Giving Students the Keys to Control Their Own Learning Outcomes

Much of our job as educators is to get kids to do hard things and things they are not good at; these are necessary actions in the learning process.

The Engagement Equation outlines the process by which we can empower students to take on challenges, persist, make mistakes, and do the things good students do. This is especially important for educators working with intervention students, which in truth is most teachers. In California, state testing data shows that more than half of students in the state are not meeting benchmarks, and only one-third of 11th graders are prepared for college math courses. Based on data like this, we can safely assume a large number of students will need to know how to take on challenging tasks and do things they are not good at if they are going to be college- and career-ready.

In my previous post, I focused on the need for a task to have some sense of purpose and connection to a student’s life if we want him or her to persist when things get difficult. Similarly, we should not expect students to work hard, recover from mistakes, and take chances if they do not believe their actions will have any direct influence on their learning. Why would anyone persist and do hard things if they believe their efforts have no bearing on the outcome?

What the Research Says

This makes directly teaching students about the control they have over their learning and achievement an important aspect of being an exceptional teacher. This idea is what makes the research of Dr. Carol Dweck, Lisa Blackburn, and The Mindset Scholars Network so important. Their work focuses on teaching students that they can influence the outcomes in their life through actions. 

In Mindset, Dweck explains that students who attribute outcomes to factors under their control, particularly effort, are more:

  • Persistent
  • Receptive to instruction
  • Willing to learn from others
  • Honest about their performance
  • Willing to take on challenges
  • Willing to take risks
  • Accurate in their estimations of their abilities
  • Likely to view failure as temporary
  • Likely to take action when depressed
  • Resilient after failure 

Another influential Stanford University researcher, Dr. Albert Bandura, described this sense of control over outcomes as the root of human motivation. He explains: “Whatever other factors serve as guides and motivators, they are rooted in the core belief that one has the power to effect changes by one’s actions.” 

An Analysis

These researchers highlight the simple idea that if students don’t believe what they do matters in terms of their learning and achievement, why would they be willing to put forth the effort to do hard things? In my experience, this idea can be particularly important for African Americans, women, students with disabilities, and other stigmatized groups. As a mentor, I saw firsthand the frequent struggle of many African-American boys trying to figure out if a particular outcome was due to their skin color or their actions. It scared me to wonder how corrosive this struggle must be for their motivation and sense of control.

The table below combines the learning-focused mindset research with Bandura’s research on sense of control. Whenever a student has a new experience—in this case, let’s say failing a math test—her brain’s job is to answer, “Why did that happen?” How she answers this question will have a large impact on her subsequent confidence and motivation to take future math tests. If the student believes, as many young people do, that her prospects for math are permanently fixed, she may be inclined to see little purpose in trying harder or learning new strategies. In contrast, students with a learning mindset are more inclined to see the results as temporary.

A student’s sense of control will also influence her future efforts. If a math student believes improving her math skills is dependent on external factors, there is little sense in worrying because there is not usually much we can do to change external factors. 

Internal factors tend to be things we can control; however, as the table shows, if a student believes his or her poor grade is the result of a permanent internal factor such as intelligence, gender, or skin color, once again there is little point in trying to change something that is permanent. So the goal of skilled educators is to teach students to adopt a narrative that gives them a learning mindset in which successes and failures are temporary and can be changed, along with an internal a sense of control so they can see they are capable of making those changes take place. 

The belief that one has control over their learning, self-efficacy, may help us understand why so many students seem highly capable yet consistently underachieve. As Bandura explains, efficacy is grounded in the belief that people “can make chance happen by pursuing an active life that increases the number and type of fortuitous encounters they will experience. Chance favors the inquisitive and venturesome, who go places, do things, and explore new activities.” 

If you’re like me, as a teacher you are often alarmed at how quickly students are willing to say, “I give up, I can’t do this.” So, when we are thinking of those students in whom we see so much potential but have a hard time getting to complete basic assignments, we may want to ask how would they answer the questions: “Does this matter to me?” and “Do I have control over the outcome?”

Learned Helplessness

As educators we are all aware of what happens when students answer “no” to the question of whether they have control over the outcome. Once students lose this sense of control, they become at increased risk of developing one of the most well-researched and damaging traits in psychology: learned helplessness

Learned helplessness is most easily explained as giving up and is associated with depression and many related illnesses. As the former head of the American Psychological Association, Dr. Martin Seligman, found in his research that when someone no longer believes he can improve the quality of his life, the focus shifts from improving his circumstances to learning to cope with the circumstances as they are. Naturally, then, there is often a consistent decline in performance.  

As a behavior specialist, this pattern of learned helplessness often goes something like this: A student arrives at school with some social and/or academic deficits. Over time as she struggles in class and becomes isolated socially, she eventually realizes, “Gosh, school is not something I am good at, and the kids here don’t really like me.” Once this happens, many students shift their focus from trying to get better and making friends to how do I get out of here? This is when the problem behavior escalates. Many times, a specialist will come in to address the problem behavior or the learning challenges.  However, as long as the belief that she is not smart enough, pretty enough, or popular enough remains, the student’s efforts often remain pretty minimal, especially when things get challenging.

Teaching Students the Power They Possess

There is a wealth of research documenting the importance of the question, “Do I have control over the outcome?” under different variations—in particular, descriptions of self-control, Duckworth’s descriptions of grit, Seligman's descriptions of resilience, Baumeister’s descriptions of willpower, Posner’s descriptions of effortful control, Dweck’s descriptions of mindset, Haggard's descriptions of volition, Bandura’s descriptions of self-efficacy, or Csikszentmihalyi’s descriptions of autoelic personality. The great thing about the work of Dweck and others at the Mindset Scholars Network is that they consistently build on our understanding of the importance of this sense of control to focusing on how we can teach students to have this understanding.

As the researchers at the Mindset Scholars Network explain, there are two primary ways to promote a learning mindset; through direct instruction and through the feedback we provide. Researchers have found that brief lessons teach students “that the brain is like a muscle—when you challenge it, it gets stronger.” This strategy was used to reverse the common downward trajectory of a group of middle school students in math and produce many other positive effects associated with a learning mindset. With struggling students, the goal of our interventions is to shift the student’s narrative about her ability to take a math test in the hope of changing how she prepares for tests, and thus changing her results. 

Additionally, researchers have shown the powerful impact of feedback, praise, and criticism. As the Mindset Scholars Network explains, “Researchers have also observed that parents’ and teachers’ everyday interactions with students can create mindsets that support or undermine resilience.” The initial research on mindset showed us that when adults focus praise on process rather than ability, children are more willing to take on challenges, ask questions, bounce back from defeats, and persist. More recently, research has suggested that how we as adults respond to the failure of our students or children is likely more important than how we praise them. 

As Haimovitz and Dweck explain, “Parents who believe failure is a debilitating experience have children who believe they cannot develop their intelligence … These parents react to their children’s failures by focusing more on their children’s ability or performance than on their learning.” While educators have long recognized the importance of having students believe hard work pays off, this research is an exciting next step that helps us see how we can teach this and empower our students with a sense of control over their life.


Learn more about HMH’s new K-12 Into Reading and Into Literature programs, which embed learning-focused mindset strategies into your lessons.