This morning on NPR‘s Morning EditionAlix Spiegel had a fascinating story about the differences between American and Asian cultures in how they view struggling in education (the story was first broadcast on 12 November 2012).  Here it is:

This story gets at the fundamentals of what I was trying to express about treating academics like sports.  In sports, we value and exalt the struggle. How do you make yourself better?  Through hard work, repetition, and perseverance.  Outcomes are ultimately important, but how you get there is the issue.

Spiegel’s story focused on the underlying assumptions about how Western and Asian cultures see the road to academic success.  The story points out that the dominant Western attitude is that innate ability – being “smart” – is what primarily determines success in school, whereas Asian cultures stress practice, hard work, perseverance and struggle.  Obviously, both are important (it’s a Nature/Nurture kinda thing), but which you emphasize can have a huge effect on students’ attitudes about their likely success and how they approach their education.

I see this difference all the time in students in my classes. The most frequent question I get from students who are not achieving what they expect in my class is “what can I do to get a better grade?”  The emphasis is always on the grade and not why they aren’t grasping the material.  My simple answer is to “study harder.”  This may seem trite, but for the majority of students it is the simple fact that they are not putting the basic effort into the class.  I work with them on study strategies and how best to approach the material, but if they don’t do the work, they cannot expect any better outcome.  You really do get out of it what you put into it.  This is also one of the main reasons that previously “successful” students fail in college.  When everything has come easy to them before, they simply have no skills to deal with difficulty in classes, and their reaction is to simply give up before they even begin.

The sports aspect of this is critically important though.  Students’ struggles must have a public component (just like sports practice is – your peers on your team see what effort you are giving).  Also, when success is achieved that success must be celebrated as a team celebrates. Spiegel’s story describes one elementary school student having to go to the board and struggle with a geometry problem in front of the class.  When he finally got the correct answer after struggling the whole period at the board, the entire class cheered for him.  The story recounts the strong sense of pride and accomplishment the student felt with finally achieving the correct solution in front of his peers.

Let me be very clear though.  What I am decidedly not advocating is that everybody gets a trophy.  Everybody does not get a trophy, and not all students can ultimately accomplish the same in the end. Moreover, the ultimate goal is the outcome and not the struggle.  I do not grade students on effort.  I grade them on what they produce. Did they get the right answer to the problem?  Does their essay express a valid and cogent argument and lead to a workable solution?

I am talking about a change in attitude to one where we expect students at all levels to give their utmost effort to achieve what they can accomplish, and to instill in them the value of hard work to achieve academically. The question is how to achieve that change in attitude, and I think sports is an excellent cultural example. In sports, peers reinforce the sense of pride in hard work and effort, but that hard work has an ultimate goal.  Moreover, athletes get better no matter if they achieve that ultimate goal.  We educators can learn much from the best coaches about how they motivate athletes to achieve.

In fact, the everybody gets a trophy syndrome is the greatest impediment to this change in attitude.  I hear so often that “we want all students to feel good about themselves.”  When you struggle with a problem, you don’t feel good about yourself in that moment, and unless you finally solve the problem there is no reason to feel pride or accomplishment.  What I’m talking about is teaching people that this is the way one should feel.  The shift is to feel pride and accomplishment in what you have achieved academically because of your hard work.

One of the most pernicious problems in education, particularly higher education, that works against all of this is grade inflation.  We in higher education have turned college grades into everybody gets a trophy.  A serious consequence of this is that students put much less effort into their education.  For example, a study by Philip Babcock at the University of California, Santa Barbara (the published paper in Economic Inquiry (2010) 48:983-996 is here, and a preprint not behind a pay wall is here) showed the following:

Holding fixed instructor and course, classes in which students expect higher grades are found to be classes in which students study significantly less. Results indicate that average study time would be about 50% lower in a class in which the average expected grade was an “A” than in the same course taught by the same instructor in which students expected a “C.”

If students expect that the average grade in a class is lower, they put more time into the class.  Simply put, shifting grades up so students feel good about themselves creates absolutely no incentives for hard work and struggle on hard problems.  Note that this comes back to the Western attitude described in Spiegel’s story: one gets high grades because the student is “smart”, so we’ll give everyone good grades to make sure they feel smart.

However, what grade inflation does is make students more averse to taking classes in subjects where they will struggle.  I deal with this continually.  Students don’t want to take difficult classes because it will “blow their GPA.”  Many students won’t take essential courses for their chosen career path because they are afraid of the grade they will get.  What kind of education is that?  I also routinely now have students drop the class after receiving a B on the first exam!  Is that pathetic or what?  For many students, taking classes now is not about getting an education, but rather about keeping their GPAs as high as possible.

Finally, as Spiegel notes near the end of the story, Asian attitudes about education are not a panacea.  Many Asian educators struggle with the apparent fact that their style of student engagement seems to stifle creativity.  All approaches have strengths and weaknesses.  What we must do is explore how to blend the strengths of each approach to make a better whole for students.