Telling Kids They’re “Smart” Causes Them to Underperform. What Should We Do Instead?

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We’ve all done it… looked at a student and said enthusiastically, “You’re so SMART!” to boost their confidence and self-esteem. But research indicates telling a student that will actually do the opposite of what you’re hoping it will do: it makes students more cautious and less confident.

Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman’s book “NurtureShock: New Thinking About Children” reveals research-based findings related to common nurturing practices in society. Here’s a summary from my favorite chapter, “The Inverse Power of Praise.”

Carol Dweck and her team of researchers at Columbia University have been studying the effects of praise on students in 20 New York schools for the last 10 years. They did four rounds of tests with fifth grade students:

Round #1:

Students completed a series of easy puzzles; they all did very well on them.

Once a student finished the test, the researchers told each student their score, and then offered one line of praise either for their intelligence (“You must be smart at this”) or their effort (“You must have worked really hard”).

Round #2:

Students could either:

1) Complete a puzzle that would be more difficult than the Round #1 puzzle; the researchers told them that they would “learn a lot from attempting it.”

2) Complete an easy set of puzzles that would be just like the Round #1 puzzles they had already completed.

  • 90% of the students praised for their effort in Round #1 chose the harder set of puzzles in Round #2.
  • The majority of the students praised for their intelligence in Round #1 chose the easy set of puzzles.

Why Avoid Praising Intelligence?

“When we praise children for their intelligence,” Dweck wrote in her study summary, “we tell them that this is the name of the game: look smart, don’t risk making mistakes.” And that’s what the fifth graders had done. They’d chosen to look smart and avoid the risk of being embarrassed” (p. 14).

Round #3:

All of the students had to complete a difficult test that was designed for students two years ahead of their grade level. All of the students failed, but the responses of the two groups were fascinating:

  • Those praised for their effort in Round #1 assumed they hadn’t focused hard enough and needed to give this test more effort.
  • Those praised for their intelligence in Round #1 assumed their failure was evidence they weren’t actually smart.

Round #4

After intentionally having the students experience a round of failure, Dweck’s research team gave the fifth grade students a final round of tests that were designed to be as easy as the Round #1 tests.

  • Those praised for their effort in Round #1 improved on their first score by about 30%.
  • Those praised for their intelligence in Round #1 scored about 20% lower on the test than they did during the first round.

Why Is Emphasizing Effort Effective?

“Emphasizing effort gives a child a variable that they can control, [Dweck] explains. They come to see themselves as in control of their success. Emphasizing natural intelligence takes it out of the child’s control, and it provides no good recipe for responding to a failure” (p. 15).

Dweck and her team have repeated these experiments and the results have held true for both boys and girls of every socioeconomic class.

The Bottom Line:

The best way to boost students’ confidence, enhance their work ethic, and increase their level of achievement is to praise their effort as they work on something… not their intelligence!  Students see intelligence as something that’s “unchangeable” and out of their control, but effort is something they can and do control.

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