Excerpts from

Deanna Kuhn, Phi Delta Kappan, June, 2007


Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck reports that people show stability from early childhood on in their beliefs about ability and whether it is fixed or can be developed, and she claims that this characteristic significantly affects academic performance.


By early adolescence, students begin wanting reasons for investing time and effort in any activity, and they begin to exercise greater autonomy in deciding what is worthwhile. Dweck reports that whether a student has a performance orientation toward school (believing that ability is fixed) or a learning orientation (believing that ability can be developed) does not predict self-esteem in elementary school but does predict self-esteem by the beginning of junior high school. Self-esteem has been found to decline at this time, especially for girls and for those with a performance orientation. So does professed interest in academic subjects. A performance orientation heightens fear that one’s incompetence may be exposed, especially once a young person has experienced failure. An unflattering evaluation lowers self-esteem, and as a self-protective mechanism, the value attached to the activity is reduced. To the extent that a student is ego-involved rather than task-involved, academic activities come to serve primarily as occasions for evaluating one’s competence relative to others.


Few parents spend time talking with their children regarding why it is they study what they study. If students are going to work harder they need to find a reason. Complying with the goals adults have for them won’t do. Parents can push and pull their children to bring home those A’s, but in the end, it is the children who need to find sound reasons for wanting to do so.


For additional information:

Angela Duckworth and Martin Seligman, “Self-Discipline Outdoes I.Q. in Predicting Academic Performance of Adolescents,” Psychological Science, vol. 16, 2005, pp. 939-44.


Carol Dweck. “The Development of Ability Conceptions,” in Allan Wigfield and Jacquelynne S. Eccles, eds. Development of Achievement Motivation (San Diego: Academic Press, 2002), pp. 57-91.