Understand Higher Education Buzzwords 

In their education section The Atlantic highlights an important paper from the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching that explains some of the new Buzzwords in higher education and what they mean to the understanding of education today.

The Atlantic says, “Ideas like grit, motivation, fitting in, and learning from one’s mistakes, often summarized as noncognitive factors, are just some of the concepts that are coming up more frequently these days. A new paper from the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching provides definitions for many of these new terms, which arose in part because of the recent push by psychologists, economists, and education experts to delve more deeply into what compels students to understand complex new material.”

“Each concept has its own section and is accompanied by summaries of key experiments that gave rise to the ideas’ relevance (as well as reference points for reporters whose inboxes are inundated with the latest efforts to boost student grades and college prospects.)”

Higher Education Explained Through Today’s Jargon

Following are some key definitions quoted from the Carnegie Foundation Paper:


Much of what we know about student motivation exists in a vast reservoir of research covering what’s known collectively as “non-cognitivecontributors to student success, an umbrella term for skills, dispositions, and attributes that fall outside of intellectual ability and content knowledge. It is a broad field that incorporates everything from self-regulation, such as being on time for class, to study strategies, to so-called social-emotional skills, which include such capacities as cooperation and respect for others.





Motivation is a central part of this learning landscape. From the Latin movere, “to move”, it describes students’ desire to engage in learning and do well. More precisely, psychologists define it as the directing of energy and passion toward a goal; it is what starts, directs, sustains, and stops behavior. Motivation is shaped by attitudes that influence the level of students’ engagement in their learning; that is, it influences how actively involved students are in their work—thus how hard they work—and it determines the extent to which they persevere in the face of obstacles.

Toxic Stress

In the classroom, recent research shows that so-called “toxic stress” brought about by such problems as hunger or homelessness can show up in students as distraction, lack of self-control, and distrust of others. All depress motivation.


One common approach to changing behavior in these reluctant students is to spur them with external incentives. Money is one such enticement, and research shows that dollars can indeed prompt students to work harder, particularly when the incentives reward engagement in the process rather than performance outcomes.

Based on these results, [Roland] Fryer writes that “providing incentives for inputs [reading books], not outputs [getting good grades, performing well on tests], seems to spur achievement.” The former, he reasons, incentivizes an identifiable behavior— one that is known to correlate with better reading ability, thus higher reading scores—whereas the latter rewards results that require a range of behaviors, such as attendance and study habits, that aren’t clearly defined.

Yet if the goal of education is to develop innate curiosity and an intrinsic love of learning, offering students money for performance is a problematic way to reach it. An enduring empirical finding is that rewards can enhance motivation when they are unexpected (the first time a student gets the reward), but when they are expected (every time after the first time) they undermine intrinsic, long term motivation.

Seeing the Value

One overarching problem with rewards is that they ignore the value of the task. They allow the educator to disregard his role in making learning more meaningful. “They are essentially an ‘out’,” says Chris Hulleman, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Virginia who has done research on utility value. “If students can’t get motivated to learn two-digit multiplication with the teacher having them sit quietly and complete 40 math problems during a 90-minute math class, the teacher can just offer a reward for whoever completes the work the fastest.”

The problem, Hulleman says, is that the system “doesn’t require the teacher to think about the purpose of the lesson and whether it actually promotes the learning objective.” A better method, he suggests, might be for the teacher to embed the problems in an interesting exercise, such as having students do measurements on the playground, then asking them to multiply numbers to determine the surface area for wood chips.

Fixed Mindset

One potential barrier to students’ motivation and success in school is having a “fixed mindset”, the belief that one is either innately good at something or bad at it, and that all the hard work in the world won’t make a difference. Students with fixed mindsets are apt to say things like “I’m not a math person” or “I’ve never been good at languages”. As a result, in the face of obstacles they often give up. Notably, high-achieving students can also suffer from fixed mindsets—“I always get A’s so I must be smart”—which can keep them from taking risks, thus from reaching their potential, for fear of looking less than brilliant.

Growth Mindset

Students with “growth mindsets”, by contrast, believe that with effort, their ability and performance can improve. They are confident that even if the calculus or the French grammar comes slowly to them, by working hard they will be able to achieve. Likewise, accomplished students who adopt growth mindsets take bigger chances and embrace the possibility of failure. The positive attitude prepares them for the realities of later life, helping them recover when their efforts fail to produce the outcomes they have come to expect.

Mindsets apply not only to academics—to the attitudes that students have about their intellectual abilities—they also apply to what students believe is their rightful place in school.


“When stereotypes are evoked, they fill people’s minds with distracting thoughts—with secret worries about confirming the stereotype,” writes Carol Dweck, professor of psychology at Stanford University.  In one experiment, Aronson and colleagues assessed the effect of this sort of stereotype threat on white males with strong math abilities—Stanford students who had scored an average of 712 on the math SAT—who were very confident in those abilities. As the students took a difficult math test, they were told that Asian students typically performed better on it than did white students. The results, Steele reports, were dramatic: The students who were given the message about the Asian students performed, on average, three items worse on the 18-question test than did the white males who were not given the message.

In another experiment, Steele, Aronson, and fellow researchers found that African-American students did significantly worse on a test when it was presented to them as an assessment of intellectual ability than when it was presented as simply a test of problem-solving skills. With the latter instruction, Steele writes, “we made the stereotype about black’s intelligence irrelevant to interpreting their experience on this particular task…And they responded accordingly.”

A Sense of Belonging

One of the things that strongly predicts on-time college graduation is the accumulation of 12 or more credits by the end of the first term. At the University of Texas, Austin, African-American, poor, and first-generation college students are less likely to complete the credits than are their more advantaged white and Asian-American peers.

Despite its reputation as one of the nation’s most selective public universities, U.T.’s flagship in 2013 managed to graduate just half of its students in four years. For African-American and Hispanic students, the completion rate was even worse—just 39 percent earned their diplomas in four years.

Experts who have studied this issue suspect that one reason for low completion rates is a sense on the part of these students that “people like them” don’t belong in college. Gregory M. Walton, an assistant professor of psychology at Stanford University, has designed a number of studies that test theories around this idea of “belongingness”. In one, Walton and Geoffrey L. Cohen of Stanford randomly assigned freshmen at a selective four-year college to two groups. One group read a report that was ostensibly compiled from a survey of older students. These older students, the report indicated, had also worried about whether they belonged in college, but their worries dissipated over time. (The survey results were said to be consistent across ethnic and gender groups.)

Participants were then asked to write an essay and give a speech describing how their own college experiences echoed those in the survey. They were told that their reflections would help future students ease their transition to college. Students in the other group, by contrast, read a survey that addressed topics unrelated to belonging. The results: Over three years, the GPAs of the African-American students in the treatment group rose steadily, cutting the achievement gap between black and white students by 79 percent.” [Editor’s Note: The use of mentors to impart similar experiences should provide the same positive results as the reading of reports/writing of an essay. A mentor advantage is that the messaging is over time instead of a one-time exposure.]

Questions about their rightful place on campus are also common among the approximately 60 percent of community college students who must enroll in at least one developmental, or remedial, course before going on to credit-bearing work. Often required to repeat math courses they have failed before, fully half of these students quit school within the first few weeks. They disengage for all the reasons mentioned above: they don’t think they are smart enough to do the work, they don’t see the relevance of the class to their lives, they don’t think they even belong in college.

Self-esteem Advocates

The important difference [between these new psychological strategies for strengthening students’ resolve and the self-esteem movement of years past] is that self-esteem advocates typically praised students regardless of their performance, which meant they didn’t distinguish earned praise from unearned praise. As a result, they unintentionally encouraged a belief that effort doesn’t matter, leaving students with a sense of “learned helplessness” that diminished their capacity to tackle obstacles and rebound from failure.


The new work by Walton, Dweck, and colleagues suggests that students are far more likely to be encouraged by the opposite message: that only with effort comes achievement.

Getting “Gritty”, Keeping Control – Psychologist Angela Duckworth of the University of Pennsylvania lumps some of these mindsets together in the trait known as “grit”—what she defines as passion and perseverance for long-term goals, the ability to stick with a task day in and day-out.

Such dispositions, her research shows, are significantly more likely than things like income and standardized test scores to predict success in school and beyond.

To assess grit, Duckworth developed a scale in which students rate themselves on a series of 12 statements such as “new ideas and projects sometimes distract me from previous ones”; “setbacks don’t discourage me”; and “I finish whatever I begin”. Although the test relies entirely on the students’ own judgments, Duckworth and her colleagues found that it was remarkably predictive of achievement.

For instance, Penn students with low SAT and ACT scores who scored high on a grit scale had higher GPAs than students with lower measures of grit. As more and more schools embrace programs to develop grit, the movement has drawn some backlash from critics who suggest that the priority is misplaced. Some say that an emphasis on grit wrongly values specialization over wider experiences, as when Duckworth highlights students who single-mindedly pursue victory in a spelling bee to the exclusion of other endeavors. And Magdalena G. Grohman, associate director of the Center for Values, Medicine and Technology at the University of Texas, Dallas, says that while there may be a clear connection between grit and achievement at, say, military school, the correlation is far less apparent in creative work.

In a recent presentation to the American Psychological Association, Grohman said that grit “taps into highly effective learning in a very structured environment, but not necessarily [in] someone who thrives on different interests.” Similar findings come from Zorina Ivcevic Pringer, an associate research scientist with the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence. She found that neither grit nor perseverance predicted a student’s success in a number of creative pursuits.

Building Relationships

Another promoter of student motivation, according to research, is an educational environment that helps students develop and maintain positive, meaningful relationships with adults and peers at school. In other words, students care when they feel cared about. Many students, especially those in distressed families, lack a consistent, caring adult to support them through school; others aren’t able to connect with adults who do care.

Numerous studies have shown that having the reliable support of a “pro-social” adult strongly protects students against the consequences of even the worst psychological trauma. All else being equal, students achieve at higher rates, and are less likely to drop out and feel more positively about school, when they have ongoing connections with teachers.

Connecting with Peers

Students are, to some degree, products of their social groups. Peer pressure, a phenomenon usually associated with negative influences, can also serve as a positive force. Children who associate with other students who are highly engaged, research shows, become more engaged themselves. These positive relationships are characterized by trust, good communication, and a willingness to help—all factors that can make students feel they belong in a school group, which in turn cause them to more fully connect.

With these relationships also come favorable views of learning, along with better skills for communicating and solving problems. All, again, are attitudes and competencies associated with motivation and engagement. Given the importance of these connections, educators are finding ways to actively help students build them. They hold morning meetings to set the tone for the day, encourage students to work in groups, and schedule advisory periods.

What all these strategies have in common is that they give students a chance to share their feelings in a safe and supportive environment. The better students know each other, say Helen McGrath of Deakin University and Toni Noble of Australian Catholic University, “the more likely they are to focus on similarities between themselves and other students and become more accepting of differences.” This understanding in turn encourages a sense of community and belonging.

Problems with Measurement

As advocates of noncognitive education readily concede, measuring skills like grit and conscientiousness is difficult to do reliably. Students’ assessments of themselves, while easy to administer, are not always accurate or timely. Reports made by teachers and parents may be more revealing, but they cost more money and take more time. Attendance records and discipline referrals can speak to skills like persistence and self-control, but they don’t capture the nuances of the learning environment. Behavioral (or performance) tasks that record students’ responses to simulated scenarios more closely approximate real-life situations, but they require development and standardization.

Of these assessments, surveys answered by students themselves are the most common method of capturing non-cognitive skills, and research clearly points to their limitations. In a recent paper published by the Brown Center on Education Policy, Senior Fellow Martin R. West, an associate professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, observes that student questionnaires are subject to faking because of the phenomenon known as “social desirability bias”, the inclination students have to make themselves appear better to themselves and others. When presented with the statement “I am a hard worker”, for instance, a student might choose the response option “very much like me”.

Even more troubling, according to West, is the problem of “reference bias”, in which survey responses are influenced by different standards of comparison. For instance, West explains, “a child with high standards might consider a hard worker to be someone who does all of her homework well before bedtime and, in addition, organizes and reviews all of her notes from the day’s classes. Another child might consider a hard worker to be someone who brings home her assignments and attempts to complete them, even if most of them remain unfinished the next morning.”