Does This Matter to Me?

One of the greatest challenges secondary teachers face is how to motivate their students. By middle school, students have a good idea of where they fall in the academic hierarchy and based on past experience can reliably predict how the school year is going to go.

For struggling students, the years of repeated failures may cause them to develop a sense of helplessness. In psychology, this experience is called learned helplessness—a sense of powerlessness due to repeated failure. Signs of learned helplessness may sound familiar to most middle and high school teachers: passivity, giving up, procrastination, decreased problem-solving ability, frustration, and low self-esteem. Some researchers believe this sense of helplessness contributes to depression and many other forms of mental illness.

Quite simply, if a student is four grade levels behind, she may wonder, what’s the point in trying? When students reach this conclusion and the sense of helplessness sets in, they will likely shift their focus from how to improve to how to cope and make the most of the hopeless situation. This becomes one of the most challenging and frustrating problems teachers face: How do we convince struggling students with a history of failure to persist?

Building from my previous post, this post continues to summarize the wealth of psychological research around student mindset and motivation by focusing on the second question we must help students answer if we want them to do hard things, take chances, ask questions, and make mistakes: “Does this matter to me?” In spite of our best efforts as teachers, learning to cross-multiply fractions, memorizing the periodic table of elements, or practicing the intricacies of comma placement are not fun. Students, like all people, will not put forth the effort, time, and struggle necessary to master these skills unless they feel it has a relevance to their life. According to the mindset research, there are two possible pathways to shifting how students answer this question: communicating high expectations and helping students see how school connects to their future and values.

“Why Am I Here?”

When a student has failed virtually every math test for six years, it is reasonable for him to expect that the next math test is not going to go so well. The brain is a sorting tool; once it has sorted that math, science, or reading is “not for me,” the brain shifts its focus to what is relevant and to making the most of the situation. This often translates to acting out to get out, being the class clown, or other more dangerous behaviors.

What can we do as teachers to prevent this student from believing further effort is useless? One of the most common findings in research about youth who defy their negative life circumstances is the presence of a consistent caring adult outside of the home. When we send positive messages, such as telling a frustrated young girl that it’s important she learn the scientific method so she can cure cancer, we are working to change that child’s narrative in order to shift the results.  

The power of teacher expectations was first documented by Robert Rosenthal and others and came to be known as the Pygmalion or Rosenthal Effect. As the image (below) shows, the beliefs teachers hold about their students can create a virtuous cycle that feeds student achievement and reinforces itself. Researchers at the Mindset Scholars Network have extended this line of research by documenting the power of communicating high expectations to at-risk students. For example, the research of Geoffrey Cohen and others offers educators some important guidance when working hard to reach youth. As the authors explain, "The guiding philosophy of many of the most successful programs aimed at minority youth is an emphasis on the malleable nature of academic ability—the message that 'intelligence can be taught.'"    

While this line of research focused on how educators can better engage with African-American youth, it can offer insights into how to work with a range of youth who struggle to see the relevance of school to their futures. The researchers trained a group of teachers to deliver high-quality, critical feedback accompanied with high expectations and compared that to generic praise. The high-quality feedback that communicated high expectations was found to cause African-American students to go from being nearly 50 percent less willing to take on challenges to more willing than their peers. Additionally, these students shifted from not seeing themselves as capable writers to surpassing their peers in confidence in their writing ability. The African-American students by nearly half also felt a much stronger sense of equity about the class. Providing this group of students with feedback that communicated high expectations resulted in dramatic increases in their willingness to take on challenges, confidence in their skills, and a sense of fairness about school.  

The authors explained that by affirming the student’s individual ability to meet the high standards through effort and incorporating new strategies, teachers can counteract the helplessness many students feel. More recently, this research was replicated and expanded by David Yeager and others with similar results. Their research was able to demonstrate that “communicating high standards and a personal assurance of the student’s potential to reach them can bolster minority adolescents’ school trust and improve their academic behavior in response to critical feedback.” In fact, the authors found one of their interventions closed the racial achievement gap in this sample by nearly 40 percent.

“How Does This Relate to My Purpose?”

The second way we can help students re-engage with school is by helping them understand how a particularly challenging task or subject connects to their values and identity. One group of researchers had seventh graders complete a series of exercises writing about why their most important values were important to them. As a result of this simple exercise, the initially low-performing African-American students earned higher core academic grades during the next two years. The authors found that writing about important values increases students’ sense of self-integrity in the face of challenges, which prevents helplessness.

Another study by Hulleman and Harackiewicz explored the impact of a writing intervention asking students in a high school science class to write about how the material connects to their lives. The authors found that this brief intervention demonstrated “…that encouraging students to make connections between science course material and their lives promoted both interest and performance for students with low success expectancies. The effect on performance was particularly striking, because students with low-success expectancies improved nearly two-thirds of a letter grade…”  

Targeted Interventions, a Shifting Narrative, and Improved Outcomes  

Hopefully you’re starting to see that one of the exciting things about mindset interventions is the potential for long-term change through brief interventions. While not simple, these brief targeted interventions have the power to change the narrative our students tell themselves about school. If we are able change the narrative, we can often shift the long-term trajectories by altering their perceptions of themselves and school. One of the levers we can use to shift this narrative is communicating high expectations to help students understand their own value. Additionally, we can provide students with pathways to explore how particular subjects connect to their values and identity. 

Learn more about HMH’s new K-12 Into Reading and Into Literature programs.