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Student's Self-Fullfilling Prophecies: Can we break the negative cycle?


I read an article by Melissa Wehler, PhD about Student's Self-Fulfilling Prophecies: Five Ways to Break the Cycle. While the article highlights writing skills, it is also very relevant for the Math and Numeracy Community of Practice discussion group, especially as there is a very active discussion now about There is No Such Think As as a Math Person. 

Highlights from Wehler's article about helping students develop both confidence and cognition include: 

  • Providing opportunities for metacognition: Students who are caught in a negative self-fullfilling  prophecy cycle often lack the ability to see the situation clearly. Check out her strategies for a SWOT activity at the end of a lesson / experience. 
  • Flip roles: Have students take the role of a leader. Check out her suggestion about study guides. 
  • Create check in points: See how regular work submissions keep students on track. 
  • Build in moments for dialogue: See what she says about creating an informal assessment of the "muddiest point".
  • Point out the negative philosophy: See how to directly discuss this philosophy with learners. 

Which of her 5 points can you implement in your classroom? Do you agree with her ideas? And how do you apply these ideas in math instruction? and finally, what other ideas would you add to this list? 

I'm looking forward to learning from your thoughts and ideas.

Kathy Tracey




S Jones's picture
One hundred

Okay, I can google SWOT ... but how hard is it to include what an acronym stands for in an article?   

The "check in points" are a challenge in math.   With technology, there's more of it - students having to figure out this kind of problem before being allowed to progress to the next, and having a nifty record of their progress.  I think that record of progress is a huge motivator.  I think it's a tad overrated, though, and that even smaller checkpoints would be helpful to make sure that those little successes are based on conceptually sound approaches.   How many students do fine changing .65 to a percent but always pick the "looks right" answer to "change 2.3 to a percent" or even "change .4 to a percent" ?  It makes me wonder:   If there were a check point where they identified "I'm changing to percent so I'm going to multiply by 100, which is done by moving that decimal place two places"  it would take three times as long for the easy problems... but might they end up getting the "trick" problems right?  

Using dialogue is also underrated... but very threatening to many students, especially when they are sure that they're doing it wrong and their "stupidity" will be discovered.   In my ideal class we'd start out with "that's right!   Can you tell me how you got there.."   though I have had students who have heard those words and promptly gone back to correct their work!   I think though that if it's built in to the class that students will gradually get better at it...

I just had a little of that "talk about the negative patterns" and there aren't classes in session -- a friend of mine said fractions confused her... so recipes really frustrated her... she drew a measuring cup... and all I did was draw out the partitions and she said "oh!! I get it! I am SO EMBARRASSED."  I mentioned that ... suddenly understanding something was a success,  not "you were so stupid not to get that before!" ... 

Marylu Towey's picture

This is a good article, Kathy. Thanks! I like that concrete ideas are shared. One thing I have done that students have liked is this: I have them work in groups of two on solving word problems. I name the pairs randomly (no  goal of strong, not-so-strong pairing) and mix the pairs up whenever we do this. I see the students struggling together, laughing a little at themselves and feeling pride when they figure something out. I then ask one or two pairs to explain what the thought when they read the problem or what they thought in order to tackle it. I try to make this a 15 minute activity once a week, at least.

Susan Finn Miller's picture
One hundred

Hello colleagues, I agree with Sue that building in dialogue is under utilized. Marylu, you offer a beautifully simple way to do so by pairing students up to solve problems together. Making this a routine activity helps to create a sense of community in the classroom where we are all learning together.

I think that routinely emphasizing that mistakes are opportunities for learning and can even be essential to learning is also a way to help to interrupt a self-fulfilling prophecy.

By the way, SWOT stands for Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats. It's a tool that can be used for analysis. "SWOT analysis is a tool for analyzing the current situation both internally (strengths and weaknesses) and externally (opportunities and threats). It provides helpful baseline information for a group that wants to vision the future or analyze a problem." Here's a link to check out how the SWOT process works.

Cheers, Susan Finn Miller

Moderator, Teaching & Learning CoP

Kathy_Tracey's picture
One hundred

I found the article fascinating as the ideas appear so simple to implement. However, simple can be deceiving. One area where I have struggled has been in helping students achieve the confidence to be a student leader. Students can be accustomed to being receivers of learning -and taking an active, let alone a leadership role, is complex. 

I'd love to hear what strategies and ideas members of our communities of practice have used to help students engage in these leadership roles. 

Kathy Tracey

Dawn Davis's picture

I absolutely agree with these techniques and think they are very helpful for emerging math learners to notice and question negative thoughts about themselves regarding math. At the same time, this advice did not mention level of difficulty. I believe that students should be working at an instructional- rather than a frustration- level to feel confident about their abilities. Make sure they have mastery over some items while incorporating difficult items within palatable ones. This is where differentiated instruction is so important. A student is simply not going to overcome his or her self-fulfilling prophecies if the academic work is frustrating to them! 

Kathy_Tracey's picture
One hundred

Hi Dawn, 

I agree that the instructional level should match the students ability. This is where the assessment process is so important. Regardless of formative or summative - teachers need to continually assess a student's ability in order to continue to modify instruction. It's an ongoing process. Ultimately, this needs to be an ongoing process as a one time introduction of overcoming negative self-talk does not solve the negative self talk. This takes time, relevant instructional strategies, ongoing assessment, and appropriate content. 

Kathy Tracey