Help Students Practice Lack-of-Effort Explanations for Poor Performance

Click for video about practicing lack of effort.

TNKCAPFeedback is essential for learning and performance.
Researchers are increasingly finding that feedback has many boundary conditions: It is not as simple as either-you-get feedback-or-you-do not. The style and content of feedback is also important. For example, Carol Dweck (1975) found that, following failure, many students profited when teachers commented that the students did not seem to be trying hard enough. Those students —especially the ones who anguished over their failure— improved even more after they practiced the same explanation for failure: “I didn’t put out enough effort.” Dweck’s reasoning was that effort explanations are readily changeable; decisions about how much effort to expend are under personal control. By comparison, explanations that rely on more stable reasons —such as “I am not good at this”— are beyond personal control. If a student blames failure on lack of ability, then there is nothing much to do about it. Unfortunately, attributions for failure, practiced again and again, become self-fulfilling prophecies. After several years of practice, unwittingly reinforced by teachers’ hints about ability, student attributions for failure become resistant to change.

Dale Schunk (1984) showed that successful students who received feedback complimenting their skills (as discussed in the previous section), rather than solely focusing on their effort, developed higher self-efficacy and learning. So skill attributions for success seems to result in higher expectation for future skill development, whereas simple effort attributions may prompt students to question their competence since they apparently need to work hard to succeed. In short, the Dweck and Schunk studies suggest this feedback pattern: Encourage students to use effort as an explanation for failure, and the skills they have developed as an explanation for success.

Do not attribute poor performance to lack of ability and caution parents to avoid it as well.  You have probably heard parents make statements such as “I was never very good at math, and my son is just like me” or “I had to work so hard in science, and my daughter is the same way.” Such statements set the stage for low self-efficacy. When students do not do well, a combination of modeling and goal setting techniques (discussed in future sections) can be implemented along with friendly encouragement to “try harder.”

Keep in mind…

  • Help students practice lack-of-effort explanations when they perform poorly, while drawing attention to the skills they have. You might say, “You know how to use a ruler, but you need to be more careful reading the numbers.”

Check Your Understanding:

  • When students do not do well, spend time discussing the skills they need to develop.
    True   False

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