Foundations and Assessment of Education/Edition 1/Foundations Table of Contents/Chapter 5/5.2.2

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Learned Helplessness In the Classroom and How We Can Turn "I Can't!" Into "I Can!"
By Caroline Foglia (cfogl001)
Learning Targets
Students should be able to...

1. Understand what Learned Helplessness is in today's classroom.

2. Recognize signs and symptoms of students expressing Learned Helplessness.

3. Gain new skills and ideas in order to combat Learned Helplessness in the classroom.

Learned Helplessness: What's That?

My younger sister, Jacqueline, is a typical 7th grade preteen. While she enjoys making good use of the middle school girls’ school day with girlish chatter in class and passing notes to her friends, she is also very sensitive and conscious of how she performs in her academics. One afternoon as she was beginning her Algebra I homework, the kitchen quickly became filled with cries of “I can’t!”, “This is too hard!”, and “I’ll never be able to do this!”. These outbursts were then followed by a stomping of feet up the stairs, a slamming of the bedroom door, and crying. My heart went out to my little sister, so I went to get her homework and help her. But when I saw the worksheet, I noticed that it was completely blank. No work had even been attempted. My smart, capable, sister had given up in a fury of self-insufficiency before she had even begun…

This anecdote is a prime example of a condition in today’s academic society called Learned Helplessness. This psychological, internalization of self-doubt creates a mindset in which a student “behave[s] helpless in a particular situation, even when they have the power to change their unpleasant or even harmful circumstance" (Seligman, 1975). When students feel as if nothing they can do as an individual will affect their achievement level, they are experiencing learned helplessness (Seligman, 1975).

According to Seligman, learned helplessness is composed of three unique, but intertwined factors… 1. “An undermining of one’s motivation to respond.” This means that students’ motivation to complete an assessment is usually internally depleted before the assessment is even attempted. 2. “A retardation of one’s ability to learn that responding works.” In other words, students are hesitant to respond to assessment because they feel like it won’t matter whether they do or don’t. 3. “An emotional disturbance, usually depression or anxiety.” The student is emotionally affected by his or her psychological, defeatist mindset (Seligman, 1975).

These three factors undoubtedly work in a destructive, interconnected cycle as students lacking in personal motivation due to a misunderstanding of the value of the assessment and of negative self-worth because of past academic failures often become more depressed over time. As a result, an ever-expanding snowball of learned helplessness is formed, and continues to form throughout students’ academic careers.

What does "The Terminator," AKA California's state governor have to say about Learned Helplessness?

“Learned helplessness is the giving-up reaction, the quitting response that follows from the belief that whatever you do doesn't matter.”- Arnold Schwarzenegger (Schwarzenegger, 2006)

What Does Learned Helplessness in Today's Schools Look Like?

Because learned helplessness and depression are so closely linked in characteristic behaviors, the signs and symptoms for human depression are very similar to those of learned helplessness (Wikipedia, 2009). Students who experience learned helplessness often exude depression-like signs such as hostility, passivity, weight loss, depressed mood, and feelings of worthlessness (Wikipedia, 2009). Students who attribute these symptoms and feelings towards academic failure fall into a cycle of deficeincy and depression, which ultimately leads to students leaning on their "helplessness" as a crutch to qualify failure in other aspects of their lives, such as the social (Wikipedia, 2009).

Key phrases of students in the classroom experiencing learned helplessness include:

1. "These problems are too hard to do!"

2. "I'll never be able to understand this!"

3. "I'm not smart enough to know how to do this!"

4. "I can't!"

5. "I give up!"

As students fall into the learned helplessness cycle, they continue to verbally express their resistance to assessments which seem too difficult to handle. However, learned helplessness is not a surface condition. It is rooted much deeper, in the human psyche; therefore, many students' words of self-defeat are rooted much deeper as well.

If learned helplessness is such a serious matter in today's schools, what in the world can educator's do to help?

How Can Teachers Help to Minimize Learned Helplessness in the Classroom?

As students' main source of guidance in the classroom, everything that teachers do plays a vital role in the creation and molding of his or her pupils' educational outlook. Furthermore, just because students appear "helpless," does not mean that teachers have to be! Just as learned helplessness is formed, it can be reformed. And there are a few specific tricks of the trade that teachers can use to fight back against learned helplessness in the classroom.


Good feedback is one of the most powerful tools a teacher can use to improve students’ classroom experience (Grimes, 1981). Positive, beneficial feedback has the ability to shape and reshape the way a student views his or herself. Feedback that relates to goals and objectives, focuses on work and progress, and describes rather than judges can produce positive results in students to counteract learned helplessness (Grimes, 1981). Good feedback should provide praise to students for overcoming a challenge and motivation for them to strive to challenge themselves even further.

Ten Examples of Positive Verbal Feedback

1. "Act as if you can."

2. "Let me demonstrate for you."

3. "You must have worked really hard."

4. "Can you think of any alternative ways to do that?"

5. "Take a risk and see if you can do it!"

6. "What possibilities do you see?"

7. "Sounds like you have a problem. What have you thought of so far?"

8. "Ask me if you need any help."

9. "This must have taken a lot of effort!"

10. "What improvements can you come up with for this?"


How teachers assess their students can make a huge impact on how students regard their own achievement and personal motivation. One of the most important goals of assessment is to give students an opportunity to use and learn what they know.

One simple trick to reducing learned helplessness is to create tests in an ego-boosting format, in which questions begin at the simplist level and get progressively more difficult (Firman et al., 2004). Firman's research notes that students experiencing learned helplessness who took tests in which questions were placed with the hardest questions first "tend to give up on the easy questions due to frustration," (Firman et al., 2004). Furthermore, his study showed that the majority of those same students became so disenchanted and discouraged they gave up on the assessment altogether (Firman et al., 2004).

By placing the easy questions at the beginning of tests, students have a chance to build self-confidence, and are more likely to continue on with the test with determination, instead of defeat.

Cognitive Behavior Modification Strategies

Cognitive behavior strategies help reinforce and link the ideas of cause and effect with "tackle and task" in students' minds (Grimes, 1981). Through research, it has been shown that students become for proficient problem solvers through discovering that "response and outcome are related though personal effort," (Grimes, 1981). Through behavior modification strategies, students are more likely to have a positive view of themselves and their capabilities by being shown that they have an immediate effect on their own environment.

Some examples of behavior modification methods include tokens/play-money, positive verbal feedback, stamps, and special positions (such as teacher's helper)(Grimes, 1981). There is really no limit to what teachers can come up with to use as behavior modifiers- as long as it promotes a "job well done" way of thinking to the student.

The vital aspect of this strategy is for students to grasp the connection between behavior and praise. Over an extended period of time, this method can help students see beyond the external locus of control as the cause of their level of achievement, and look towards their internal locus of control as the attributor to their success (Grimes, 1981). The more students can associate positive types of feedback as a direct result of their own positive actions, the less likely they are to get swept up in the tornado of learned helplessness.

In Conclusion...

Although we may sometimes envy the seemingly simplistic lives of children, to students, their lives can be just as hectic and stressful as ours seem to be. Students in school face enormous amounts of pressure to perform exceedingly well from parents, educators, classmates, school board members, and even politicians. And as we may forget, sometimes the largest amount of pressure to succeed comes from within the student. As learned helplessness becomes more and more prevalent in today's classrooms, teachers must remember to be open to new ways of modifying behavior and to take each individual student into consideration as just that- an individual.

Most importantly, teachers must amplify optimism and the neverending opportunity for student succuss in the classroom. If learned helplessness is on the incline in today's schools, then teacher positivity and motivation must also be on the incline. The more we model positive behavior and thinking, the more our students will absorb it and hopefully use it within themselves. Every student of every kind is more than capable of greatness, and it is a teacher's duty to instill that fact in each and every one of his or her students.

Questions and Answers

1. Students who experience learned helplessness feel like...

A. If they work hard, then they will succeed

B. Nothing they can do will affect their achievement level

C. Teachers are always there for them when they need help

D. They can bribe their teachers for good grades

2. Which of the following is NOT one of Seligman's components of learned helplessness?

A. A retardation of one's ability to learn that responding works

B. An emotional disturbance: depression

C. An undermining of one's motivation to respond

D. Going to the teacher for one-on-one help

3. Mrs. Smith wants to show her students how good behavior in class is linked with positive praise through the use of token rewards. Students who receive tokens for good behavior can trade them in for prizes. Which of the following educational strategies is Mrs. Smith using?

A. Bribing

B. Cognitive Behavior Modification

C. Improved Test Format

D. Verbal Feedback

4. Which of the following phrases would constitute as GOOD verbal feedback?

A. "Better luck next time"

B. "Nice!"

C. "You put a lot of good work into this!"

D. "You're smart!"

Answers: 1.(B), 2.(D), 3.(B),4.(C)


Firman, M., Hwang, C., Copella, M., & Clark, S. (2004). Learned Helplessness: The Effect of Failure on Test-Taking. Education, 124(4), 688-693.

Grimes, L (1981). Learned Helplessness and Attribution Theory: Redefining Children's Learning Problems. Learning Disability Quarterly, 4, Retrieved Feb. 07, 2009, from

Moorman, C. The Language of Learned Helplessness Quiz. Skill Training and Resources for Parents and Educators. Retrieved September 16, 2008, from

Schwarzenegger, A (2006). Learned Helplessness Quotes. Retrieved February 9, 2009, from Web site:

Seligman, M.E.P. (1975). Helplessness: On Depression, Development, and Death. San Francisco: W.H.Freeman.

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