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Gender Equality the New Growth Factor
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Women Deliver
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A Life Remembered
Tim “Avicii” Bergling.
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How Does a City Become Smart?
Lessons from Tel Aviv.
Motivating Using the Right Mindset
Scientist Alva Appelgren on praise and learning.
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Johan Hagegård
“The future isn’t at all what it used to be.”
Habits to Build Your Empire
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Collaboration is key in winning association meetings.
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Cecilia Björkén-Nyberg
On reading printed books and listening to audiobooks.
Why Is It Taken for Granted That I’m the Boss?
Roger Kellerman: More Space to Women!

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Motivating Using the Right Mindset

An alarm clock going off tells us it is time to get up. An odour from a lunchbox in the fridge tells us that the food in it has gone off so we throw it away. Our language works in much the same way, but it is not always as clear as a bad odour how words actually affect us. An encouraging word from a colleague could put us in a good mood for the rest of the day, while a similar comment phrased somewhat differently will have us wanting to leave work at the earliest opportunity. Teachers, managers and parents have the task of giving feedback by explaining, encouraging and informing of what has gone well and what needs to change. In the long run, feedback also seems to affect our perseverance and motivation.

The question of how it functions and how we can improve our feedback has given rise to a growing research field known as Mind, Brain and Education Science (MBE) where scientists integrate neuroscience, psychology and pedagogy to better understand the processes of learning and to develop better educational models. At the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, my colleagues and I have studied learning processes with the help of functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), a technique used to study the differences in brain activity by analysing and comparing the blood flow to different parts of the brain. In one of our studies the test subjects did an exercise on learning a task when various symbol combinations were shown on a screen while they lay under a magnetic camera.

The subjects received two sorts of positive feedback when they replied correctly. On one occasion they learned a task with the help of what I call character feedback: “You’re clever.” The second time they were given feedback confirming that they chose correctly: “The correct choice.” We compared the brain activity to determine the differences in how the subjects reacted to these two different types of feedback. It showed that when they received praise for their intelligence it boosted activity in the caudatus, a part of the brain in which previous studies had shown an increase in activity when people were uncertain as to whether they were reacting correctly and if it would lead to a reward or not. We interpret this as meaning that the subjects became more uncertain of their ability when praised for their intelligence.

This could be because praise for being clever triggers thoughts about one’s traits and moves the focus from the task to the ego. When the subjects were praised for their intelligence we saw an increase in activity in the part of the brain that deals with self-reflection. This indicates that praise focusing on character or personality traits can shift focus from the task to self-reflection, which in turn could make the subject more uncertain. When we studied the test subjects’ subjective experiences it showed that they felt more stressed when praised for their intelligence. This could be because being called clever may provoke more demanding thoughts than those provoked by concrete feedback on the task. With concrete praise, the subjects learned the task somewhat better and became more motivated to continue.

The results indicate that different types of praise have direct effects on our learning. However, further research is needed to determine whether these effects are stable at group level. But, if it is so that we are affected the moment we receive different types of praise, what could this lead to? How are we affected by praise in the longer perspective?

Carol Dweck is a psychology professor at Stanford University in California who is widely acclaimed for her studies into children’s views on learning, traits and intelligence. In one study she looked at the long-term effects of parental praise. It showed that the different ways in which children handle setbacks and their will to learn could be linked to the type of praise they receive. Carol Dweck’s research team examined the long-term effects of praise relating to a child’s intelligence, for example, “You are so smart”, and praise that relates to a child’s actions, for example, “Well done for trying to piece things together.” The study showed that over time, the children praised for their actions developed a mindset where they felt they could become smarter by practicing. This growth mindset is characterised by the notion that it is possible to improve and become smarter by practicing. Carol Dweck has previously shown that this way of thinking may be beneficial in daring to take on challenges and not losing motivation for demanding tasks. Her team therefore made the conclusion that parents who praise a child’s actions and efforts contribute to a progressive mindset later in life.

This has been known in the research since the early 20th century as the Law of Effect. We act in the way we understand is good. If we are praised for doing something well, this praise acts as a reinforcer and we carry on doing it in order to hear it again. If the praise is specific, like “Thanks for wiping up that mess you made”, then we know what to do to be praised again. Children who have mostly heard praise for their traits, like how clever and smart they are, will act to hear this praise again. But when we give praise for traits in this way it could be sending a message that the ability lies in an innate talent and the child may think that nothing requires any effort on their part. When people who think in this way encounter setbacks or try something they cannot handle at once, they give up much quicker because they assume they lack the talent. They might think something along the lines of: “If I have to make an effort, that means I’m not good enough.” If something that is normally easy suddenly becomes difficult, the person’s self-image could take a battering. They may well think they have lost their talent. But with a static mindset like this it could be easy to forget the amount of effort and practice they need to put into it in the first place to make them that good. When something goes wrong or they cannot complete a whole task at once, it actually means they have been given a task that is suited to their ability, something to get their teeth into and help them progress.

People who are not used to taking on challenges often keep to what they are already good at. This way they avoid setbacks – and criticism. They want to maintain the image of themselves as being clever and will avoid trying something new in case they do not manage it with flying colours immediately. Usually this is because they would lose face and their self-image would fall apart if they failed to do well. They measure their value by their achievements, which, in a study from 2007, scientists Marie Dahlin, Jenny Fjell and Bo Runeson at the Karolinska Institute describe as performance-based self-esteem. Maintaining a self-image of being clever and smart could lead to significant performance anxiety, especially when learning something new without making mistakes.

Giving praise for being clever could therefore have negative effects if you fail to link the praise with the effort involved. Praise for intelligence or cleverness is also a rather unspecific form of praise. It makes it difficult to know what to do more of in order to hear it again. Had the praise instead been aimed at how and what had been done, it would be easier to understand it and know what to continue doing. One criticism here is that the focus on action rather than traits becomes very result-oriented. But that is a static mindset that fools us because we can actually be specific without focusing on the end result. For example, we can praise somebody for persevering, putting a lot of time into something and not giving up.

A teacher would probably say: “Well done, you worked hard today! You’ve shown that you understand several of the methods we took up last week and used them to try to solve the problem. This shows an ability to cooperate.” Here the focus is on what the pupil has done, how they have approached the task and that effort pays off, without putting emphasise on the result. Praise and ideas both focus on how to get there and sends a message that effort pays off and practice makes perfect. This way failure and mistakes are not as painful because failure could generate praise for effort and perseverance.

So, our approach to learning something new could be linked to the way we previously received feedback, which would partly explain why people relate to learning in so many different ways. Some set up goals with a task in order to appear clever. This is linked to the reward of being highly respected. Others have a motive force to learn a new skill, a language for example, with the aim of progressing and becoming better at it. How we relate to different tasks depends on our goals and expectations of the task and on ourselves. In one of my studies at the Karolinska Institute published in November 2015, we looked at the approaches of 13-year-olds to memory exercises and how it affected their perseverance. The pupils would do 20 separate memory exercises of roughly 50 minutes each. It was up to them to decide when to finish the study. The exercises were adapted to suit the level of each individual to ensure they would all be at their most difficult level when making a lot of mistakes. This meant they all had to work equally hard to progress. Before the pupils began, we asked them what they felt about the exercise they were about to undergo. Among other things, if they thought it would be fun, useful or require a lot of energy. We also asked if they thought they would complete all the exercises.

The questions were designed to measure the pupils’ inner motivation, their motive force to do this because they wanted to and not because they felt they were made to do it. Roughly half completed all 20 exercises and the others dropped out. We found that the higher the motivation of the pupils before they began, the more exercises they completed. We even asked them questions about how they viewed intelligence. The more the pupils thought about being clever as something they could change (progressive mindset), the more memory exercises they completed. These results indicate that both attitude towards the task and the mindset relating to intelligence affected the pupils’ will to complete the memory exercises and not give up. Those who believed in their ability to complete all the exercises, who expected it to be fun and rewarding, completed more exercises.

If now research shows that inner motivation and attitude towards a task have an effect on pupils’ motivation and willingness to complete tasks, then we should create opportunities that develop this way of thinking. So, how do we create the conditions to be able to focus on a task, know what we need to develop and feel that we want to complete the task? What we can do is try to provide feedback on what has been done and how to describe learning in a way that the pupil understands that making mistakes is all part of the learning process. It is about explaining that we can do things better and smarter by practicing. If we want to improve our maths, then we practice our maths. If we want to learn a language, then we have to practice it. When you are learning something that is difficult it requires effort and we can encourage effort. But above all, we must be given the opportunity to concentrate on the task.

John Hattie is a well-known education researcher at the University of Melbourne. When he studied the factors that influence a student’s learning, he noticed that the feedback was not always good. During our two years of study at the Karolinska institute we therefore studied the effect of a simpler type of feedback, given when our test subjects were most engrossed in a task. We used sound to inform the subjects of their progress while they were completing a task. The sound told them whether they were right or wrong. To be able to concentrate you have to focus on the task and not let your thoughts wander. Our studies indicate that the sound we played appeared to make it more difficult for the subjects to concentrate on the test. The sound may have been there to help but a large amount of sound indicating both right and wrong had a negative effect on the subjects’ learning. One theory is that when a large amount of feedback is given during a task, focus shifts to the feedback rather than the task and concentration suffers. This is just one example of when feedback is not always good. From these results we see that we are easily disturbed by sounds that grab our attention or praise directed at our intelligence. Our studies even show the good effects of expectations and an inner motivation, which highlights the importance of giving instructions and feedback in a way that provokes curiosity and a will to try again.

Praise for character traits appears, in the longer perspective, to make us forget the amount of work put into learning a particular skill. The studies I have described here say that we ought to give more praise and encouragement for what has been done, and how it was done, and for effort rather than focusing on character traits, which shifts the focus from the task to a fixed view of who we are – or who we are not as the case may be.

Alva Appelgren has a PhD in cognitive neuroscience. In 2015 at the Karolinska Institute, Sweden, she defended her doctoral thesis Error, Praise, Action and Trait. Effects of Feedback on Cognitive Performance and Motivation.

This article was previously published in Modern Psykologi (Modern Psychology).