Teaching Tenacity: Helping Students Reevaluate Failure as an Opportunity for Growth

By corps member Liane Toohey serving on the Comcast Team at the Brown Education Campus
One of our eighth graders looked dejectedly at the 40 percent on the top of her math quiz. She had been hoping for a better score. “I need to do better,” she said to corps member Gabrielle Ciarcia. “What can I do?” After school that day the student and Gabbie went over the quiz together until she understood every mistake she made. On the next assignment, she brought her score up to a 75.
What is it that inspires this student to persevere where another student might throw his or her hands up in defeat? Psychologist Carol Dweck found that the key lies in students’ mindset: how they think about failure.
Students who attribute their setbacks to lack of effort are more likely to persevere than students who think they struggled because they are inherently unintelligent. The key difference, Dweck believes, is that effort is something students believe they can control, and intelligence — as far as the students are concerned — is something that they cannot control.

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.


2 responses to “Teaching Tenacity: Helping Students Reevaluate Failure as an Opportunity for Growth

  1. I can say from personal experience as someone who finished high school and college early that, above everything, determination is what made these feats possible.

  2. I think this is a really important concept for us to understand. As an educator as well–I teach to mostly adults–I see first hand that the feelings toward failure as still very similar to those which we had as children. Needing to improve is nothing to feel ashamed of, it’s even admirable when we recognize it and make an effort instead of giving up. The key is offering kind encouragement and the opportunity to learn from mistakes.

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