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Volume 28, Number 3
May/June 2012

Do “Consoling” Messages Hinder Math Achievement?


Because I believe that teachers’ theories about intelligence impact their instruction and their students’ learning, I eagerly sought out a 2011 article in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology by Aneeta Rattan, Catherine Good, and Carol S. Dweck. Their report, “‘It’s ok—Not everyone can be good at math’: Instructors with an entity theory comfort (and demotivate) students,” includes four studies describing how teachers’ beliefs about intelligence play out in their practices and how, in turn, these practices affect students in mathematics classes.

The authors built on a body of research about how implicit theories of ability influence mindsets and performances. An entity theory is the belief that intelligence is a fixed or innate trait. An incremental theory is the belief that ability is malleable and influenced by experience and learning. The researchers hypothesized that teachers with an entity theory would conclude that students who struggled to learn had low math intelligence and that the best response would be to console students by suggesting, for instance, that not everyone can be good at every subject. The researchers further hypothesized that students would interpret teachers’ well-intentioned messages as an assessment of their low math ability and that consequently students would be less motivated to achieve.

This is an excerpt from the Harvard Education Letter. Subscribers can click here to continue reading this article.


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