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How to motivate students to work harder (cites the research of Geoffrey Cohen)

September 3, 2014
The Atlantic
The research of professors Carol Dweck, Geoffrey Cohen and alumnus David Yeager indicates that positive, affirming messages have a significant effect on student achievement.
By 
Thomas Toch and Susan Headden

In an era of rising academic standards, more kids than ever will struggle and fail. But research suggests new ways to help them thrive in the face of adversity.

Over the past five years, more than $200 million has gone toward launching the new Common Core standards, with the goal of closing achievement gaps in public schools. But for all their meticulous detail about math and language curricula, the standards fail to address one important factor: the psychological barriers that stand between many students and deeper learning. Unless students are motivated to take on the new standards, and persuaded that they’re up to the challenge, the Common Core could have the unintended effect of leaving many students even further behind. 

Researchers like Stanford psychology professor Carol Dweck—best known for her 2006 book Mindset—have been gathering insights into student motivation for three decades. New work by her colleagues makes a strong case for focusing on students’ perceptions of themselves. In a variety of studies, these researchers have found that students who doubt their academic abilities, or question whether students with their particular backgrounds belong at their schools, frequently fall behind or fail at school—regardless of their innate intelligence or the quality of the teaching they receive.

The good news is that students can be buttressed psychologically to tackle academic challenges. In one instance, David Yeager of the University of Texas at Austin, who studied with Dweck, and Stanford psychology professor Geoffrey Cohen report that students of color more frequently take steps to improve their performance when they trust their teachers' commitment to helping them. For a study that was recently published in The Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, Yeager and Cohen had 7th-graders at a middle-class, racially diverse New England public middle school each write an essay on a personal hero. The teachers graded the essays the way they typically would, adding routine critical comments like "unclear," "give examples," and "wrong word."

Then the researchers randomly attached one of two sticky notes to each essay. None of the students were aware that they were part of a study and thought their teachers had written the notes. Half of them received a bland message saying, "I'm giving you these comments so that you'll have feedback on your paper." The other half received a note saying, “I’m giving you these comments because I have very high expectations and I know you can reach them”—a comment intended to signal teachers' investment in their students' success.

Then teachers offered the students an opportunity to revise their essays.

The results were striking. Among white students, 87 percent of those who received the encouraging teacher message turned in new essays, compared to 62 percent of those who got the bland note. Among African American students, the effect was even greater, with 72 percent in the encouraged group doing the revision, compared to only 17 percent of those randomly chosen to get the bland message. And the revised essays received higher scores from both the students' teachers and outside graders hired for the study.

Yeager and Cohen concluded that students were more motivated to take an extra step academically when they perceived their teachers' critical feedback as a genuine desire to help rather than as an expression of indifference or disdain toward their racial group. To further test that hypothesis, Yeager and Cohen surveyed students' trust of their teachers going into the study and found that the encouraging note had the largest effect on a subgroup of African American students who had previously reported trusting their teachers the least (as measured by survey questions such as, "My teachers … have a fair and valid opinion of me"). 

Read the full story in The Atlantic.

Geoffrey Cohen is the James G. March Professor of Organizational Studies in Education and Business at the Stanford Graduate School of Education, a professor of Psychology, and a professor of Organizational Behavior Stanford Graduate School of Business