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Beliefs About Intelligence and Learning

Beliefs about Intelligence and Learning

A selection from How Learning Works:
7 Research-Based Principles for Smart Teaching.

Susan A. Ambrose, etal*

Address Students' Beliefs about Learning Directly

Even if it is not directly germane to the disciplinary content of your course, [or tutoring session], consider discussing the nature of learning and intelligence with your students to disabuse them of unproductive beliefs (for example, "I can't draw" or "I can't do math") and to highlight the positive effects of practice, effort, and adaptation.  Some instructors like to point out that the brain is a muscle that requires exercise or to make the analogy between the ongoing practice and discipline required by musicians, dancers, and athletes and the mental discipline and practice necessary for developing intellectual skills.

Broaden Students' Understanding of Learning

Students often believe that "you either know something or you don't know it."  In fact, learning and knowledge can operate on multiple levels, from the ability to recall a fact, concept, or theory (declarative knowledge) to knowing how to apply it (procedural knowledge) to knowing when to apply it (contextual knowledge) to knowing why it is appropriate to a particular situation (conceptual knowledge).  In other words, you can know something at one level (recognize it) and still not know it (know how to use it).  Consider introducing students to these various forms of knowledge so that they can more accurately assess a task (for example, "This calls for me to define x and explain when it is applicable"), assess their own strengths and weaknesses in relation to it (for example, "I can define x but I don't know when to use it"), and identify gaps in their education (for example, "I've never learned how to use x").  You might also point out to students that different kinds of knowledge are required for different tasks—for example, solving problems, writing poetry, designing products, and performing on stage.  Asking students to consider diverse types and dimensions of knowledge can help expand their beliefs about intelligence and ability in ways that enhance their metacognitive development.

Help Students Set Realistic Expectations

Give students realistic expectations for the time that it might take them to  develop particular skills.  It can be helpful to recall your own frustrations as a student and to describe how you (or famous figures in the field) overcame various obstacles.  Seeing that intelligent and accomplished people sometimes struggle to gain mastery—and that learning does not happen magically or without effort—can prompt students to revise their own expectations about learning and their views of intelligence and to persevere when they encounter difficulty.  It can also help students avoid unproductive and often inaccurate attributions about themselves (for example, "I can't do it; I must be dumb," "This is too hard; I'm not cut out for science") or the environment (for example, "I still haven't learned it; this instructor is no good,"  "I failed; the test was unfair") and instead focus on aspects of learning over which they have control: their effort, concentration, study habits, level of engagement, and so on.

*(Michael W. Bridges, Michele DiPietro, Marsha C. Lovett, & Marie K. Norman)