Making sure feedback is heard and used

The Brilliant Report

Annie Murphy Paul

The research by Stanford professor Carol Dweck on “fixed” and “growth” mindsets has become familiar to many teachers and parents—familiar enough that you’ll often hear an adult say to a child, “You’re so smart! Er—I mean—you worked so hard on that!” (Dweck’s message that we should praise effort and not inherent ability has been widely accepted, it seems, but for many of us has not yet become automatic.)

A passing acquaintance with the notion of mindset—though an excellent start—doesn’t fully convey the richness of Dweck’s idea, however. The influence of mindset shows up in students’ thinking and behavior in so many ways, one of which I want to focus on today. That is the effect of mindset on how students handle feedback.

Understanding and acting on feedback is absolutely critical to the process of mastering academic knowledge and skills. Unfortunately, although parents and teachers maygive feedback to students, that doesn’t necessarily mean that students get it—that is, get it in the sense of really listening to it, striving to understand it, and applying it to their subsequent efforts.

One of the big determinants of what students do with feedback, it turns out, is mindset. Students with a growth mindset (that is, they believe that ability can grow through effort) attend to feedback and put it to work. Students with a fixed mindset (that is, they believe ability is fixed and unchangeable) avoid or ignore feedback. One of my favorite demonstrations of this phenomenon is a neuroscience study conducted in the lab of Jennifer Mangels, a research scientist at Columbia University.

The authors of the study (who include Carol Dweck) used a technology called event-related potentials to monitor students’ brain activity while they answered factual questions and then received feedback on their answers; following the feedback session, the students were given a a surprise retest that included all of the questions they answered incorrectly the first time.

Students who held a growth mindset got more answers right on the surprise retest—suggesting they’d made better use of the feedback. Evidence from the brain-activation monitors showed something even more interesting, as related by cognitive psychologist Scott Barry Kaufman in his book Ungifted:

“In terms of brain waves, participants with a fixed mindset showed an enhanced response in the frontal pole region to negative feedback about their ability. Because this area of the brain is associated with increased attention, it appears that the fixed theorists were more focused on what they got wrong than what they could do to improve. Those with a fixed mindset also appeared to engage in less sustained and deep encoding of the information as reflected in the duration of activation of the inferior frontal-temporal region, a region known to play a role in the activation of preexisting knowledge in memory.

“In contrast, the brain activity of those with a growth mindset suggested that they paid attention to the feedback and were more deeply engaged in processing that feedback.”

So students with growth mindsets and fixed mindsets actually process feedback information differently. To me, this is an argument for building a growth mindset intervention right into our testing routine (see an earlier post of mine on this idea,here). Of course, we need also to give students timely and detailed feedback on tests—something that happens all too rarely, especially with standardized tests.

An affirmative testing approach would offer students such feedback, and ensure that they make the most of it by promoting a growth mindset. To that end, here are two resources you may find helpful:

• The new, free Mindset Kit resources made available by PERTS, a research group at Stanford.

• The e-course I’ve developed, called Turn Testing Into Learning, which includes a lesson on incorporating growth-mindset practices into assessment. You can try out a sample lesson by clicking here; you can enroll in the course by clicking here.

Please send questions and comments to me at annie@anniemurphypaul.com—I look forward to hearing from you!

All my best,

Annie
Annie

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