Does Agency Matter?

I have been told that it really does matter whether or not you tell a person they are smart, regardless of whether they have exhibited intelligence or not, and whether you tell a person they are hard working, creative, a good thinker, a problem solver, etc.

It turns out that if you tell a child they are smart, there is the potential that they will react badly to this.

Some students become lazy, figuring that their smarts will bail them out in a pinch. Others conclude that the people who praise their intelligence are simply wrong, and decide that it isn’t worth investing effort in homework. Still others might care intensely about school but withdraw from difficult tasks or tie themselves in knots of perfectionism.

I have seen this result myself in the college classroom and I, too, have reacted this way in my undergraduate days. It is probably part of the reason I did not go into medical microbiology instead of English.

It also turns out that students’ learned helplessness is not universal. Some students, despite the same stimulus that causes failure of previously successful work in others, go on and succeed rather than giving up.

I am sure many of us have seen this in real life. One of my best friends was raised in a very bad household. Most of her siblings wound up on drugs, in jail, and/or dead from related problems. She, however, finished college as a single mother and found a job where she could support her family and make a difference. She did not learn helplessness in her home environment, even though most of her siblings did.

Carol Dweck, according to The Chronicle, found that there was a test which showed whether or not students would fail because of learned helplessness.

The questionnaire, known as the Intellectual Achievement Responsibility Scale, is designed to determine whether a person credits or blames his own behavior for his academic results, or whether he attributes those outcomes to external agents.

If the students credit or blame their own behavior, then they succeed. They succeed where others fail.

It’s not the teacher’s fault, the school’s fault, the government’s fault, the parent’s fault, the community’s fault. If the students acknowledge that their effort makes a difference, if they don’t accept victim status, then they do not fail. They succeed.

So, yes, agency matters.

Can we teach our students that? Can we change their mindset in a college classroom? How would we be able to do that?

Here’s a scenario where it would make a difference. I just read it yesterday. In a single remedial class, 50% of the students pass. But when the other 50% repeat the course, only 30% of those students pass. The next time, 20% pass… Are students in college really unable to write paragraphs? Or do they have a learned sense of helplessness.

Note, however, that the article on Carol Dweck goes on to say that sometimes the students with incremental theories of intelligence do not do well. It turns out that if you give hard things to a student for whom school is important, they do not do as well as a student would who doesn’t care about school. Because if the incremental student believes it is hard, they will create things that can be blamed for their low performance, such as distracting music played during the preparation time.

How do we get over that?

What can we do in our classrooms to make this work out well for our students?

One thought… We should begin the class with the easiest assignments. I sometimes save those for last, when everyone is tired. Perhaps I should move them to the beginning.

I had already decided (for other reasons) that I should implement a paragraph-first strategy early on. That is, the students write a single paragraph from their paper and I comment on it and then we keep going. Before they even have the whole paper written, I would have commented on over half their paragraphs. I think that might be a way around the “hard” belief that comes with English classes at the college level.

Agency matters. And we, as college professors, have the opportunity to use our own agency to help our students see that they can succeed.

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