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Stereotyped Attitudes and Learning

Posted Feb 09 2013 12:00am

Of the many factors that influence a student’s ability to learn, ATTITUDE is way ahead of whatever is in second place. Attitude includes interest, confidence, and initiative. One of my readers steered me to pointing out that how a student deals with bad test scores or failure also has an enormous impact on learning. The key seems to be the student’s self-stereotype. One common problem is learned helplessness. That is, past experiences of failure become generalized into believing the problem reflects innate limitation. Thus, the student doesn’t try to overcome poor performance because of a lack of confidence.

Developing such a self-defeating attitude begins with in small steps. For example, if a student makes low test scores in a given course, the student may think she just doesn’t have talent for this particular subject. If this happens in several courses over several years, she comes to think she just doesn’t have ability, period! Unfortunately, such responses typically occur early, in elementary school, and the negative attitude becomes set in concrete for the rest of life. The web site referenced above has some good practical suggestions for parents and teachers to help students deal with the negative attitudes that contribute to academic shortcomings.

The more productive response to bad grades in a course is to work harder and smarter, believing that improvement will come. When it does, the student develops confidence and belief in her innate abilities. This too can become set in concrete for life if the student has enough such success stories early in school. But I mean real success, not the glib “Black is beautiful” or “I am somebody” kind of phony affirmation. Confidence can’t be given. It has to be earned.

Lack of confidence, unfortunately, is readily imposed. Youngsters quickly come to accept negative racial, ethnic, or gender stereotypes. They all too easily generalize a few defeats into an “I give up” attitude. I explore these issues and provide tips for learning from mistakes in more detail in my latest book, Memory Power 101 .

The bottom line is that it takes courage to overcome mistakes and failure. I don’t know how you explicitly teach children to be courageous. But surely, they can learn courage from treating failure as a challenge and discovering that they can overcome it.
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