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Praising a Process-Based Identity

A father giving his daughter praise while she's studying

Any parent or educator who has read about growth mindsets knows that you’re supposed to praise process rather than character traits. It’s best to praise effort and strategy rather than intelligence or talent.

When a student does well, you don’t say, “You’re so smart!” or “You’re so good at math!”

You say, “You must have worked really hard!” or “The way you studied sure paid off!”

This type of praise is helpful because it emphasizes the choices kids have made rather than the genetic gifts that are outside their control. Being praised for good choices encourages them to make similar choices in the future, leading to more growth and greater success.

There is, however, a version of character-based praise that supports the cultivation of a growth mindset: praising a process-based identity.

And it might be even more effective than the type of praise described above.

Here’s how it works. You take standard growth mindset praise, but then you tweak it to assign a positive characteristic to the student.

  • “Good job studying so hard for that test” becomes “Good job being such a dedicated learner.”
  • “You worked really hard to figure that out” becomes “Figuring that out looked tough. I’m proud of you for being such a persistent person.”
  • “Thanks for your help” becomes “Thanks for being such a good helper.”

You’re still praising their process – their choices – but you’re taking it a step further and claiming that those choices are aligned with who they are. This causes those choices to be easier to make in the future. If I’m “a dedicated learner” or “a good helper” then it’s only natural for me to act accordingly.

If you’ve ever read Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People, then this might sound familiar. Psychologists call this technique Positive Trait Attribution. When someone claims that you possess a virtuous characteristic, such as being helpful or hard-working, you’ll want to live up to that vision of yourself. You’ll act as though it were true, which, in a classic self-fulfilling prophecy, makes it true.

a student happily studying because they self-identify as a hard worker

Praising a process-based identity helps kids develop a better sense of self – an identity that’s based on choices and values rather than based on being smart or successful. When you have this kind of self-identity, success is a natural byproduct of the way you live. The student who studies every night earns higher grades. The basketball player who practices every day continually gets better. The professional who never stops learning advances their career.

Ultimately, the most effective way for someone to develop a growth mindset is to experience growth via effort and strategy. So encouraging kids to “try on” a process-based identity by praising them as though they already have one is one of the most powerful things parents and educators can do to cultivate growth mindsets. And all it takes is a simple change in the way we give praise.

Everything Bad About Homework is Good

a student feeling frustrated by their homework

Think of all the things you don’t like about homework: it’s hard, it’s time-consuming, it’s annoying, it’s boring.

All of these supposedly bad things are actually good.

Don’t believe me?

Let’s break it down.

Homework is Hard

Good. It’s supposed to be hard. Doing challenging mental work makes you smarter. It exercises your brain muscles.

Homework is Time-Consuming

Good. Putting in time to learn something or master a skill is one way to convince your brain to care about it, which is essential for memory formation. If you don’t put in time at home, you probably won’t retain what you learned at school.

Homework is Annoying

Good. That’s mental toughness training. It builds up mental calluses. It prepares you to do annoying things you actually care about, like doing the taxes for your side hustle or editing a video for your YouTube channel.

Homework is Boring

Good. In the modern world, people don’t experience enough boredom; we expect to be constantly entertained. Thus, when we have to do something boring or deal with a boring situation, we give up or have a meltdown. Homework is a way to regularly practice dealing with boredom.

Homework is Training for Life

I sincerely hope you do something meaningful with your life – work that you care about, work that you enjoy, work that matters.

But even if you get to spend your life on a career you love, there will be challenges. You will struggle. Projects will take longer than you’d like. Some aspects of the work will be annoying. Some aspects will be boring. These challenges also arise in the pursuit of athletic or artistic excellence, home ownership, marriage, and raising kids.

So the next time you sit down to do your homework, remember that it’s not just a way to earn points, and it’s not just preparing you for next week’s test – it’s also preparing you for life.

How to Learn Slippery Concepts

a slippery, wet frog

Some ideas are just plain slippery. Like a wet frog, they’re hard to grasp and even harder to hold onto.

In other words, some of the things you try to learn will be difficult to understand and difficult to remember. They’re more likely to “slip” from your mind.

Classic examples of slippery concepts include: dividing fractions, properly using semicolons, completing the square, indirect object pronouns, naming ionic compounds, irregular preterite conjugations, the French Revolution, the steps of mitosis, and long division.

The things that are slippery for you might be different than the things that are slippery for another student, but the strategies for making them less slippery are the same.

How to Make Slippery Concepts Stick

The first thing you must do is write.

If all you’re doing is looking at the concept or listening to the teacher explain it, you’re not doing enough. That’s like trying to grab a greased-up grapefruit with just your thumb and pinky finger – it’s going to slip out of your grasp. You should use your whole hand. Heck, you can even use two hands.

So take notes, not in order to have a reference to look at later, but because making written product leads to greater understanding and memory.

a student taking notes

The second strategy is to hook the slippery concept onto something familiar. Connect it to something you already know. Draw an analogy between the idea and a related or similar idea. This helps the concept make more sense, which is essential because confusing things are harder to remember.

Now, it’s not necessarily your job to come up with these connections. If your teacher doesn’t provide them, look to other resources. Educational YouTube videos, like Crash Course, often do a great job relating new concepts to old concepts or explaining things via metaphor. Tutors and good textbooks do this too.

The third strategy is to use a memory trick or pneumonic device to make the slippery concept easier to grasp. Songs like the preterite irregulars song affix the slippery concept to a catchy tune, making it easier to remember. Acronyms like PMAT (the steps of mitosis: prophase, metaphase, anaphase, telophase) give you something firm to grab onto. For learning biology, no one does this better than The Amoeba Sisters.

More, More, More

I often describe learning as “walking the mastery path,” and explain the phenomenon of forgetting by pointing out that the mastery path is a muddy slope:

For a slippery concept, the slope is steeper and muddier. Making it to the “I get it!” milestone takes more focus, and forgetting happens more quickly if you don’t revisit the idea soon.

If you already have good study practices that work for you, the answer is to simply do more. To get far enough up the hill that you won’t slip back down requires more repetitions, done more frequently. If you can normally create a long-term memory of a concept with three extra repetitions in a week, try doubling that for slippery concepts. If you can normally wait 24 hours before needing to rescue the memory from being lost, try revisiting the idea within six hours. Test yourself early and often.

There’s Nothing Wrong With You

When something is difficult to understand or remember, it doesn’t mean you’re not smart enough to learn it. It just happens to be a slippery concept for you. If the strategies that usually work for you aren’t working, try different ones. If the amount of studying that usually works for you isn’t working, do more.

With the right resources and enough effort you truly can learn anything.