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Power of Praise (2)

Friday, November 13th, 2009

In an earlier post, I wrote about Po Bronson’s New York Magazine article on praise. In it, he covers recent research that shows how praising students for their effort (which they can control) increases motivation, but praising students for their intelligence (which they can’t control) undermines motivation.

Here’s some more crazy good stuff from the same article. Carol Dweck and her protégée Lisa Blackwell conducted a semester-long intervention to improve students’ math scores.

“In a single semester, Blackwell reversed the students’ longtime trend of decreasing math grades.

“The only difference between the control group and the test group were two lessons, a total of 50 minutes spent teaching not math but a single idea: that the brain is a muscle. Giving it a harder workout makes you smarter. That alone improved their math scores.”

I recently had an opportunity to test this out with a rising 5th grader. I asked him to do three pages from his workbook for our next meeting. He came back the next week having completed most of it… in the car on the way to tutoring that day.

Clearly, this pretty much defeated the point of giving him homework, because he was still doing all his math in one big lump all on the same day. Remembering what I’d learned from reading Carol Dweck, I seized this opportunity to explain to him that the brain is like a muscle: when you use it, it gets stronger. And like a muscle, when you spread out your workouts, you don’t have to train as much. I told him that it was great that he’d done most of the work, but it would help him even more if he spaced it out.

We spent some time creating a better plan for the next week. I tried to be really autonomy supportive. I asked him which days would be good to do math work, and labeled the pages of the workbook with the dates he picked. We talked about what time of day would work best for him, and where in his house he liked to do his homework.

I remembered what Carol Dweck had said, that it’s much more likely that we’ll actually things we don’t really want to do if we visualize ourselves doing them instead of just having some sort of vague plan. So after we had picked his dates, times, and location, I asked him to close his eyes and visualize himself finishing dinner, carrying his plates to the kitchen, walking to the living room, picking up his workbook, and sitting down and doing a page of math.

So… it worked!!!!! Next week, when he came back, he had done all three pages from the workbook! Although he’d changed the plan a little bit, and practiced 2 days instead of 3, it was a huge improvement over the past week.

The absolute best part of all was when his Mom picked him up and I commented on the improvement in him doing his work, she said, “That was all him.” This rising fifth-grader had taken total responsibility for the plan!!!

Update: This same research is covered in detail in Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman‘s amazing new book, NurtureShock. I highly recommend you read the whole thing!

4 Comments on “Power of Praise (2)”

  • Eduardo Briceno on November 14th 10:51 pm

    Hi Rebecca! Wow, cool website! Very impressive. And that you use the digital tablet to do tutoring, very cool!

    I ran across this blog post and just wanted to let you know, in case you didn’t know, that an online computer program was developed based on the Dweck/Blackwell intervention you referred to in this post. It’s now available at:

    I just wanted to let you know in case you didn’t know. Let me know if you have any questions or if there’s anything we can do – I run Mindset Works, the company that provides the Brainology program.

    Keep up the good work!
    – Eduardo

  • Rebecca Zook on November 16th 3:08 pm

    Hello, Eduardo! I’m so glad that you stopped by and introduced yourself! That is so cool. I am really interested in the Brainology program and I was considering asking or maybe even requiring certain students of mine who could use some help with motivation to complete the program 😉 Thank you so much for checking out my website and blog!

  • David on November 16th 12:59 pm

    Great application of findings from academic research to real life!

  • Rebecca Zook on November 16th 3:05 pm

    I’m so glad that you’re reading my blog! I totally agree–Carol Dweck and her colleagues’ work is so amazing.

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