Grazing - a personal blog from Steve Ehrmann

Steve Ehrmann is an author, speaker, and consultant.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Can studying hard, long, and thoughtfully make a student 'smarter?'

The issue of how student (and faculty) beliefs affect teaching, learning, and learning outcomes is intriguing, but not simple.  I became interested initially in faculty's implicit theories of teaching (what Don Schon and Chris Argyris called "theories in use.")

Studies by Kenneth Bain (What the Best College Teachers Do) and by Schneider, Klemp and Kastendiek, found that faculty widely regarded as excellent teachers also typically believed that almost any student was capable of excellence, if taught properly and if they invested themselves in an appropriate way.

More recently, I've learned about the work of Carol Dweck and her colleagues.  Do students believe:

  • I have have specific, unchangeable talents and intelligence ("I'm smart" "I'm not wired to be good at math.") or 
  • Intelligence, ability, and talent are like muscular strength: the more you practice (which is often painful), the stronger (smarter) you can become.  

Research seems particularly strong in support of the idea that, when students believe that arduous effort is rewarded with learning, they'll often invest themselves in the effort.  On the other hand, when the students, or the faculty member, believe that student's ability is fixed:
  • Some students who believe they lack the needed talent may see it as irrational to try hard;
  • Some students who believe that they are talented therefore may slack off, because they think their ability will enable them to succeed easily. (I recall a study of a student learning that involved computer software - students with high confidence in their computer skills had more problems than students with only moderate confidence because the highly confident students ignored manuals, briefings, etc.)
In sorting some of these ideas out, I found this article from the Chronicle of Higher Education to be quite helpful.

My next post is going to look more broadly at student ideas about learning that are counter-productive (e.g., when the expert is lecturing, I'm learning the way I should.  If I have to learn something by doing assignments in my room, the instructor has let me down.)