As a student, are you learning or image oriented?

1 03 2011

Clay Tucker-Ladd, Ph.D

According to Dweck (1986) and other researchers, there are two basic types of students: (a) learning oriented –those wanting to learn and gain competence and (b) image oriented –those wanting to look smart and/or avoid looking dumb. We all want to build our self-esteem but we try to do it in different ways. While over-simplified, there are clusters of findings crudely associated with these two types. Understanding these types may help the schools help students and each student self-help.

Learning oriented students see intelligence as changeable (“I can learn to learn this stuff” or “I can get smarter”). They enjoy learning, often fascinated with special topics, such as dinosaurs, geography, some phase of history, politics, women’s rights, pollution, nutrition, etc. They see low grades as due to a lack of effort or a poor strategy, which they can change. Pride is based on amount of effort they put in, not on looking smart. They work hard. Being unchallenged is boring and offers no chance to test or prove themselves. Thus, even if they don’t feel they are real bright, they will take on tough, challenging intellectual tasks, risking failing on an assignment. More boys take this attitude than girls.

Image oriented students see intelligence as permanently fixed. They consider it very important that others see them as smart or, at least, not stupid or naive. Since doing well is assumed to be due to brains and not effort, there isn’t much need to work hard. In fact, if a person has to work hard to learn something, that suggests they aren’t very smart. And, if you do poorly, there isn’t anything you can do about it. You were born that way. Naturally, such a person would avoid difficult challenges if doing poorly seemed likely (especially true of bright girls or women). They tend to be less curious, less interested in new ideas and in learning about themselves. Their pride is based on good impression management, not on honest, careful estimates of their ability. They avoid testing their limits. Thus, the student’s level of confidence is shaky–one low quiz score, one criticism of them, one foolish statement by them raises their own doubts about their intelligence. Even high achievers fall into this trap; their worry about their image reduces the intrinsic satisfaction they get out of learning.

Schools have recently attempted to build students’ self-esteem, sacrificing perhaps the acquisition of knowledge. Three popular principles guide many teachers: give lots of positive reinforcement, expect students to do well (self-fulfilling prophesy), and build the students’ self-esteem. All sound commendable. All may be harmful in certain circumstances. Examples: Expecting and rewarding success on easy assignments does not encourage a student to tackle hard tasks. Being “successful” on easy tasks doesn’t build self-confidence, it makes students feel dumber. Children know their limits aren’t being tested. Students are being mislead if they are subtly taught that it is easy to succeed as a student. That’s a lie. It’s deceptive because you haven’t been encouraged to dig deeply into topics, to feel the delight of uncovering fascinating new knowledge until you know more about a topic than anyone else, to realize the depth and complexity and wonder associated with almost any subject, to interact with others who know more and are also excited about learning in many areas, etc.

  • The greater the island of knowledge, the longer the shoreline of wonder.
    -Anonymous

Becoming motivated to study

A recent study by Mihaly Csikzentmihalyi indicates that to become motivated to learn in school, (a) you must learn to genuinely enjoy reading and studying and using the information (usually telling others about it), (b) you must be given support and challenge at home and school so that you willingly take on tough assignments, realizing that you will occasionally not do well or not get done, (c) you must feel competent and be taught or tell yourself that doing poorly on an assignment or a test basically means that you need to work harder or take a different approach or both, and (d) you must, in most cases, believe the information learned is worthwhile (at least for passing the exam).

So, if you were an undisciplined person, like John, how could you become motivated to study and gain self-confidence?

  • Learn “I am responsible”–that the more you study, the more you learn and the better your grades are. Thus, you begin to feel more responsible for what you get out of school. How exactly can you do this? (a) Keep records of how much you study and compare your grades when you have studied a lot with times when you study very little. (b) Prove to yourself that you are in control of your grades, no one else, not the teacher, not the exam, not luck.
  • Learn “I can be in control”–that you are capable of directing your life. How? (a) Schedule more study time and reward your promptness and increased effort. (b) Carefully measure the greater efficiency you achieve, e.g. how much more of the last few paragraphs do you remember when studying intensely? (c) Remember: doing poorly simply means you should try harder. Take pride in your self-control.
  • Learn “I have ability”–that you have more ability than you previously thought. How? (a) Have more success by developing skills, like reading and test taking skills. (b) Get more information about your ability, such as aptitude test results or a respected person’s honest opinion. (c) Increase your feelings of competence.
  • Learn “I value learning”–that you can value studying and success in school more. How? (a) Write down all the benefits of doing well in school. (b) Remind yourself that each successful step in school means three things–you are earning a chance to continue, you have what it takes to succeed, and you have done something worthwhile. (c) Make use of what you learn, e.g. tell others, interact with others who can add to your knowledge, apply the knowledge in other classes or at work, etc.
  • Learn “I may deceive myself”–that you, like others, are capable of remarkable self-deceiving and self-defeating thought processes which interfere with many important activities in your life, ranging from doing your best in school to trying out for the track team or asking the smartest person in school for a date. How? (a) Observe your attributions, especially your excuses, and double check their accuracy. (b) Overcome your fears by doing whatever scares you (if it is safe)! (c) Attend closely to your self-concept, including self-efficacy and attitudes about changing, and find the best views for you.

You need to realize that change is possible before you can change. In recent years, a procedure called attribution retraining has been successful in increasing peoples’ motivation to do better in school and other settings. In most cases, the experimenter persuaded the subjects that their failure at a task (e.g. grades) was due to a lack of adequate effort. Not surprisingly, later the subjects tried harder and did better. In other studies, seniors told freshmen about their grades improving markedly or a professor described almost flunking out as a freshman, but, with help of a friend, he started to take his studies seriously, eventually excelling in graduate school. By implication or explicitly, these success stories tell us that we too can change and that good grades result from hard work and persistence day by day, not just before exams and during the last week of the semester. Furthermore, the more effort you put in, the more you learn; the more you learn, the more able you are to do well.

Actually, some researchers have reported that the above success stories improved exam scores a week later and even GPA and Graduate Record Exam scores months later. Improvement was greater in students who believed they had little control over their lives. However, if students can improve their grades after a couple of effort-improves-grades stories, then why don’t the hundreds of you-can-change-your-life stories told by friends and parents or on TV or in the movies, have the same effect on all of us? One possibility is that our belief in our own self-control is very situation specific , i.e. the success story of an average-turned-super insurance salesperson would probably not inspire a high school freshman to study harder.

Studies of female valedictorians and other academically gifted women often find that they “drop out” of college or graduate school. At the very least, almost every very bright woman finds it necessary to frequently deny or hide her intelligence. Men and women find highly able women threatening. You may think sexism is in the past, but being superior is especially hard for women. Walker & Mehr (1993) provide help for gifted women who want to achieve their potential.

Reproduced with permission of:

Clay Tucker-Ladd, Ph.D. and Mental Health Net

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