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Faculty-student study aims to show impact of praise on productivity

January 05, 2016

Ebbs PraiseFor at least two Earlham psychology students, the research they completed on praise is about more than simply collecting and analyzing data.

Jordyn Grimes ’16 and Jacob Ebbs ’16 say they have made changes in their lives after collaborating with Visiting Assistant Professor of Psychology Rachael Reavis’ study, “You’re So Smart! How Identity Praise Can Undermine Growth and Breed Fear of Failure.”

“We are learning about the negative power of identity praise versus process praise,” Reavis says. Recently it has been generally accepted that telling kids they are smart will help them feel good about themselves.

“Wrong,” Reavis says emphatically.

When a child is told he or she is smart or beautiful or athletic, they are more likely to develop a fixed mindset, relying on natural ability rather than effort, she says. When praised for effort, a kid is more likely to develop a growth mindset and will work harder.

“Praise can determine if a child has a growth or fixed mindset,” Grimes says. “If more people have growth mindsets, people would try harder and not give up so easily. Science has shown that our brains can grow and get stronger, so it’s never too late.

“This has impacted how I praise other people, family members, and children especially,” she says. “I used to think intelligence was fixed. Now I have a better understanding that working hard can make you smarter.”

Mentored undergraduate research is a hallmark of an Earlham education and 85 percent of faculty collaborate with students on projects on and off campus each year. For Reavis' research, students tested three groups of adults, college students and children ages 8-12. Each participant was asked to solve a problem and then given either identity praise such as “You are smart,” or process praise such as “You worked hard.”

Then participants were given a more challenging problem to solve, and were all told they hadn’t done as well. The next step was to ask participants a series of questions about persistence, intelligence, and tackling another problem.

Analysis of the team's data will be completed soon. But similar studies find that those given the process praise are more likely to develop a growth mindset and are willing to tackle a more difficult task, while those given the identity praise demonstrate fixed mindset attributes and choose against working a more difficult problem because they fear failure, which they equate with a lack of intelligence rather than a lack of effort.

Grimes says that she has found this to be true in her own life. After working as a summer research assistant collecting praise data from children who visited the Joseph Moore Museum, she began putting the ideas to work in her own life.

“When I’m reading for various classes and think I can’t take any more, I push myself to do a little more,” she explains. “Since I have been pushing myself, I have found that I’m comprehending difficult articles more quickly.”

Ebbs, a current research assistant in the study, says he has noticed real differences in the way people react to the different types of praise.

“That has caused me to think about how I interact with and praise my (soccer) teammates, especially,” he says. “This research is helpful in so many ways. It can help strengthen the working relationships of co-workers and students and teachers, as well as help parents to successfully encourage and support their children.”

— EC —

Earlham College, a national liberal arts college located in Richmond, Indiana, is a "College That Changes Lives." We expect our students to be fully present: to think rigorously, value directness and genuineness, and actively seek insights from differing perspectives. The values we practice at Earlham are rooted in centuries of Quaker tradition, but they also constitute the ideal toolkit for contemporary success. Earlham is one of only 40 national liberal arts colleges ranked among U.S. News and World Reports' "Great Schools at a Great Price."

Brian Zimmerman is director of media relations at Earlham College. He can be reached at (765) 983-1256 and zimmebr@earlham.edu.




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