I feel smart when...

Certain kinds of verbal praise can be detrimental to learning. Young children who constantly hear “person” praise (“you’re so smart to do this well”) as opposed to “task” praise (“you did that well”) are more likely to believe that intelligence is fixed rather than expandable with hard work. When they subsequently face setbacks after receiving person praise, their views of intelligence can cause them to develop a sense of helplessness (“I’m not as smart as I once thought I was”).

When researchers asked these children to describe what made them feel smart, they talked about tasks they found easy, that required little effort, and they could do before anyone else without making mistakes. In contrast, their peers who they thought they got smarter by trying harder and learning new things said they felt intelligent when they didn’t understand something, tried really hard, and then go it, or figured out something new.

In other words, the children with the fixed view of intelligence and a sense of helplessness felt smart only when they avoided those activities most likely to help them learn – struggling, grappling, and making mistakes.

These children are likely to have “performance goals”. They want to achieve perfection or get the “right” answer to impress other people because they want to appear to be one of the “smart people”. They are afraid of making mistakes. They will often carefully calculate how much they need to achieve to win the proper praise and do no more than that, for fear that they might fail in the eyes of others. Some of these people do excel by some standards, but they still achieve primarily for the sake of that external recognition and fall short of where they might go.

In contrast, students who believe that they can become more intelligent by learning (a “mastery orientation’) often work essentially to increase their own competence (adopting “learning goals”), not to win rewards. They are more likely to take risks in learning, to try harder tasks, and consequently learn more than children who are performance-oriented.

Ken Bain, What the Best College Teachers Do