Discounting your problem-solving

As I was leaving the other day, a student said that she would come to see us the next day to ask some questions about her assignment. She said she had tried to do as much of it herself as she could, and had only done 70% of it.
The “only” made me start — she had done most of it herself but that wasn’t good enough because she still had to ask for help. And somehow in the hurry of the moment, this came out of my mouth: I said, “And how much did you do on your own last time?”
It was her turn to start — “Oh!” she said, “A lot less I suppose.” And then I had to keep walking or risk missing my train. But as I walked the incident ran around my mind: it’s amazing how many people can discount the evidence of their own problem-solving ability, simply because they still need help.
I’ve seen it before, but I’ve never seen a way to fight against it. I’ve always tried to tell them that they can do it, and point out the bits they did do, but it always seemed to wash over them without leaving an impact. I’ve been focussing on a single moment of problem-solving.
What I’ve learned from my thirty second conversation is that perhaps I should help people focus on more than just today. Instead, maybe I can help them look at their journey so far and focus on the improvement.
But my student has given me even more: she’s given us something concrete to focus on: the amount they have done on their own. This is so much more tangible than “problem-solving ability” because it’s plain numerical data. The student can compare this time to last time and feel success as long as they’ve done that little bit more on their own.

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