The Society for Social Work and Research

2014 Annual Conference

January 15-19, 2014 I Grand Hyatt San Antonio I San Antonio, TX

When the Going Gets Tough: Intervention to Change Adolescents' Interpretations of Difficulty At School

Friday, January 17, 2014
HBG Convention Center, Bridge Hall Street Level (San Antonio, TX)
* noted as presenting author
Kristen Elmore, MSW, Doctoral Student, University of Michigan-Ann Arbor, Ann Arbor, MI
Daphna Oyserman, PhD, Professor, University of Michigan-Ann Arbor, Ann Arbor, MI
Background and Purpose: Students are sometimes energized by task difficulty and other times seemingly defeated by it. Figuring out when difficulty increases and when it undermines motivation matters for adolescents because schoolwork becomes more difficult in middle school. Identity-based motivation theory (Oyserman, 2007) predicts that experiencing difficulty increases motivation if difficulty is interpreted as reflecting task importance and undermines motivation if difficulty is interpreted as reflecting the impossibility of task success. Low income and minority students may be at particular risk of interpreting difficulty as impossibility given group level stereotypes that undermine performance (Steele & Aronson, 1995). The question is whether teachers are better off ignoring or addressing this new experience of difficulty that adolescents encounter. Ignoring this experience carries the risk that, if left without guidance, students may interpret difficulty at school as a sign of impossibility. Intervening and providing students with an interpretation carries a risk as well; there is a danger of undermining students' motivation if the message is unconvincing. We examine these possibilities in a school-based study.

Methods: In a field experiment, we tested the effects of students' endorsement of messages about interpretations of difficulty as importance or impossibility on school-related effort. Participants (N= 272; 53% boys, Mage =12.15) were middle school students enrolled in a public school near Detroit, MI. Most participants were minority (73% African American) and low income (71% free or reduced lunch eligible). In each classroom students were randomly assigned to one of three conditions. In the control condition, participants were simply given the dependent variable. In the treatment conditions, participants were first asked how much they agreed with items either describing an interpretation of difficulty as importance or impossibility before proceeding to the dependent variable. The dependent measure was a difficult cognitive task (15 items of Raven's Progressive Matrices).

Results:  As predicted, there was a significant interaction between condition (difficulty as importance vs. difficulty as impossibility) and endorsement of the provided interpretation of difficulty on Raven's performance, F(1,173) = 4.317, p < .05. Participants in the interpretation of difficulty as impossibility condition scored better if they did not endorse this interpretation than if they did, t(173) = -1.771, p = .08. Furthermore, students disagreeing with the difficulty means impossibility items performed better than those who disagreed with the difficulty means importance items, t(173) = 1.847, p= .07.

Conclusions and Implications:  Overall, we found that adolescents' interpretations of difficulty matter for performance on a difficult cognitive task. Notably, students' endorsement of these potential interpretations are consequential. Disagreeing with the idea that difficulty means impossibility can actually be quite motivating for students. Similarly, disagreeing that difficulty means importance can undermine motivation, suggesting that well-intended but unconvincing messages can be damaging. These findings have important implications for teachers and practitioners hoping to encourage motivating interpretations of difficulty. Simply suggesting that important things often feel difficult may not be enough. Interestingly, our results suggest that an effective intervention approach may be to have students argue against the idea that difficult tasks are impossible.