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A new way to enhance our learning

I had the privilege of sitting down with Memrise’s beloved co-founder Greg Detre to talk about some of the science which relates to Memrise. Greg shared with me some fascinating recent research by Stanford’s Carol Dweck. Here’s a quick summary.

Imagine that you do well in a test and afterwards you get told: ‘Wow, that’s a really good score. You must be smart at this.’ This seems like something that would encourage you and make you more likely to do better in the future. But it actually turns out it has a number of negative consequences. Many studies have shown that feedback which attributes your performance to your intelligence or your innate abilities, leads to giving up when you encounter setbacks, makes you feel powerless to improve when you do badly, and makes you more likely to avoid challenges.[1] When you see how well you do as a reflection of your core unchangeable traits, you approach tasks with more anxiety and you tend to do worse overall.

On the other hand, feedback which attributes your performance to effort and persistence, for example: ‘Wow, that’s a really good score. You must have worked really hard’, has a number of positive consequences. In many studies, students praised for their effort did much better than students praised for their intelligence and ability; they persisted through setbacks and were more likely to take on challenging tasks. This subtle difference in feedback made a colossal difference to their long term success.

These findings fit into a broader, well confirmed theory, which is that people’s implicit views of their own intelligence make a big difference to how well they do. People with a fixed mindset view their intelligence as a fixed trait, that they only have a certain amount of, and that they can’t change. People with a growth mindset view their intelligence as something malleable, which can be developed through effort and hard work, and they don’t view their abilities as static and fixed. A large number of studies show that people with a growth mindset do better than people with a fixed mindset in many respects.[2]

How Memrise applies this insight

There are a few things we already do to encourage our users to view their performance as a result of the time and effort they’ve put in, and not as a result of fixed unchangeable traits. For example, when you get a question wrong, we blame your mem and not your lack of intelligence or innate language ability. Also, through the garden metaphor we try to prime the sense that your memory and your learning are things that you can nurture, grow and develop.

We want your input! We’ve known about this research for a long time, but we’ve probably not applied it as much as we could have! Here’s our question to you:

What changes can we make to the language on Memrise to foster the belief that how well you do is a result of your effort and persistence?

Answer in the comments below! If we can foster a growth mindset in ourselves, then we will all do measurably better!

Also, please tell us what you’d like to hear about from Greg, our resident expert on the science of memory, and I’ll try to write about those topics in the future!


[1] Mueller, C. M., & Dweck, C. S. (1998). Intelligence praise can undermine motivation and performance. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 75, 33–52. Kamins, M., & Dweck, C.S. (1999). Person vs. process praise and criticism: Implications for contingent self-worth and coping. Developmental Psychology, 35, 835–847.

[2] One example: L.S., Trzesniewski, K.H., & Dweck, C.S. (2007). Implicit theories of intelligence predict achievement across an adolescent transition: A longitudinal study and an intervention. Child Development, 78. 246-263

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