January 5, 2012

Instructors with a fixed mindset more likely to comfort and demotivate struggling students

“It's ok - not everyone can be good at math”: Instructors with an entity theory comfort (and demotivate) students

By Aneeta Rattan, Catherine Good, and Carol S. Dweck

Abstract: Can comforting struggling students demotivate them and potentially decrease the pool of students pursuing math-related subjects? In Studies 1–3, instructors holding an entity (fixed) theory of math intelligence more readily judged students to have low ability than those holding an incremental (malleable) theory. Studies 2–3 further revealed that those holding an entity (versus incremental) theory were more likely to both comfort students for low math ability and use “kind” strategies unlikely to promote engagement with the field (e.g., assigning less homework). Next, we explored what this comfort-oriented feedback communicated to students, compared with strategy-oriented and control feedback (Study 4). Students responding to comfort-oriented feedback not only perceived the instructor's entity theory and low expectations, but also reported lowered motivation and lower expectations for their own performance. This research has implications for understanding how pedagogical practices can lock students into low achievement and deplete the math pipeline.

Highlights
  • Fixed theory of math ability leads to diagnosing low ability from one test score 
  • Fixed theory of math ability also leads to comforting students for low ability 
  • Fixed theory of math ability also leads to practices unlikely to promote engagement
  • Comfort feedback leads students to perceive a fixed theory, express low motivation
  • Implications for how teaching behaviors can lock students into low achievement

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