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As a computer science professor, I have told some talented students one-on-one that they show a real aptitude for computer science and that they should seriously consider taking more classes in it.

I'm questioning the wisdom of this now that I'm reading Mindset: The New Psychology of Success by Carol Dweck, which cites extensive research on the benefits of having a "growth mindset" (the belief that intelligence can be grown) over a "fixed mindset" (that intelligence is unchanging).

Additionally, two of the students I recently told this to performed way below their ability in the second CS class. Of course, this is not statistically significant.

FWIW, I teach at a women's college with a large number of students who are the first in their families to attend college and/or from ethnic groups underrepresented in CS. Thus, all of my students are at risk of stereotype threat for at least one category to which they belong. It was my hope that pointing out their aptitude would help counter this and encourage them to pursue an area of strength.

Is there any research on whether it is a good idea to let students know a professor believes them to have aptitude, or is promoting the idea of innate aptitude likely to backfire?

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    Without any data to support it, I think the opposite statement "no one believed in me, so I got depressed and quit" is far from unheard of. I am looking forward to see how to convey this, though. – Davidmh May 20 '15 at 9:08
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    Aptitude is only half of the story. One also needs to put in the effort. As children, girls are told that they are good at something because they are clever, whereas boys are told that they are good because they tried hard. So when a girl fails, she believes it is because she is not clever, whereas a when a boy fails, he believes it is because he did not try hard enough. The consequences are that many women do not even consider the sciences. [Citation required.] – Dave Clarke May 20 '15 at 9:24
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    @DaveClarke Indeed, aptitude is necessary but not sufficient. FYI, found a citation for your claim: psychologytoday.com/blog/the-science-success/201101/… – Ellen Spertus May 20 '15 at 9:37
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    I see these answers below. Rather than compete with them I'm going to make two comments. 1) I would do this sparingly and not pick like 5 students a year to whom you absolutely must say this. You should have spent a reasonable amount of time and seen progress before making such a statement. 2) Make sure there's a complete statement made and not just "You seem to have aptitude for CS." Something more like "Watching you work you seem to have an aptitude of the subject matter and I think with lots of hard work you could go very far. I would be glad to mentor you in this if you'd like." – Dave Kanter May 20 '15 at 11:20
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    My advisor guided me mostly by asking questions. You can ask the student, "You've been doing very well [in this course / with debugging / fill in the blank]. How are you finding it?" Hopefully that will give you some context about the particular student. - - - The other thing you can do is say at the end of the conversation, "I hope you'll stop by and check in with me from time to time. I was very impressed with your work in this class, and I'd love to hear what you're taking, how you're enjoying your course work." – aparente001 May 20 '15 at 13:34

11 Answers 11

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Praise tangibles, not intangibles.

Tangibles
Say things like:

  • I was impressed with the way you were dedicated to completing programming assignments, even when they are difficult. Other students gave up, or skipped requirements X, Y, and Z.
  • You did a great job thinking through the logic on the Data Structures assignment. I'm assuming that you took the time to think it through on paper, or in pseudo-code first -- something that a lot of first year students never do.
  • Your algorithms are elegant and show that you studied the coursework and theory behind them. In particular, on the travelling salesman problem, I could tell that you took the time to study the problem, and think through different solutions. Well done.
  • You used parts of Java (or C#, C++, whatever) that I didn't teach. That gets me really excited, because it is the mark of a great programmer that they are inquisitive about better ways to do things, and to learn their tools without waiting to be spoon-fed.

Then you can follow with encouragement related to those tangibles, such as, "based on the skills and work ethic you've demonstrated, along with your willingness to put in the effort to solve problems, I think that you could make a really talented programmer. If it interests you, I hope to see you in more CS classes in the future."

Intangibles
Avoid generalities like:

  • You'd make a great programmer! You should take more programming classes.
  • You've got a great mind for CS. It's not for everyone, so it's fun to see talent in such a young student.
  • If you stick to programming, I know you'll go far.

Intangibles can set people up for failure because they don't help them identify and grow their strengths. If a student earned an A in your class, it's because they worked hard, and were determined, and stuck to it. But if you tell them that they are "good" or "talented", without telling them why, it gives them the impression that their success is not because of their hard work, but is because of some unnamed virtue inside of them. This can lead to a variety of ills:

  1. They may have only taken that class to fulfill a requirement, and may have worked extra-hard because they were nervous about passing it. If you praise them by saying that they are a "great programmer", it risks pushing them to continue with a field that may not actually interest them. Worse, it can make them coast in the future.
  2. It can actually hamstring them, because they are afraid of letting you down, but don't know what it is about their work that pleased you.

Your intentions are good, and it's great that you want to encourage these young women to feel empowered to tackle a field traditionally dominated by men. But when you encourage them, be sure to give them tangible feedback, not just generalities.

Hope that helped!

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    +1 This is a fantastic answer, particular given the clear and actionable recommendations for tangibles vs. intangibles. – jakebeal May 21 '15 at 18:02
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    -1 For ignoring the "nature" part and considering only negative sides of praising students' aptitude. (Plus, general "preaching" tone.) – Piotr Migdal May 22 '15 at 11:14
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    I'm half and half about this answer, because if a student only gets praised on one or two things that they personally don't consider to be important then they might not acknowledge the praise as being particularly good. – Pharap May 23 '15 at 13:05
  • @PiotrMigdal I disagree that the "nature" part is ignored. The "Intangibles" section spends a full paragraph and a list discussing why getting into specifics is better than simply noting natural talent. – jpmc26 May 24 '15 at 17:22
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Is praising students' aptitude harmful?

A universal once-for-all answer to the question is impossible. There's a lot of subjectivity in here and a lot really depends on the particular student in question. In general, both praising and not-praising can potentially have their pros and cons:

Praise them -

  • Positives - Given the kind of students you mention, with an undeniable possibility of stereotype threat, it is generally a good idea to have the "growth mindset" in mind, and make sure they stay interested. They may start putting in more from their side, when you praise their potential.

  • Negatives - There is of course a possibility of 'I'm so good, I can get away with working less, and still sail through' mindset creeping in. And if effort drops, the I'm so good part becomes useless. One of my teachers in grad school used to convey this sentiment by saying:

    A person with B grade intelligence and A grade effort, is always going to end up further than one with A grade intelligence and B grade effort.

Don't Praise Them -

  • Positives - The only positive seems to be that you are projecting yourself as being hard to win over. There could be an occasional person who may take this up as a challenge and work extra hard to impress you. But again, not every body would think in that manner, and there would be some other blokes who'll say - 'He almost never has anything good to say about anyone, let's just stop caring about what this tough nut says'. So, again, it is not universally going to be positive.

  • Negatives - Davidmh may disagree, but it does put off some people (like the example right above). Especially when the the students are typically

    ... the first in their families to attend college and/or from underrepresented ethnic groups

It is easy to imagine that they could be fighting odds, and wouldn't be having a very high self-esteem. In that case, this attitude is unlikely to help them come up. Plus, if their performance suffers at any time, add low self-esteem and this attitude, and you'll most likely have them regretting their decision to join this program. Again, that's not universal - may work for some and not for others.


The best policy is to remember that your entire batch is not a bunch of (as we say in Physics) identical, indistinguishable particles, and approach this one small step at a time. Focus on one, let's say A. Try praising A at an instance, and see how he/she responds. Accordingly modify the approach further, if they are getting more confident about themselves, and effort goes up, then good. If they are getting more cocky and casual about work, retract the approach - be less charitable in praising and show them there's still some way to go. And please remember, what works for A may not be the same for B.

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    As the first in my family to attend college, I've never had any problem not getting praise from professors. Granted, it would be really nice if I did, but I'm going to university because I love to learn and I love to teach. Hell, I wouldn't even consider myself anything more than moderately-motivated, and praise (or lack thereof) has never had any effect on that. Your assessment is good though; I've seen each of these 4 reactions from my various classmates over the years, though the usual case is that, praise or not, people just try to pass the class and don't care about anything else. – Chris Cirefice May 20 '15 at 15:09
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    My comment was along the same lines as your argument. We are in full agreement. – Davidmh May 20 '15 at 17:24
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    I like this, especially the point that the students aren't all the same and you can have repeated, considered interactions with them! I have found, TA-ing first generation or shy students, that reassurance of their capability seems more helpful than not. I often add something like "There's tons of work in this course, but once you've done it you'll have these skills [...] which are useful in these jobs and academic fields [...]; what were you thinking of going into?" – cphlewis May 20 '15 at 18:30
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    Praise can also feed a student's imposter syndrome. Concrete, evidence-based praise helps. Also, aptitude=value (and even productivity=value) praise can feed fear about losing one's abilities (productivity) and so losing one's value. Encouraging people to be glorious is hard work, especially given the "batch" nature and psychological brokenness. A teacher can only do so much (but it can be so much). – Paul A. Clayton May 22 '15 at 12:01
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Like so much else in academia, I think there's a false dichotomy here.

It is certainly possible to give praise for students' aptitude for a given subject, but the reinforcement should be along the lines of: "If you apply yourself and work hard, you'd make a great [whatever field the aptitude is in]."

That way, you make it clear that you think you've found talent, but you've also stressed that the way to make the most of it is by putting effort into it and working hard.

One further point to consider: if you really see someone whom you believe has lots of aptitude for your particular area, and you'd like to see her career blossom, consider acting as a mentor to that student. Making sure that students have strong support networks is a critical component for later success, particularly in academia.

9

When I was a student, I was regularly told how smart I was, and I learned I did not need to work hard to do well. This came back to be a problem when I got to higher levels of college.

I think that it is important to give well-rounded compliments. Rather than just saying,

"You're really great at that!"

which might breed indiscipline, and rather than saying,

"When you work hard to do your best, you do really well!"

which might give a negative feeling of, "I'm not actually smart; I just have to work really hard", instead why not say something like:

"You are naturally talented/really gifted at this; when you work hard and diligently put a lot of time into it your work is incredible!"

4

This fixed/growth mindset (~nature/nurture) dichotomy is a trap. For virtually every specialized activity both innate skill and effort are crucial.

You can't change innate factors (by definition) but you can grow, so it's not surprising why it's good to focus on the later. Yet, in the very competitive world of academia, it's good to hint that someone may be a good fit - but as long as it will make working more, not less. (Otherwise, they may think that there are not a good fit, and focus on something different or resign.)

That is - focusing on working according to one's own limits, rather being better than the majority of a class.

See also:

And from my personal experience:

  • praise made me working more,
  • saying that "I put a lot of effort, because I got nice results" when I knew I put little effort made me working less.
  • I might have done a poor job explaining growth mindset. It does not say that innate skill doesn't matter, just that it counts far less toward success than effort does. Or perhaps that's the point you're trying to make. – Ellen Spertus May 20 '15 at 18:26
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Note: this isn't really conclusive, and I think the other answers offer a more concrete suggestion. But this wasn't really something I could condense into a comment.

Given my experiences as a student, I suspect it really depends.

When I felt like the praise I got undeserved, things might have been a bit counterproductive. I doubt I worked less hard because of it -- I try to study because I want to be really good at things, but it made me more cynical about people's praise than I ever needed to be.

On the other hand, I've been in a number of situations where I ended up with awful grades in subjects I cared about. It was encouraging when a professor told me that I was smart and that I could still thrive in academia if this was what I wanted to do, although the utility of this was limited by my specific circumstances. In another, similarly, when I had a teacher (admittedly in music) who I felt was very hard to please, it was actually helpful to hear that I had a knack for some of the things involved.

In the end, I suppose what was helpful was that my progress wasn't simply reduced to "you work hard enough". Some of this might be related to my snobbery or specific interests (e.g. I would assume that one needs some creativity linked to aptitude to be able to formulate research questions) and the stereotype of "many good students who work hard aren't actually smart" (e.g. alluded to in this Quora post), but I don't think it's entirely that. As has been mentioned in other posts, praising work ethic could have the unfortunate side-effect of "so I'm getting good grades simply because I work hard; I'm not actually good at this."

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Speaking as a male student with a multitude of learning disabilities, I would much rather the instructor show me that they see value in me by providing additional instruction and acknowledge that this instruction is because they see a specific advantage that I have over the other students.

Case in point, if your students whom you speak of have a superior aptitude for the computer sciences, then teach them something beyond what their peers are learning. This not only shows that you are more involved in their education, but it also demonstrates to these individuals that the effort they have put into learning their crafts has paid off and that they have been noticed in a positive light.

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I honestly believe that this really depends on the person in consideration,I can say that in my family...we are never praised at home for any achievements (except probably behind our backs), and get criticized if we mess up.While this helps my brother to do better..I on the other hand feel I can do nothing right.I honestly feel one must understand how the student responds to praise or criticism. Some people fight harder when told they are not good enough while some fall weak to such comments,and some people work harder if told they are amazing at something.

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Maybe regression toward the mean played a role here?

Consider the following experiment: Start throwing six-sided dice, and when a six comes up, you should praise the die how well it rolled. Observe, that over 80% of the time, the next roll will be worse. Was it because of the praise?

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    Professors do not actually grade students by rolling dice, although I know it sometimes feels that way. – Ellen Spertus May 22 '15 at 1:21
  • @espertus : I was not talking about professors grading students by rolling dice! It was an example to illustrate that an event can have completely random causes and so we have to consider the possibility whether the drop in prerformance was really caused by the praising or had completely unrelated causes. This way of thinking is actually mandatory in research, in every experiment the probability of the events having random or unrelated causes must be studied. I edited my answer slightly to make it more clear. – vsz May 22 '15 at 6:06
  • I was trying to humorously make the point that grades are not random. My experience (15+ years of teaching) is that grades by the same student within the same subject are highly correlated. – Ellen Spertus May 22 '15 at 15:37
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In addition to the answers above, you shouldn't put too much weight to psychological material. A lot of the research Dweck cites borders on pseudo-science and most of the rest is simple common sense.

So let's use some common sense. For example, don't praise them in a way that is likely to make them put in less effort. If you tell someone they're already good at something, you put them in a frame of mind where they've already reached the goal, when in fact they're at the start.

On the other hand, innate ability is a thing and it is important that talented pupils know what their options are.

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This will depend on the person, its background, experience, how one was brought up etc.

I had excellent marks in primary / high school, praised by many, and the love to learn was inoculated by my parents. Being relatively clever helped as well - but I did not know that.

When I went to a top-tier university I saw people who were way better than I was. Some of them did not make it to the second semester (or second year) because they were so used to "getting it" on the spot (because high school aims for average pupils, at least in France). They were not used to working hard to understand things.

I ended up with a PhD in Physics, again with many brilliant people who stayed in academia and are doing great. I see myself as being average, possibly average+ but with a love to learn, which helped a lot.

What I am trying to say is that you might consider inoculating them this love to learn which, consolidated with their natural cleverness, is going to make magical sparkles.

My son was tested for intellectual capacities (for many reasons irrelevant here - not because of an obsession of his parents :)). He had capacities of a 16 yo when he was 8. I made extra, extra, super sure he understands that he must love to learn (and work) and that his capacities are a booster if he does.

protected by StrongBad May 22 '15 at 14:10

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