“You’re so clever!” According to a new study from the University of Georgia, this encouraging response may actually do more harm than good to children’s math performance.
The study, co-conducted by Michael Barger, an assistant professor in the Department of Educational Psychology at Mary Frances Early College of Education, discovered that encouraging children with responses related to their personal traits or innate abilities may dampen their math motivation and achievement over time.
Person responses are used by parents who link their children’s performance to personal attributes such as intelligence (e.g., “You’re so smart” or “Math just isn’t your thing”). Process responses are used by parents who link their children’s actions, such as effort or strategy use, to their performance (e.g., “You worked hard” or “What might be useful next time you have a math test?”).
“Person-focused praise sounds good on its face, but ultimately, it might undermine students’ motivation if they run into challenges,” said Barger. “Because if you run into challenges after being told you’re so smart, you might think, ‘Maybe they were wrong.’ We also know that people tend to think about math as something that some people can do and others can’t, and that language is pretty common, whether it’s among parents or teachers, even with young kids.”
Person-focused praise sounds good on its face, but ultimately, it might undermine students’ motivation if they run into challenges. Because if you run into challenges after being told you’re so smart, you might think, ‘Maybe they were wrong.’ We also know that people tend to think about math as something that some people can do and others can’t, and that language is pretty common, whether it’s among parents or teachers, even with young kids.Michael Barger
Praising strategy and effort
Researchers asked over 500 parents to report on how they respond to their children’s math performance, as well as their math beliefs and goals, for the study. Students’ math motivation and achievement were assessed in two waves over the course of a year.
The findings revealed that parents who thought their children’s math ability was malleable were more likely to give process responses that focused on their children’s strategy use and efforts rather than their intelligence or other personal characteristics.
Parents who believe that math ability is unchangeable and that math failure cannot be constructive provided more person-centered responses. Parents who have high expectations for their children gave a mix of the two responses.
While responses highlighting strategy and effort were not related to any achievement outcomes, children who received more responses about their personal traits – in particular, related to failure – were more likely to avoid harder math problems, exhibited higher levels of math anxiety, and scored lower on a math achievement test.
“There are a couple possible reasons process messages aren’t necessarily improving math achievement,” said Barger. “It could be that they’re just so frequent now that they just kind of wash over, and that doesn’t have as much of an impact. And it could also be that some of these messages don’t land correctly if they’re not authentic. However, with person responses, we saw clear links to anxiety and less preference for challenging math problems.”
A boost to math motivation
Researchers recommend limiting this type of response at home and in the classroom because it predicts poor math adjustment in children over time.
“There’s not necessarily any benefit to discussing whether people are or are not math people because if you’re a student and you start struggling, you’ll start thinking that maybe you’re not a math person,” said Barger.
The second piece of advice for parents is to consider their own beliefs and goals for their children and consider how these may lead them to respond in person or process ways. Simply telling parents not to discuss their children’s math abilities may not be enough.
Instead, convincing parents that their children’s math performance can improve can go a long way. Many parents encourage their children by praising their individual characteristics, but focusing less on how students perform and more on their strategy and enjoyment of math may be a more effective way to boost motivation.
This includes responses such as “Why do you think that happened?” or “Did you have fun?” rather than “You’re so smart” or “Math just isn’t your thing.”
“We should also ask whether parents believe math ability can change and whether they see failure as an opportunity to learn, as this appears to be related to lower person responses,” said Barger. “This is more effective than just giving a checklist of things to say.”