Dweck and her team at Stanford University came to this conclusion following a study of effort and praise in fifth-grade students. All students in the study were first given an easy vocabulary test. As expected, all students performed well. Then, half the students were told “ you must be smart at this,” and the other half were told “you must have worked really hard.” Students were then given the choice between another easy test and a hard test that they were told would teach them a lot. Students praised for their effort were far more likely than students praised for their intellect to opt for the more challenging test.
In a follow-up experiment, Dweck removed the choice: all students took a difficult test that they would all fail after the easy one. As predicted, the students who believed they were naturally smart found the test very stressful. The answers didn’t come easily to them; what if they weren’t smart after all? The other half of the students welcomed the challenge. Several remarked unasked that it was their favorite test. When given a third test of roughly the same difficulty as the first, the “smart” students saw their scores decline from the first test, while the “hardworking” students saw their scores increase.
These findings provide insight into the ways in which we as corps members can best inspire students to succeed. As tutors and mentors, it is often our role to coach students through their setbacks and help them develop action plans to do better in the future. Although it can be tempting to try to build up students’ morale by telling how smart they are, we could actually serve them better by helping them build the conviction that they can really succeed if they put in enough effort. By offering students the perspective that their academic performance –unlike other aspects of their lives — is one that they can control, we set students on a path to pick themselves up from their failures long after our corps years end.