Student Perfectionism

Some years ago, we surveyed the students at Urban about how they experienced the math program. As I remember it, we tried to ask separate questions about what students enjoyed, and what helped them learn. These are of course not necessarily the same thing, and we wanted them to develop an awareness of that distinction even as they provided us with their feedback. Predictably, there was a distribution among the ratings we got, with each item having its supporters and detractors. This is as it should be, since students are all different. The fact that we use a multiplicity of approaches is our attempt to respond to this diversity, and the wide range among the approaches’ popularity and effectiveness (as seen by the students) was pretty much what we expected.

However, the response to one item took us by surprise. We assign “problem sets” in most of our classes after 9th grade. In our department, this refers to problems that are too difficult to do quickly as part of a test. Students have a few days to do them, and they are “counted” as if they were a test. There are complications with this institution, specifically the fact that student collaboration on those assignments, and the availability of teacher help, tends to undermine their usefulness as an assessment tool. Still, we’ve continued to assign them, because we feel they do contribute significantly to student learning, and in the end, learning is what it’s all about. The survey showed that the students largely agreed with us about that — problem sets help most of them learn.

However, to our amazement, there was a major difference between the girls and the boys on whether they enjoyed problem sets. The range was the usual distribution among the boys, but the girls almost unanimously hated them! The reason we were surprised was that girls typically do so much better than boys on those assignments. The problem, it turns out, is perfectionism. The girls do better because they spend much longer on the assignment, taking it well beyond the point where it enhances their learning, and staying up late into the night, adding that purple underline or that extra smiley face that they deem necessary in order to impress the teacher. The beauty of their creations comes at a steep cost.

We still assign problem sets, but now I make sure to clarify that the students’ energy should be on the math, not the presentation; that the writing should support the development of the ideas, not be an exercise in novel-length self-expression; that illustrations and color are about enhancing clarity, not exhibiting gratuitous flashiness. Likewise, when I assign a report (often to 9th and 10th graders), in addition to the above advice, I also give a maximum length. This addresses the symptoms of perfectionism, but it also can help start some reflection and discussion about it.


2 thoughts on “Student Perfectionism”

  1. Very interesting!One thing is unclear in your post. You say that the girls do much better on these assignments, and by that I assume you mean that the math is more correct. But then you go onto say that the girls are actually “adding that purple underline or that extra smiley face,” which I would think would not affect the assessment of their work. Or is it true that math teachers are actually swayed by such creative flourishes?Mary Ellen (she of the tacks and string demo of an ellipse))


  2. Well, we're probably slightly swayed, especially after grading an illegible scribble (probably a boy's!) But mostly we're evaluating the math, and the girls do better on that as well. Working hard on the math is pretty much a good thing (up to a point), so we don't want to discourage them from that. Thus the focus on not over-stressing about the appearance. That's one way to relieve the pressure while keeping the benefits of these assignments.


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