Perceived Control, Coping, and Engagement Research Paper

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Perceived control is one of the most robust predictors of student resilience and academic success all across the elementary, middle, and high school years. Children and adolescents who are confident and optimistic are more likely to select challenging tasks; set high and concrete goals; initiate and maintain constructive engagement; deal productively with obstacles and setbacks; maintain access to their highest quality problem solving, concentration, and focus even under stress; seek help as needed; rebound from failure; and eventually develop more adaptive strategies of self-regulated learning. Cumulatively, through this approach to schooling (sometimes referred to as a mastery or action orientation), students actually learn more and so develop higher levels of objective competence. In contrast, children and adolescents who doubt their own efficacy are more likely to show a helplessness (or state) orientation in which they set diffuse goals, prefer easy tasks, remain passive, become anxious and distracted, ruminate, give up, or try to escape from difficult encounters, avoid help, and lose access to their own best hypothesis testing and strategizing skills. Eventually, this pattern hinders learning enough that students’ actual competencies begin to fall behind those of their age mates.

Mastery and helplessness have been the subject of multiple major theories and hundreds of experimental and naturalistic studies over the last 50 years. Starting with work on locus of control and continuing with formulations focusing on attributions, learned helplessness, self-efficacy, and naive theories of intelligence, the area of perceived control has been the site of some of the richest and most careful theorizing and empirical examination to date about the nature and functioning of children’s motivation, self-regulation, engagement, coping, and development (Elliot & Dweck, 2005; Stipek, 2002; Wigfield, Eccles, Schiefele, Roeser, & Davis-Kean, 2006).

The sheer volume of work as well as the territoriality of some of its proponents makes it difficult to construct a coherent picture of how and why perceived control has such pervasive effects on academic functioning. The goal of this research-paper is to present a developmental framework that allows for an integrated conceptualization of the facets and functioning of perceived control, with special emphasis on how they are shaped by teachers, curricula, classroom contexts, and development. Because the empirical success of control constructs tends to crowd out additional players, this research-paper also includes a description of how perceived control interacts with other important resources for motivation and coping.

What Is the Nature of Control?

One explanation for why the effects of control are so evident across the entire life span is that it reflects a fundamental human psychological need. The basic idea is that all humans (and other higher mammals) come with the inborn desire to be effective in their interactions with the social and physical context (White, 1959). Referred to as the need for competence, effectance, or mastery, this organ-ismic perspective posits that all people are intrinsically motivated to produce effects, to make things happen (Elliot & Dweck, 2005; Elliot, McGregor, & Thrash, 2002; Harter, 1978; Koestner & McClelland, 1990). The underlying function of effectance motivation is to provide energy and direction for figuring out how the world works, and in so doing to fuel the development of a range of actual competencies effective in creating desired and preventing undesired outcomes. Such motivation is a source of curiosity and interest and of energy for the extended trials and errors and subsequent practice needed to discover and hone effective actions. The evolutionary value of this kind of motivation is obvious: Any species that dedicates time and energy to learning how to be effective will eventually develop a rich action repertoire, as well as knowledge about opportunities and constraints in the environment. In times of trouble, this competence is the key to both surviving and thriving.

Schools are supposed to be one of the chief vehicles for fostering effectance motivation. Unfortunately, however, research demonstrates that schools do not generally fulfill students’ need for competence; children’s perceived competence, feelings of control, and academic motivation decline steadily throughout elementary, middle, and high school (Stipek, Recchia, & McClintic, 1992; Wigfield et al., 2006). The good news for educators is that, from an organismic perspective, effectance motivation cannot really be lost. Underlying even the most alienated student is a potential wellspring of motivation. Nevertheless, a detailed understanding of the entire competence system is needed if parents and teachers are to succeed in nourishing children’s perceived control with all its resultant benefits.

What Are the Key Constructs of Control?

The more one reads about perceived control, the easier it is to become confused about the cluster of control-related terms. Some researchers conclude that they are all pretty much the same, whereas other researchers argue that a single construct can be identified that is best. But a thoughtful analysis suggests that, although many concepts can be differentiated, the role of each must be carefully considered in order to create a comprehensive picture of the entire system involved (Skinner, 1996). The notions of competence and effectance motivation can provide a useful framework for organizing the functions of different control constructs.

According to these metatheories, the basic building blocks of competence start with experiences of control. Also referred to as generative transmission, these are experiences of exerting personal force that is effective in producing intended outcomes. Experiences of control can be distinguished from objective control conditions, or the actual action-outcome contingencies that exist in the context (Seligman, 1975). For example, the more difficult a task, or the more outcomes are based on luck, chance, or other uncontrollable factors (like skin color or gender), the lower the objective control conditions. Experiences of control can also be distinguished from subjective or perceived control, or people’s interpretations of their control experiences. People can maintain high expectations of control in the face of low objective conditions and a history of failure, just as they can interpret hard-won success on difficult tasks as due to luck or other factors outside their control.

Conceptualizations of Control

There are at least five main theories of perceived control: value-expectancy models, locus of control, causal attributions, learned helplessness, and self-efficacy (see Heckhausen, 1991; Stipek, 2002; or Wigfield et al., 2006, for more details); a developmental model integrating these constructs has also been proposed. We briefly describe each theory before specifying its place in the competence system. As part of value-expectancy models, expectancies of success, or outcome expectancies, are people’s estimations of the probability that they can produce desired outcomes (Atkinson, 1964; Wigfield & Eccles, 2000). Locus of control, originally also part of value-expectancy models, has come to refer to generalized expectations that desired outcomes are contingent on internal factors (such as one’s own behavior or relatively permanent characteristics) versus external factors (like luck, chance, fate, or powerful others; Lefcourt, 1992; Rotter, 1966).

Theories of causal attribution depict the process by which people ascribe their successes and failures to a variety of causes (such as effort, ability, task difficulty, or luck) that differ on their underlying dimensions (internality, stability, intentionality, and controllability; Weiner, 1986, 2005). Theories of learned helplessness originally focused on how experiences of objective noncontingency create a syndrome of negative effects when they are generalized to contingent environments (Seligman, 1975). Later, theories of explanatory style posited that attributing experiences of noncontingency to internal, stable, and global causes produces these deficits (Abramson, Seligman, & Teasdale, 1978; Peterson, Maier, & Seligman, 1993). At about the same time, theories of self-efficacy were proposed that originally distinguished beliefs about whether responses were effective in producing outcomes (referred to as response-outcome expectancies and compared to locus of control and helplessness) from efficacy expectations or “the conviction that one can successfully execute the behavior required to produce the outcome” (Bandura, 1977, p. 193). In subsequent formulations, this theory has come to focus almost exclusively on self-efficacy (which also implies response-outcome contingencies) and its effects (Bandura, 1997).

Perceived Control, Coping, And Engagement research paper f1Figure 13.1      An Integrative Developmental Conceptualization of Perceived Control

As depicted in Figure 13.1, a developmental conceptualization designed to integrate these theories distinguishes three kinds of beliefs: (1) perceived control, or generalized expectancies that the self can produce desired and prevent undesired outcomes (similar to expectancies of success); (2) strategy beliefs, or generalized expectancies about the  effectiveness of certain causes (such as effort, ability, powerful others, luck, and unknown) in producing desired and preventing undesired outcomes (similar to locus of control, causal attributions, explanatory style, or response-outcome expectancies); and (3) capacity beliefs, or generalized expectancies about the extent to which the self possesses or has access to potentially effective causes (similar to self-efficacy or perceived ability; Connell, 1985; Skinner, 1995, 1996). Unknown strategy beliefs, or a child’s conviction that he or she has no idea how to do well in school, are some of the most pernicious and maladaptive beliefs children can hold, and developmentally, they are some of the earliest predictors of academic helplessness (Connell, 1985; Skinner, Zimmer-Gembeck, & Connell, 1998).

Regulatory and Interpretative functions of Control

In shaping control experiences, perceived control has two main functions: (1) when preparing to take on an activity, expectations of control have a regulatory function in that they shape how people approach and engage in the task; and (2) following an action-outcome episode, they have an interpretative function, in that they help translate the meaning of the experience for future control. The beliefs that regulate action are generalized expectations of control (the sense that “I can do it”); this connection is supported by findings that perceived control, expectancies of success, and self-efficacy are strong proximal predictors of motivation and performance (see Wigfield et al., 2006). In contrast, following performance outcomes, the beliefs used to interpret the meaning of action-outcome episodes are ones that focus on the likely causes and one’s own role in producing the success or failure; this connection is supported by findings that causal attributions, explanatory style, and strategy and capacity beliefs are important predictors of emotional and motivational reactions to success and failure experiences (see Peterson et al., 1993; Weiner, 1986, 2005).

The link between interpretative and regulatory beliefs is especially interesting. One of the most important things about how people explain their successes and failures are the implications these interpretations have for subsequent expectancies of control. So for example, the belief that failure was caused by a stable internal cause (such as ability) not only creates short-term emotional and motivational deficits (like embarrassment, discouragement, and exhaustion), but also contributes to long-term expectations that future outcomes are not likely to be under one’s control. This pathway, from causal attributions to performance expectations, is a key mechanism: All theories that focus on interpretative beliefs (i.e., causal attributions, learned helplessness, locus of control) agree that it is the pathway through which such beliefs have their effects on subsequent effort and performance.

Profiles of Control

An integrative developmental perspective suggests that all the kinds of beliefs considered in major theories of perceived control play a role in action sequences. As a result, the most powerful predictor of a child’s motivation and performance will be the child’s profile of control beliefs. Optimal profiles of beliefs include high control, high effort strategy, and high capacity beliefs combined with low reliance on all the uncontrollable strategies (ability, powerful others, luck, and unknown). In contrast, maladaptive profiles of beliefs incorporate low control, low effectiveness of effort, and low capacity beliefs combined with high dependence on all the uncontrollable strategies. Scores created to reflect these profiles are strong predictors of engagement, achievement, and eventually, retention or dropout, all the way from elementary to high school (e.g., Connell, Spencer, & Aber, 1994; Connell, Halpern-Felsher, Clifford, Crichlow, & Usinger, 1995; Skinner et al., 1998).

What Are the Consequences of Control for Academic Resilience and Success?

Because an enormous body of research has demonstrated the effects of perceived control across most domains, and especially in times of stress and difficulty, investigators have attempted to uncover the mechanisms of its widespread beneficial effects. Many decades of study have revealed pathways that are more various, pervasive, and subtle than researchers first imagined. For example, in keeping with the assumption that control reflects an organismic need, research has demonstrated that the effects of prolonged exposure to noncontingency or loss of control are physiological, affecting the integrated neurological and biological systems involved in stress reactivity, immune functioning, emotion, attention, learning, and brain development (Gunnar & Quevedo, 2007).

Consequences are also psychological, shaping concurrent motivation, volition, emotion, and cognition, as well as future-oriented states such as optimism and hope (Kuhl, 1984). The consequences of control can be clearly observed on the plane of action, in engagement, self-regulation, and coping (Skinner, 1995). Through their effects on students’ choices about which activities to pursue (e.g., elective classes), control beliefs also play a decisive role in determining the learning opportunities available to adolescents (Wigfield et al., 2006). By contributing to how youth engage in planning and preventative action, perceived control can even have an effect on the likelihood that they will encounter future stressful events. Moreover, the effects of control are also relational—social partners respond differently to a child with a mastery orientation compared to a helplessness orientation. In fact, perceived control seems to confer advantages during all phases of an action episode, including planning, strategizing, action implementation, and utilization of feedback.

Perceived Control, Coping, And Engagement research paper t1Table 13.1       Consequences of Perceived Control for Academic Functioning and Resilience

Two of the most important pathways through which control shapes children’s academic progress are by affecting the quality of their engagement and by influencing how they cope with setbacks (Skinner, 1995; see Table 13.1). In fact, as demonstrated by research on learned helplessness, the most marked differences between the performances of mastery-oriented versus helplessness-oriented children can be seen following exposure to failure (Dweck, 1999; Seligman, 1975). Think aloud protocols, in which children reveal their thought processes when they encounter obstacles (e.g., Diener & Dweck, 1978), show that children with a helplessness orientation soon devolve into worry, doubts about their capacities, and irrelevant digressions. These thought processes sap their energy and interfere with access to cognitive competencies (like problem solving or hypothesis testing) which they were able to utilize. In contrast, mastery-oriented students do not seem to be involved with self-congratulatory reflections. Instead, their entire motivational and cognitive resources are focused on problem solving: what to do next, what might work, what they have learned so far. This allows them to derive maximum information from their task interactions, even figuring out sooner if the problem is too hard for them or unsolvable altogether.

How Can Control Shape Academic Development?

The experience of control is dynamic, creating action episodes or cycles in which perceived control both shapes a student’s approach to school and is shaped by that student’s history of successes and failures with academic tasks (see Figure 13.2). These cycles are self-verifying or amplifying—children initially “rich” in perceived control, through the way they engage in learning activities and cope with challenges, become “richer” over time, whereas children who doubt their competence, through the ways they deal with academic tasks, actually forfeit opportunities for control and so verify their initially low expectations (Schmitz & Skinner, 1993). Cumulatively, these different approaches also have an effect on social partners—teachers respond with more involvement and autonomy support to students who are more actively engaged in the classroom, whereas teachers increasingly withdraw their support or become more coercive with students who are more disaffected (Skinner & Belmont, 1993). Actively engaged students are also more likely to hang out with actively engaged peers at school, which likewise supports the development of their own motivation (Kindermann, 2007).

Perceived Control, Coping, And Engagement research paper f2Figure 13.2      A Process Model of the Functioning of Perceived Control

Although not yet documented completely, these cycles of engagement seem to be critical building blocks for student resilience and academic development. Some theorists argue that a history of constructive engagement with academic tasks in school, with its resultant experiences of mastery, success, and learning, is the gateway to key developmental milestones in later childhood, including the development of self-regulated learning, ownership of one’s own academic progress, internalizing the value of schooling, and eventually fostering the construction of an identity that includes high achievement. These resources are needed to support children through the normatively difficult transitions to middle and high school (Eccles, 2004). That not all students achieve these milestones may be one reason why children who are struggling academically lose the most ground during school transitions (Wigfield et al., 2006).

How Do Developments Challenge Control Experiences and Expectancies?

The overwhelming majority of studies on perceived control focus on individual differences. However, parallel to this work, a narrow band of research continues to explore developmental changes in perceived competence, expectancies of success, and other facets of perceived control as well as age-graded shifts in the cognitive, emotional, behavioral, and motivational processes likely to underlie them (for reviews, see Elliot et al., 2002; Flammer, 1995; Heckhausen, 1991; Skinner, 1995; Stipek, 2002; Weisz, 1986; Wigfield & Eccles, 2002). Some of the most interesting studies investigate age changes in how children deal with challenges and failures (Dweck, 1999, 2002). This developmental research reveals normative changes in the processing of causal information; in the accuracy of children’s performance estimates; in their emotional and behavioral reactions to success and failure; in the information they use to evaluate their own competence; in their conceptions of potential causes such as effort, task difficulty, luck, chance, and ability; and in the very nature of the self.

Reviewers of this work are left with an apparent paradox: How is it possible that the effects of perceived control are invariant across development—from infancy through old age—if at the same time, almost all aspects of perceiving control and processing control relevant information show regular and marked age-graded changes? One way of resolving this puzzle is to posit that effectance motivation and feelings of efficacy are sources of energy and joy throughout the life span while at the same time, the kinds of interactions that children need to experience control, and especially the ways they process success and failure, do change systematically with age (Dweck, 2002; Elliot et al., 2002; Skinner, 1995). The challenge for parents, educators, and schools more generally is to help bring children and adolescents through a series of normative developments, which for the most part represent improvements in adaptive functioning, while creating or maintaining a competence system that is vibrant and resilient.

Transition to Performance Evaluation

In the early elementary grades, children have high and optimistic expectations for their success in school, which are unrelated to their actual performances (e.g., Stipek et al., 1992). Teachers want students to try hard and to be well-behaved, and children understand these values. Slowly over the first years of school, however, children begin to comprehend that the point of school is not effort, but performance outcomes, and their normative perceived competence declines and comes to reflect teachers’ evaluations as expressed by grades. Children continue to endorse the effectiveness of effort in producing good outcomes, but they start to differentiate effort from other potential causes (such as task difficulty, chance, and luck). Repeated failure begins to undermine children’s beliefs that they understand how to do well in school, and unknown strategy beliefs become a major predictor of student disaffection from learning in the classroom (e.g., Connell, 1985). In other words, more accurate performance evaluations (a cognitive gain) come at the expense of decreases in optimism about future performances and a vulnerability to losing confidence that one knows how to produce success and prevent failure in school.

Social Comparison

From middle to late elementary school, children become more interested in using the performance of their peers as a yardstick against which to measure their own success. This capacity reflects a cognitive gain in that the representation and integration of information about others’ performances on similar tasks allow a child to distinguish task difficulty (when everyone performs poorly) as a source of performance outcomes. Better estimations of task difficulty, however, come with a potential downside. If one is performing poorly on tasks (e.g., homework or tests) on which everyone else is doing well, this can be interpreted one of two ways: either one needs to apply more effort or one might as well give up. For children who are regularly performing below their peers, social comparisons are discouraging and can undermine engagement. In other words, developing the capacity to use information about the performance of others to calibrate estimations of task difficulty (a cognitive gain) brings with it the potential vulnerability of denigrating one’s own performance and potential.

Differentiation of Ability From Effort

In the late elementary school or early middle school grades (between the ages of 10 and 12), children come to understand the cognitively complex notion of ability. As an inferential concept, ability is an invisible capacity that can only be inferred from a pattern of performance outcomes: success on normatively hard tasks with little effort. To make such inferences, children must be able to understand inverse compensatory relations among causes, specifically, that with outcomes held constant, effort and ability are inversely related to each other (Miller, 1985; Nicholls, 1984). This means that smart children do not need to try as hard and that for the same outcome (e.g., the same grade), children who exerted less effort are more able. With this cognitive advance comes the vulnerability described as “the double-edged sword of effort” (Covington & Omelich, 1979). Students know that effort is valued by teachers, but high exertion that ends in failure can imply low ability. At this point, the facets of perceived control that best predict engagement (and that are best predicted by performance) change from those centered on the capacity to exert effort to those focused on one’s own level of ability. In other words, the development of more complex causal schema introduces a potential vulnerability to failure.

The Complexity of Developmental Advances

Early in research on the development of learned helplessness, investigators assumed that young children, because they did not have the cognitive skills to infer ability, were immune to the effects of failure, and that once they acquired mature conceptions of ability, all children would be more likely to become helpless. Subsequent research has revealed that both of these conclusions were premature. For younger children, in keeping with research showing that even infants and higher mammals show helplessness, it has been demonstrated that there is no age at which children are free from the effects of repeated failure. Instead, the experiences that trigger helplessness and the concepts used to generalize its effects are different for younger children. In early elementary school, the more concrete the tasks and the more directly observable the outcomes, the more children are affected by repeated failure (e.g., Boggiano, Barrett, & Kellam, 1993). Moreover, although young children cannot make complex inferences about the relations of patterns of outcomes to conceptions of ability, they can and do form views of their traits (e.g., goodness and badness) as fixed and immutable (Dweck, 1999). These are the experiences and belief systems that make young children more vulnerable to helplessness.

For older children and young adolescents, the picture is equally complex. It turns out that when children acquire the capacity to make inferences about inverse compensatory relations among causes, they will apply these schema to effort and ability only in cultures (such as the United States) in which adults hold conceptions of ability as a fixed entity that can be diagnosed from level of performance (Nicholls, 1984; Rosenholtz & Simpson, 1984). Moreover, these mature conceptions must be transmitted to children, for example, by parents who respond to children’s failures by doubting their capacities (Burhans & Dweck, 1995) and through experiences in classrooms where the climate is organized around evaluating and ranking students’ ability (i.e., a performance orientation). Most insidiously, these messages must be internalized by children, so that they are convinced that their own ability is a fixed immutable entity that can be assessed and demonstrated by every performance (Dweck, 1999). In other words, developmental advances open up windows of opportunity that can be used to promote or undermine children’s sense of control, depending on the messages that cultures and contexts (as embodied by parents and teachers) communicate about the nature of ability, competence, or “personal force” (Dweck, 1999).

What Are Other Important Sources of Academic Motivation and Resilience?

Researchers can afford the luxury of focusing exclusively on control constructs in predicting learning and achievement. Practitioners, on the other hand, because they always deal with a whole child in an actual context, must attend to the many other contributors to engagement and coping. If teachers and principals focus too narrowly on a sense of competence and control, they may miss other opportunities to promote students’ academic development. And, even worse, the very techniques and interventions that teachers employ to support perceptions of control sometimes have unintended negative consequences for other motivational processes (Deci & Ryan, 2000).

At least two other fundamental psychological needs have been identified that shape motivation across the life span (Connell & Wellborn, 1991; Deci & Ryan, 1985). The first is the need for relatedness or belongingness, as conceptualized and studied by attachment theories (Bowlby, 1969/1973). In terms of academics, this would be reflected in children’s desire and interest in forming close and secure connections to their teachers, peers, and the school itself, and in the corresponding internal working models of whether children feel welcome in school or feel that their teachers and peers value and care about them. The second need is for autonomy, as conceptualized and studied by self-determination theory (Deci & Ryan, 1985, 2000). In terms of academics, this refers to children’s interest and desire to authentically express their genuine preferences and actions, and the corresponding self-regulatory styles about the extent to which their participation in school activities (like homework) is motivated by external or introjected factors (such as fear of punishment or guilt) as compared to identified reasons (such as personal importance) or intrinsic reasons (like fun; Ryan & Connell, 1989). For specific practices to be effective in fostering a sense of control, they must be realized in a climate of pedagogical caring that supports autonomy.

What Promotes or Undermines a Sense of Control?

By the time they start school, children have already had a history of experiences with whether adults are available and sensitive to their needs. Their first interactions with teachers build on those experiences. Children who are unsure of their caregivers are slower to trust and like their teachers, and so are also less likely to initiate interactions, request help, or turn to their teachers for aid and comfort.

Hence, an important first step in promoting motivation is build a caring, trusting relationship between teacher and student. Although it is easy to assume that such close relationships are more important for young children, it turns out they are also critical for adolescents’ motivation in school; if anything, close relationships with teachers become more important in middle and high school, partly because the overall quality of student-teacher relationships is declining (Eccles, 2004; Wigfield et al., 2006).

Experiencing control requires that children be actively engaged in learning tasks, and so curricular and classroom practices that promote engagement are good for the development of control. One of the most important contributors is the nature of the academic work itself. The more that academic activities are interesting, challenging, fun, and relevant to students’ real lives, the more children will want to participate in them and the more effort they will exert in working on them. Theories of intrinsic motivation, flow, and interest highlight the deadening effects of activities like work sheets and drill when contrasted with real-world, project-based learning, such as constructing museum exhibits, building robots, planting gardens, or writing musicals. Throughout these activities, the theme of choice can be emphasized, since it allows children to tailor activities to their own interests (Deci & Ryan, 2000).

Structure Versus Chaos

Critical to the development of control is structure. At its most general, structure refers to the provision of information about routes toward producing desired and preventing undesired outcomes, as well as provision of support for following those pathways (Connell & Wellborn, 1991; Skinner, 1995). The opposite of structure is chaos, and it refers to contexts in which expectations are low and conditions are noncontigent, arbitrary, confusing, unpredictable, or objectively uncontrollable. It is useful to break the larger construct of structure into multiple practices (see Table 13.2), but the general principle is that any feature of relationships, curricula, or classroom climate will promote control to the extent it shows children and adolescents how to exert effort that is effective in producing outcomes that matter to them.

Focus on Process

Good teaching is critical to a sense of control (Stipek, 2002). The best teaching shows children how to do something of value—how to solve a problem, write a persuasive essay, calculate the volume of a swimming pool, decipher the meaning of Shakespeare. Teaching children how things work, how to learn, how to figure things out, how to evaluate different hypotheses and strategies, how to consult other sources for ideas and information—these practices help children master material. At the same time, they also teach children the value of industriousness and how to learn for themselves—how to deploy effort so that it can be effective in achieving desired aims. In many ways, these practices are the direct teaching of adaptive strategies of self-regulation. The experiences they create for children are at the core of a sense of control.

Perceived Control, Coping, And Engagement research paper t2Table 13.2  Classroom Practices That Promote a Sense of Control

When adults lead children to focus on the processes of learning, they highlight the importance of effort, strategies, and alternative routes to desired outcomes, the value of challenging tasks as opportunities for learning, and the long-term payoff of steady practice and hard work (Dweck, 1999). Teachers can provide praise and feedback, but it is most beneficial to a sense of control if these focus on how children take on challenges, apply themselves, and persevere. It is especially important to help children reflect on and experience their own individual improvement over time. It is difficult to monitor each child’s pattern of progress and to provide an analysis of how it was accomplished, but the value of these practices is lasting in terms of their effects on student engagement and perceived control.

Mistakes Are Our friends

One of the most critical facets of control is how children interpret their mistakes. Are they failures, indicating low ability and no chance of success, or are they information, acting as guideposts about more effective routes to desired outcomes? Teachers often see graded performances as an end in themselves. But the message that learning ends with an evaluation is a damaging one for a sense of control. Instead, if mistakes (including low performances) can be seen as next steps and as targets for future development, then students are focused on the feedback provided by grades and teacher comments. Opportunities to revise and repair, to restudy and retake, may seem unfair to students who did well the first time. But they communicate to all students that the goals in the classroom are not to scrape out a barely passing grade, but instead to actually learn things of lasting value—so if you did not get them the first time, get back to work and learn them!

It is important for teachers to directly model the processes that reflect and bolster a sense of control. Teachers, through their own approach to teaching, can show that challenge is good, confusion is normal when attempting difficult projects, easy tasks are not very much fun, it is okay not to know everything, and much can be learned by analyzing mistakes. Talking aloud while solving problems or thinking through alternative approaches can reveal to students the processes that go into learning. They can also directly demonstrate the adaptiveness of seeking information and help (e.g., turning to the encyclopedia or to group problem solving).

De-Emphasize Evaluating Ability and Pleasing the Teacher

It is easy to commend students for a high performance or to praise their talents and abilities. These practices, however, no matter how well intended, have a negative effect on a sense of control (Dweck, 1999). They draw children’s attention to their abilities and outcomes, and imply that the measure of success for adults is the grade itself and that ability is the decisive factor in producing it. Although many adults actually believe this, the implications for a child’s engagement are not positive. Such practices can lead children to focus on academic tasks as measures of ability and opportunities to demonstrate their prowess. If these are students’ primary goals, they tend to prefer tasks that are easy (to guarantee success) or impossible (to deflect attributions away from ability), to give up quickly if high outcomes are not easily forthcoming (since high effort threatens ability), or to produce high outcomes by any means necessary (including cheating; Dweck, 1999).

Power assertion and coercive practices also undermine the development of competence and control (as well as autonomy and relatedness; Deci & Ryan, 1985). If rules are arbitrary or unevenly enforced, children quickly learn that pleasing the teacher is the only route to success. Students may submit or they may rebel, but they are likely to lose focus on the genuine pathways to learning. It is important to highlight that many practices adults do not deem coercive, such as competition, rewards for high performance, honor roll, and praise for success, nevertheless are experienced as undermining autonomy and intrinsic motivation by students, especially as they get older (Deci & Ryan, 2000). It is also worth noting that clear structure, that is, reasonable, clear, and appropriate practices and rules that are fairly enforced, does not necessarily undermine autonomy. The key issue seems to be students’ experiences of teacher practices—for example, whether students perceive feedback as an attempt to control their behavior or as helpful information (Ryan, 1982).


A sense of competence and control are powerful allies during the hard work of learning and in dealing with challenges and setbacks. This is true for teachers as well as for students. When teachers hold high expectations for students and are convinced that they can become more competent through striving and practice, students’ experience the power of effort and begin to really understand the processes of learning. These experiences promote a sense of control that, in turn, supports constructive engagement and adaptive self-regulation. These form cycles, both within student learning and between teachers and students, that verify and elaborate mutual feelings of efficacy and a deeper understanding of how to accomplish important tasks. Cumulatively, over the course of a student’s academic career, these pay off in a sense of pride and ownership in one’s own learning and in the development of actual competence, which are sources of lasting satisfaction to students and teachers alike.

See also:


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