The Trap of “Smart”


Can the words we use to praise our students sap the motivation to learn? Why is it that some students seem to excel at school right away, then burn out, while other students start slow, but finish first?


Good Intentions That Trigger the Trap


Emma and Noah wait for their teacher to return their tests. The test wasn’t difficult, so both of them feel confident.


“Wow, that’s a great score,” the teacher tells Noah. “You’re so smart!”


“Wow, that’s a great score,” the teacher tells Emma. “You must have worked very hard.”


This is the trap of “smart:” Praising students for being smart can decrease motivation and performance (Claudia Muller and Carol Dweck). To understand this surprising and counterintuitive effect, we’ll examine the mindset of students like Noah and Emma.


Research suggests that this simple feedback can have powerful and unintended consequences for Emma and Noah. Emma is more likely to seek out greater challenges and perform better on future tests. Noah, however, won’t try as hard and may perform poorly on the same test if given to him again.


Mindset and Identity


A fundamental part of a student’s mindset is their view of their own abilities. Either they believe that they can grow and evolve over time (“Growers”), or that ability is fixed (“Knowers”). One way that students build this sense of self is by assimilating what others say about them.


Noah (Knower): The teacher said I’m smart. He’s someone I respect, and he’s right about so many things, he’s probably right about this. His praise feels good. I should act like a smart person. Smart people don’t get wrong answers. If I get something wrong, that means I’m not smart!


Emma (Grower): The teacher said I’m a hard worker. Hark workers keep at a task until it’s done. Getting a question wrong isn’t a problem. It’s a temporary setback I can overcome! I should see where my mistakes were so I don’t repeat them. I’ll practice advanced material so that this seems easy next time I see it.


Students who become Knowers will get defensive or dismissive out of frustration when they under-perform or receive a poor grade. Growers challenge themselves to improve.


Breaking the Trap of “Smart”


In the long run, Growers make better students (and citizens) than Knowers. How do we encourage our students to become Growers? It starts with the way we talk to them. The best praise is specific and about an action.


Compare these praises:

“You’re a good writer.”  versus  “Your essay was well organized and it made your final argument stronger. You must have dug deep into your research.”

“What a great basketball player!”   as opposed to “Great positioning in getting those rebounds. All that practice is paying off.”


How does each pair compare? Praise about actions and not results can help cultivate a Grower mindset into one of a Knower.


Moral of the story: When you have something nice to say, say it in the right way.



Written by Will G. Novastar Prep English Learning Coach

Praise for Intelligence Can Undermine Children’s Motivation and Performance. Mueller, Claudia and Dweck, Carol. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol. 75, No. 1; November 1998.


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