influence on students in the classroom? Carol Ames of the University of Illinois warns against simplistic applications of motivation research to classroom practice.

For example, one lesson teachers have drawn from research is that they should provide children with success experiences and plenty of positive feedback. Although this may often by a good strategy, it is not equally helpful for all children in all situations.

When the work becomes more difficult, children who have come to expect a string of successes may fall apart. In the long run it may be better for students to learn to view their mistakes–and the feedback that accompanies these–as sources of information for future efforts rather than as evidence of low ability.

We spend too much time looking at motivation as an individual trait, says Ames, and not enough looking at “how the organization and structure of the classroom shapes and socializes adaptive and maladaptive motivation patterns.” In her work in the Champaign-Urbana schools, Ames asks teachers to investigate the possible negative effects of such daily occurrences as “public evaluation practices, normative comparisons, extrinsic rewards, ability grouping, and emphasis on production, speed, and perfection.”

What can teachers do instead? Some teachers and researchers are finding that portfolio assessment encourages students to focus more on their own learning and less on how they compare with others in the class or how the teacher judges their work.

This appears to be particularly true when self-assessment is built into portfolio work. Students write comments about their own work as they produce it and then participate in selecting certain pieces–and explaining the selections in writing–for inclusion in their final portfolio.

Charges with the responsibility for tracking their own progress, students become, in an sense, the chroniclers and judges of their own work. Perhaps, if portfolio assessment becomes widespread, more students will be able to retain their initial incremental views of intelligence and avoid falling into a helpless pattern when they reach work that is difficult for them.

For Further Information

C. Ames. “Motivation: What Teachers Need to Know.” Teachers College Record, Spring 1990.

C. Ames and J. Archer. “Achievement Goals in the Classroom: Student Learning Strategies and Motivational Processes.” Journal of Educational Psychology 76 (1984).

C.S. Dweck. “Motivational Processes Affecting Learning.” American Psychologist 41 (1986).

C.S. Dweck. “Self Theories and Goals: Their Role in Motivation, Personality and Development. In R.A. Dienstbier, ed., Nebraska Symposium on Motivation, 1990. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1991.

V.L. Henderson.” Self Conceptions of Intelligence and Developmental Transitions.” Paper presented at the Biennial Meeting of the Society for Research in Children Development, Seattle, April 1991.

V.L. Henderson and C.S. Dweck. “Motivation and Achievement.” In S.S. Feldman and G.R. Elliot, eds., At the Threshold: The Developing Adolescent, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1990.

Harvard Education Letter



One response

2 04 2010
cindy mack

I found this article very helpful. We live in Spain where the educational system is on trying to find out what the students don’t know instead of stimulating them to learn.

Exams are tricky and demoralizing for students. When a student gets a 60% he/she is thrilled for having passed the exam. It is pitiful.

thanks for your biblio.


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