Simple Metacognitive Strategies to Help Anxious Learners Succeed
Anxiety and learning go hand in hand, but research suggests that simple activities focused on self-talk and metacognitive reflection can create calmer, more focused learners.
“I think I can. I think I can. I think I can,” says the Little Blue Engine to herself as she hauls a train full of toys up a mountain. In Watty Piper’s classic children’s book, all it takes is a dose of self-encouragement to give the engine the strength to overcome a seemingly impossible task.
Sound too good to be true? Perhaps not, a new study suggests. Researchers found that a simple, five-minute exercise can help boost math performance, especially for students who have poor confidence in their math ability. When students silently spoke words of encouragement to themselves that were focused on effort—saying phrases such as “I will do my very best!”—their math scores improved.
In the study, 212 Dutch schoolchildren in grades 4 to 6 took half of a standardized math test. After taking the half-test, they were split into three groups: The first group silently said to themselves words of encouragement focused on effort. The second group did a similar activity, but the words were focused on ability, favoring phrases such as “I’m very good at this.” The third group didn’t engage in self-talk at all. Afterward, the students took the second half of the math test.
Students who had participated in self-talk focused on effort improved their math performance on the test, while those who engaged in self-talk focused on ability, or no self-talk at all, experienced no improvement.
“When children with low self-confidence work on mathematics problems, they often worry about failure,” Sander Thomaes, the lead researcher of the study, told Edutopia. “They experience challenges and struggles—for example, a difficult problem to solve—as cues of low ability, triggering disengagement from the task and worsening performance. Effort self-talk may counter this process.”
So why doesn’t self-talk focused on ability work? Saying “I am the best” can feel like a hollow claim when students don’t feel confident about their own abilities—they’re likely to dismiss the message entirely, explained Thomaes. But telling yourself “I will try my hardest” is an achievable goal, shifting attention away from a perceived lack of ability toward something within a student’s control: effort.
By Youki Terada