Students' theories of intelligence are their beliefs about the nature and workings of their intellect. Some students believe that their intelligence is a fixed trait—that they have been given a certain amount of intelligence and that is that. This is called an entity theory of intelligence, and students with this view become very concerned with how much intelligence they have. Other students believe that their intelligence is a quality they can develop through their effort and education. This is called an incremental theory of intelligence, and students with this view are more focused on learning and becoming smarter. Each theory affects not only students' motivation to learn but also their success in learning and their achievement in school.
Research on theories of intelligence grew out of the study of students' achievement goals (Dweck, 2000). Research had found that some students were strongly oriented toward validating their ability (they pursued performance goals), whereas other students were oriented toward learning in the same situation (they pursued learning or mastery goals). This raised the question: What determined which goals students would favor? Research by Carol Dweck with Mary Bandura and later with Ellen Leggett, Ying-Yi Hong, and C.Y. Chiu (see Dweck, 2006) showed that students' theories of intelligence predicted which goals they would tend to pursue. Students who held a fixed (entity) view of intelligence tended to pursue performance goals in an attempt to document their ability (or in an attempt to avoid a negative judgment of their ability), whereas students who held a malleable (or incremental) view of their intelligence tended to pursue learning goals in an attempt to develop their ability (e.g., Dweck & Leggett, 1988).
As this work developed, it was shown that this concept applies to a wide range of abilities, including athletic ability and social skills. Individuals can have theories about the fixedness or malleability of many different abilities, and their theories will predict their goals and motivation in these different domains.
More and more research from cognitive psychology and neuroscience is supporting the idea that important parts of intelligence can be developed through educational programs and that the brain has far more plasticity throughout life than was previously believed. It is interesting to note that Alfred Binet (1857–1911), the inventor of the IQ test, had a very strong incremental theory. He developed the IQ test, not to measure fixed intelligence but to identify students who were not on course in the public schools in the hopes of developing better curricula for them.
It is found that about 40% of students endorse an entity theory, about 40% endorse an incremental theory, and about 20% do not indicate a preference for either theory. Students' theories tend to be relatively stable over time (Robins & Pals, 2002), but they can be changed by a workshop or an intervention. It is not consistently found that the endorsement of a particular theory of intelligence differs by a student's past achievement level, gender, race, or ethnicity. However, it is increasingly found that the theories of intelligence may matter more for females or for students in ethnic or racial groups that are subject to negative stereotypes about ability. In these cases, it is found that holding an entity theory makes students more susceptible to the harmful effects of these stereotypes, whereas holding an incremental theory makes students less vulnerable to them (e.g., Good, Aronson, & Inzlicht, 2003). Overall, it is found that holding an incremental theory of intelligence favors the growth of ability over time (see, e.g., Blackwell, Trzesniewski, & Dweck, 2007).
Researchers have detected the impact of children's theories in children as young as 5 years of age (Heyman, Dweck, & Cain, 1992). However, these are not theories of intelligence but rather theories about goodness and badness, which are the issues that young children are dealing with. Vulnerable young children tend to believe they are bad when they fail or are criticized, and they believe that badness is a stable trait. In contrast, resilient young children tend to believe they are still good children when they fail or are criticized, and that badness can be changed.
Students' theories of intelligence are studied in several ways. First, their theories of intelligence can be measured. This is typically done by asking them to disagree or agree (on a six-point scale) with statements such as “You have a certain amount of intelligence, and you really can't do much to change it” (entity theory) or “No matter who you are, you can change your intelligence a lot” (incremental theory) (see Dweck, 2000 for measures). Students' theories of intelligence are then used to predict their motivation or achievement. Measuring students' theories of intelligence works best with children 10 years of age and older.
Students' theories of intelligence can also be induced (temporarily) by exposing them to stories or articles that espouse an entity or incremental theory of intelligence or by telling them that a task measured a fixed ability or an ability that can be developed. It is then found that these induced theories will predict students' motivation and performance.
Finally, students' theories of intelligence can be changed through workshops or interventions. In these cases, students are taught an incremental theory by means of lessons that convey that the brain is like a muscle that gets stronger with use and that every time students work hard and learn new things, the neurons in their brains form new connections. Researchers then follow the students and look for changes in motivation and achievement.
The research shows that each theory of intelligence creates an entire psychological and motivational framework that has widespread effects (Blackwell et al., 2007). First, the theories, as noted earlier, affect students' goals, orienting them toward documenting their intelligence or toward learning. It has been shown that students with an entity theory will pass up important opportunities to learn if there is a danger that they will do poorly or expose a deficiency (e.g., Hong, Chiu, Dweck, Lin, & Wan, 1999). This is true even if it means that they are putting future achievement in jeopardy by passing up such opportunities. Students with an entity theory may also act defensively and conceal or lie about their deficiencies rather than confront and rectify them. For example, they are more likely to engage in self-handicapping (Rhodewalt, 1994). These are strategies that put students' performance at risk (e.g., watching television instead of studying the night before a test), but allow them to preserve their sense of their ability if they fail.
Next, students' theories of intelligence create different attitudes toward effort. Those with an entity theory believe that effort is a sign of low intelligence (Blackwell et al., 2007). They believe that if you have ability you would not need effort. In contrast, students with an incremental theory believe that effort is a good thing, something that helps build abilities. These different beliefs play an important role in dampening the achievement of entity students and enhancing the achievement of incremental students.
The theories of intelligence also influence students' reactions to setbacks. Students with an entity theory believe that failures, even at the beginning of a new course, signify a lack of ability (Blackwell et al., 2007). In line with this, they display a lack of persistence. For example, compared to students with an incremental theory, they report that they would study less after a poor grade in a new subject, that they would try never to take a course in that subject again, and that they would seriously consider cheating on the next test. Thus, when students believe they lack a fixed ability, they do not see good options for bringing about success in the future. Students with an incremental theory believe that school failures reflect more readily on their effort and their study or learning strategies. As a result, they react to challenges and setbacks with persistence. They step up their effort and they seek new learning and strategies.
When students have been tracked over challenging school transitions, researchers have found that those with the incremental theory out-achieve those with the entity theory (Blackwell et al., 2007). Those with an incremental theory also show increasing self-esteem over challenging times, in comparison to those with an entity theory, who show eroding self-esteem (Robins & Pals, 2002).
Finally, as noted above, several studies have sought to change students' theories of intelligence by creating workshops that teach students an incremental theory. After these workshops, students have shown significant increases in their motivation to learn, their grades, and their achievement test scores (Aronson, Fried, & Good, 2002; Blackwell et al., 2007; Good, Aronson, & Inzlicht, 2003).
There is less research available on teachers' theories of intelligence and how they affect students' achievement. However, work by Falko Rheinberg in Germany has shown that when teachers believe they have an impact on their students' intelligence, many students who were previously low achievers blossom in their classes. However, when teachers believe they have no impact on their students' intelligence, students who entered their classes as low achievers tend to remain low achievers.
It is interesting to note that in the famous Rosenthal and Jacobson research on the teacher expectancy effect, teachers were in a sense given an incremental theory of intelligence. They were told that certain students in their class would blossom intellectually that year (not, as commonly believed, that certain students were simply smart). Their results speak to the efficacy of teachers' holding an incremental theory of a student's ability.
Butler (2000) has examined the impact of teachers' theories of intelligence on their judgments of students' intelligence. She gave teachers information about two students, one whose performance increased over 10 tests and one whose performance decreased over 10 tests. Teachers with an incremental theory judged the student with the increasing performance to have higher ability than the one with decreasing performance, but teachers with an entity theory believed the opposite. Incremental teachers were focusing on progress over time as an index of ability, whereas entity teachers judged students by initial performance even if that performance was not maintained over time.
There has also been research on practices that foster an entity and incremental theory of intelligence in children (e.g., Mueller & Dweck, 1998). In experimental studies it has been shown that when adults praise children for their intelligence (person praise), as opposed to their effort (process praise), it fosters an entity theory of intelligence. Praising children for their intelligence also led them to care more about looking smart than about learning, made them lose confidence in their abilities when a task became difficult, led them to show impaired motivation and performance after difficulty, and led them to lie about their performance afterward. In contrast, praising children for their effort led them to embrace challenges, maintain confidence in the face of difficulty, maintain their motivation, and show enhanced performance after difficulty. Interestingly, the self-esteem movement has advocated praising children's intelligence and talents as a way to build their confidence and motivation. However, this research shows that, instead, praise for intelligence backfires by fostering an entity theory of intelligence with all of its vulnerabilities.
The research reviewed shows that an incremental theory of intelligence promotes in students a greater desire to learn and enhanced resilience in the face of difficulty. It also predicts better performance on difficult tasks and across challenging school transitions, and it appears to be particularly important for the achievement of students who labor under negative stereotypes. It has been shown that an incremental theory of intelligence can be directly taught to students by teaching about the brain, for example, by telling them that the brain is a muscle that gets stronger with effort and learning and that every time they apply themselves and learn new things, their brain forms new connections. As discussed above, an incremental theory can also be encouraged by process praise. This would include praising children's effort, challenge-seeking, strategies, or improvement rather than their product, outcome, or ability. These are messages that can be readily incorporated into everyday classroom practices without altering the curriculum and without a great deal of additional time and effort on the part of teachers.
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