Compete Like a Scientist: How to Talk To Your Students About Winning and Losing

Student competitors at TAME's 2009 State Math and Science Competition at Lockheed Martin Aeronautics
"It’s not that I’m so smart, it’s just that I stay with problems longer.” – Albert Einstein 

Now that TAME’s Competition season is over, it’s a good time to talk with your students about winning and losing. In this article, we’ll explore the “growth mindset,” a simple but revolutionary approach to learning that celebrates the process of learning, rather than fixed intelligence or answers.

Great Science and Great Adventures
When it comes to STEM, being smart is great, but being curious and persistent might be even more important. In fact, not knowing something is where great science (and every great adventure) begins. For all students, but especially for under-represented minorities, learning how to fail is a necessary part of learning how to succeed. What’s more, approaching education with a “growth mindset” – a mindset that values curiosity and persistence – makes learning more fun for everyone!

Good scientists start with a question. They learn by guessing (or “hypothesizing”), by experimenting, and by failing. Question by question and guess by guess, scientists get closer to finding an answer to their original question. And once they’ve got that answer, they start all over again.

The Goal is to Fail?
“If you haven’t failed yet, you haven’t tried anything.” – Reshma Saujani, Founder of Girls Who Code

In many disciplines, but especially in science or math, the goal is to fail repeatedly. Failure allows us a deeper understanding of how and why things work, or don’t. Of course, failure and the threat of failure can have serious effects. Research on stereotype threat shows that people are likely to perform poorly when they are reminded that they don’t fit the stereotype of someone successful in the field they are pursuing. It’s easy to get discouraged and give up. The students who stick with it, however, who keep asking questions even when other people give up, are the ones who become scientists and discover asteroids, design satellites, unwind the laws of physics and reveal the inner workings of the human genome.

Competitive events like our Divisional and State STEM Competitions provide a great opportunity for students to build a growth mindset. Still, students need a strong advocate in their teachers or club sponsors to help them see beyond successes or failures to the importance of continuing to work hard.

Identity, Intelligence, and Effort
Teachers can use this simple hack to help students (and themselves): encourage the effort, not the win. If you praise a child for how smart they are, they’ll identify as a smart person. When they make a mistake, they’re actually more likely to give up than a child who doesn’t identify as smart, because a perceived failure challenges their identity as a smart person. But if you praise a child for effort, he or she will seek out challenge and work harder, because that challenge supports their identity as a hard worker.

Isolate the Variables
Like a good scientist, consider the variables. In an experiment, scientists work to reduce the number of variables so they can isolate a single variable and test it against their hypothesis. In a competition, there are many possibilities that could influence the outcome. Some are predictable, like what kinds of math problems you might find on a geometry test. Others, like how many opponents you will face or how hard they will study—might be completely unpredictable.

The trick is to focus on the variables that a single student competitor can influence, then plan for them. For example:
  • Variable 1: Student might be tired. Prepare by going to bed early the night before.
  • Variable 2: Student might accidentally break a rule and get disqualified. Prepare by reading the rules and talking to students or teachers who’ve been to the competition before.
  • Variable 3: Student might be distracted by growling stomach. Prepare by eating a good breakfast and packing a granola bar for a snack, if allowed by the competition.
  • Variable 4: Student might feel scared if everyone else finishes their exam before he or she does. Prepare by practicing timed exams; during the competition, keep an eye on the clock and stay focused even if others finish early.
It’s important to emphasize that while we can influence the outcome of certain variables, we cannot always control them. Teach your students to evolve: when something happens that is outside his or her control, the focus should be on accepting the situation and adapting to the new circumstances.

Gather More Data
“If at first you don't succeed, try two more times so that your failure is statistically significant.” – Sam Freedman, Director of UK educational nonprofit Teach First

When scientists run an experiment, they may get many negative results before they find a positive one. Either way, the result is only a data point. You are not a bad scientist if you get a lot of negative results. In fact, many would argue that proving a hypothesis wrong is just as helpful as proving it right. You have learned from the result.

Perhaps more importantly, a failure can point the way to the next best step. So, ask your students if they want more or less information before making a decision. The best way to gather more information is to try something as often as it takes to gather data, no matter whether your attempt succeeds or fails.

Teaching Hacks: 7 Things to Say When Students Win or Lose
  1. Encourage the effort, not the win. “Great job! I can see you put a lot of work into this.”
  2. Help them focus on variables they can influence. “What variables can you control in an academic competition?” Answer: your own preparation, attitude, focus and effort.
  3. Help students manage their expectations. “What’s at stake if you win? If you don’t? Why?”
  4. Set up short timed competitions in your club or classroom. “The best way to get better is to practice!”
  5. Treat competitions like experiments: “What worked? What didn’t? What will you change next time?”
  6. Help them evolve to a higher form of positive attitude. “You did your best to plan, but the situation changed. How can we adapt and make the most of the situation?”
  7. Reassure your students you will respect them and their effort regardless of outcome.Whether you win or lose, I know you’re a great student because I’ve seen how much you care—it shows in how hard you work.”
View these teaching hacks as an infographic, or download a PDF here.

TAMEInfographic TeachingHacks 7ThingsToSayWhenAStudentWinsOrLoses
A Real-Life Example
Year after year, students return to TAME Competitions to build on what they’ve learned from past years. Katrieva Jones-Munroe, Department Chair of Computer Science at Odessa College and a former TAME club member, describes her experience with failure: “Before TAME, I cried for days when I lost sport competitions, because I knew I could not do any better. After TAME, I used each loss as a learning experience and grew from it. In other words, I became a better me. “

Now Jones-Munroe uses her knowledge of failure to coach her students through difficult times in school. “Sometimes I’ll hear my students tear themselves down because they are taking transitional mathematics in college. They face me and say, I cannot major in computer science because I cannot do the math. I tell them, use the transitional math class as your foundation. Learn from it, remember it and grow from it. This is just another building block.” [read her full interview here]

There’s Always More to Learn
Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck has been studying the growth mindset for years, and here’s her excellent summary of why persistence in STEM is so important.

“I don’t know how much of talent – even among prodigies – comes from the fact that a person is born with an ability versus the fact that he or she is fascinated with something and passionate about it and does it all the time. I’m not saying anyone can do anything, but I am saying that we don’t know where talent comes from, and we don’t know who’s capable of what.”

Here’s to not knowing, and having a great time finding out!

For further reading on how to develop a growth mindset in yourself and in your students, explore our Pinterest here and here. You can also add some mind-expanding theories and talent-coaching tips from a neuropsychologist to your summer reading list.

Inspire your students, colleagues, maybe even yourself with Khan Academy’s video You Can Learn Anything.

Share Your Own Story of Perseverance
Have you seen a TAME student persevere through difficult odds? If you have a story of a student, educator, or anyone else who has been helped by TAME since 1976, we would love to hear about it. Drop us a line at You never know, your story might make the difference in the life of a student who's working hard, and dreaming hard, too.

By Lindsey Carmichael and Jessie Temple, May 14, 2015.
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