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Learned Helplessness Essay

Firmin, Hwang, Copella and Clark’s research study focuses on testing the strength of the student against his or her “learned helplessness.” This phenomenon includes the following: Contingency, which addresses the uncontrollability or stability of the situation, and Cognition refers to the various attributes that individuals display in reaction to their environment.

Having prior research studies regarding learned helplessness in motherhood (Kashdan et al. 2000) and boys with ADHD (Milich and Okazaki 1991), Firmin et al. were able to assemble an exam comprised of “easy” and “difficult” questions to be administered in the form of an exam to college students. The goal of the study assesses the students’ degree of frustration during test failure and how frustration triggers learned helplessness within the constraints of an exam. To what extent does a failure experience in the early part of a test influence or elicit helplessness within a student?

Methodology Participants included students from two psychology classes from a private Midwestern university. The majority of participants are Caucasian and between the ages of 17 and 20. Each individual was administered an exam ensuring anonymity among scores and responses. A research edition of the Shiley Cognitive Scales was utilized in this experiment with a total of 88 questions in three sections: Vocabulary, Abstraction, and Block Patterns.

The vocabulary portion included 50 words in which the participant was asked to identify a synonym to an original word. The Abstraction section included 24 self-generated responses that completed the appropriate sequence of words, numbers or letters. The final part of the exam, Block Patterns, asked students to choose the most appropriate pattern to fit the rest. Students were split into two groups: one group with higher SAT/ACT scores than the other. The questions asked in the exam were rated as “easy” or “difficult” by determining the success rate of each question (questions that were most often answered correctly in both groups were considered “easy”). Two tests were created with the same questions but in different orders: Test A began with the most difficult questions and gradually became easier; Test B began with the easiest questions and gradually became more difficult.

Data Analysis Data was analyzed on three tiers: number or correct answers on easy items, number or correct answers on difficult items, and total number of correct answers.

Results and Conclusions Those who took Test A had fewer correct answers on easy questions than those who took Test B, but more correct answers on the difficult questions, and the overall test. Generally, students who were administers difficult questions before easy questions tended to give up on the easy questions due to frustration, but performance on the difficult questions was not diminished. Because each group was given enough time to complete the exam (all participants finished the last section), Firmin et al. believe the difficulty to easy gradation of Test A created a negative impact on student’s ability to respond correctly.


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