by Mikhail Zinshteyn, The Atlantic, 7/30/2015
Education writing is famous for its alphabet soup of acronyms and obscure terms, but it could just as well be faulted for trafficking buzzwords in search of clear definitions.
Ideas like grit, motivation, fitting in, and learning from one’s mistakes—often summarized as noncognitive factors—are just some of the concepts that are coming up more frequently these days. A new paper from the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching provides definitions for many of these new terms, which arose in part because of the recent push by psychologists, economists, and education experts to delve more deeply into what compels students to understand complex new material.
Each concept has its own section and is accompanied by summaries of key experiments that gave rise to the ideas’ relevance (as well as reference points for reporters whose inboxes are inundated with the latest efforts to boost student grades and college prospects).
Take motivation, for example. In the research world there exist two types: intrinsic and extrinsic motivation. Intrinsic motivation is learning for the love of learning—the ideal mindset of a student, the report’s authors write. But for various reasons, that thirst for knowledge lags in many young people, and so researchers have come up with different approaches to spurring that enthusiasm for knowledge among students.
One popular intervention to boost student motivation is the use of money—rewarding kids with cash for displaying positive results. But not all motivators are created equally. The Harvard scholar Roland Fryer studied financial-incentive programs at various schools, discovering that when students are rewarded for reading a book, they tend to perform better on standardized tests than when students are promised cash prizes for scoring highly on those tests.
One explanation for why rewarding inputs beats rewarding outputs is because the former is a clearly defined task: Read a book, improve your reading scores. Incentives for scoring well on tests, on the other hand, require a whole host of activities on which the student may not have a total grasp, like productive studying habits. The Carnegie paper does note that when students come to expect the rewards, their motivation can dip.
Research suggests that, in the United States, the more motivation students say they have, the better they perform on various academic assessments. But that trend doesn’t seem to apply across countries. I wrote about a study that argued that the international education powerhouses—Finland and South Korea, for example—have students who report they’re less motivated than U.S. students say they are, yet the former still perform much better on these assessments than do the latter.
Other concepts explained in the Carnegie report include the idea of “mindsets”—having faith in one’s ability to understand complex tasks through effort, patience, and an appreciation that failure is part of the process.
Grit has its own section, unsurprisingly. The concept is backed by numerous studies led by Angela Duckworth, the scholar most associated with the concept. At its essence, grit tries to measure a student’s passion and perseverance for long-term goals, as the Carnegie report explains. One major experiment highlighted asked students 12 questions about their study habits, such as whether they finish what they begin and if new ideas or assignments distract them from previous ones. Duckworth and her colleagues found that student responses to these questions predicted their grade-point averages, even if their test scores were low. The grit questionnaire also was found to be more accurate in predicting whether students at military academies would complete their first year than were IQ tests or assessments produced by West Point, the Carnegie report notes. Still, while the research is promising, student grit shouldn’t be tied to teacher evaluations, Duckworth and her colleague wrote this year.
“Stereotype threat”—the idea that individuals who are confronted with stereotypes based on their race, ethnicity, social status, or gender hurts their performance at work and school—is also explored in the Carnegie report. In many cases, talented students who have the potential to do well underperform when put in situations that accentuate those stereotypes. My colleauge Emily Richmond wrote about a 2013 study showing that removing the timed element of tests led to girls scoring higher on math tests than boys. Sometimes the stereotype threat is activated in seemingly benign ways. Richmond wrote that “research has found that when girls were asked to identify their gender prior to taking the Advanced Placement math exam, they scored lower than they did when the question wasn’t asked until after the test—or not at all.”