Psychological Factors in School Success

“What enables a student to be a successful learner in school, while others struggle?,” I recently asked. As I said in a previous post, part of the answer may have to do with trusting that a student can learn independently, just as kids typically learn independently before formal schooling begins. Teachers and parents can encourage students to reconnect with their “lost instincts” to learn on their own, particularly at this time when students must learn at home without as much direct supervision.

The student experience is complex, however, and often neglected. As education theorist, John Dewey, wrote in the early 20th century: “the center of gravity is outside the child. It is the teacher, the textbook, anywhere and everywhere you please except in the immediate instincts and activities of the child.”

As I have tried to understand what enables some students to thrive in school during my past 20 years of college teaching, I have returned again and again to three interrelated domains that may be most fruitful to explore: (1) mindset, (2) self-discipline, and (3) motivation. Psychological research has found these domains to be most critical in student success.

Mindset

One of the primary psychological determinants of a student’s performance concerns how they explain success and failure to themselves. In over 30 years of research, Carol Dweck, Professor of Psychology at Stanford University, consistently has found that individuals with a “fixed mindset” – who believe that success and failure reflects a certain level of ability unlikely to change no matter what is done – often show lower levels of performance over time. Dweck finds this may be due, in part, to the fact that people with fixed mindsets are less likely to seek challenge at the outset and less likely to persevere when challenges arise. In contrast, individuals with a “growth mindset” – who believe that ability can be developed through hard work or effort or trying out different strategies until one works – often show higher levels of performance over time. People with a growth mindset are more likely to seek challenge and believe they can overcome challenges with perseverance when they arise.

For instance, I remember being told when I was in my first year of college that I wasn’t a very good writer, and I also remember often working much harder than my roommates on college papers. However, I made the improvement of my writing a personal project during college, and by the time I was a Senior, I often was told I was an excellent writer. Now, people tell me they can’t believe how quickly I can write about complex ideas. Often times, they attribute this to my writing ability; however, I know that any writing ability I now have was developed through considerable work and effort.

Self-Discipline

A second psychological factor that may play an important role in determining a student’s performance concerns self-discipline. In one study, for example, researchers at the University of Pennsylvania showed how 8th graders’ academic success was predicted twice as strongly by self-discipline as by intelligence test scores.

Consistent with this, I remember a student who I once thought was doomed to failure. She was a recent immigrant from Ethiopia and seemed to know very little English. She miserably failed the first two exams in one of my courses, but in response, disciplined herself to study whenever she had free time. She sought tutoring from multiple people. She re-read chapters over and over to master material. Amazingly, this student earned a “B” on the third exam, an “A” on the fourth exam, and an “A” on the final. I thought to myself that if this person – whose primary language was not English and who possessed many disadvantages – could turn around her performance through this level of work and effort, almost anyone could –  provided they matched her self-discipline.

Walter Mischel – lead scientist behind the famous “marshmallow studies” – has tried to understand what explains why some individuals show self-discipline in a moment of temptation while others do not. He proposes that there are two fundamental systems of self-regulation that are used. Individuals who give into temptation tend to rely on a “hot” system that is emotional and reactive. This system is most likely to be used when an individual is stressed in some way or when they focus on the most seductive elements of the temptation. In contrast, individuals who are more successful in self-discipline tend to rely on a more reflective “cold” system. People who are able to reflect in a moment of temptation tend to be aware of their long-term goals and are able to shift their attention to less seductive elements of the situation.

For example, if a student had started to complete a reading assignment and heard their cell phone signify the arrival of a text message, they are most likely to stop studying and text a reply if they become emotionally invested in a thought process about who texted and how they would reply. The student who ignores the text message and continues to study is most likely to be aware of their long-term goals related to studying and to be able to shift their attention away from the emotional aspects of who sent them the message and how they would reply. Stress also is likely to play a role in whether a student is able to be self-disciplined in this situation or not. For instance, if a student is tired or had a long-day at work, they are more likely to favor responding to the text message than studying. Perhaps most ideally, a successful student minimizes the possibility of temptation in the first place; in this case, a student might shut off their phone until they take a study break.

Motivation

Jonathan Borba on UnsplashA final factor that may help to explain a student’s experience in learning during school concerns their interests. Ask people their reasons for acting as they do, and you’re likely to hear a variety of responses. For example, most honest students probably would admit that the primary reason why they complete homework assignments is a sense that they “have to” in order to earn points for a course. Others may say that they complete a homework assignment because they “want to” learn. Ask why and the student may say that they believe that understanding certain ideas is important to their development as a thinker and as a person or that they just enjoy learning for its own sake because they are interested in the material. Maybe they even would say learning is “fun!”

These examples reveal a classic distinction made by motivation researchers concerning the difference between extrinsic motivation (where behavior is pursued because of the desire for secondary gain) and intrinsic motivation (where behavior is pursued for its own sake). In general, decades of psychological research shows how extrinsic motivation is associated with negative emotions, such as anger, fear, and sadness. Related to this, many students feel bitter about completing homework assignments when they are extrinsically motivated. Although sometimes contributing to short-term performance benefits (such as when a student completes a homework assignment to earn points), in the long-run, extrinsic motivation also is associated with performance difficulties (such as why many people stop reading for pleasure after extrinsic benefits for doing so cease). In contrast, intrinsic motivation is associated with a better emotional experience and long-term performance benefits, particularly when individuals encounter a setback and need to persist to overcome difficulties.

For instance, I’ve had several students over the years who started out as fairly average students in terms of performance, but who were very curious to learn more. Such students ask good questions in class and stop by during my office hours to talk about ideas. By the time these students take higher-level courses, they often have become the best students in the class, mostly because they learned so much through their own independent learning. In general, people who are intrinsically motivated tend to spend more time on task, developing knowledge and skill, ultimately making it more likely that they will succeed long-term.

Conclusions

The take-home message here is that students can become more growth-oriented, self-disciplined, and intrinsically motivated, if they are supported and encouraged to do so.

During this time of distance learning for many students, there may be a unique opportunity to reflect on any unhelpful attitudes and behaviors students have acquired over their years in formal schooling, and to see if we can return to the natural passion to learn. As John Dewey once remarked: “Education is not preparation for life; education is life itself.”

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