Overcoming Learned Helplessness in the Digital Age

Fostering Growth Mindset and Productive Struggle to Encourage Learned Industriousness

What is Learned Helplessness

According to the American Psychological Association, learned helplessness is “a phenomenon in which repeated exposure to uncontrollable stressors results in individuals failing to use any control options that may later become available.” In other words, when a person believes that they are facing a negative outcome situation in which they have no control over and feel powerless to overcome, eventually demotivates them from even trying to look for solutions or improvements eventhough in reality there may still be hope for change. This is the state of learned helplessness. (Goetz & Dweck, 1980).

Such is the power of the mind that research has found that children who believe and verbalize their failures as uncontrollable are found to persist less and use less effective strategies to solve problems. (Goetz & Dweck, 1980).

Children who suffer from learned helplessness may show these symptoms: (Butkowsky & Willows, 1980, as cited in Cherry, 2021)

  • Failure to ask for help
  • Frustration
  • Giving up
  • Lack of effort
  • Low self-esteem
  • Passivity
  • Poor motivation
  • Procrastination

Interestingly, the concept of learned helplessness was discovered by accident by 2 psychologists, Martin Seligman and Steven F. Maier. In an experiment on dogs, Seligman and Maier (1967) found that the dog that was conditioned to learn that escape was futile made no effort to escape even when the opportunity to escape was presented. The dog’s learned helplessness prevented it from any action. (Hockenbury & Hockenbury, 2011)

From Learned Helplessness to Learned Industriousness

Students who struggle academically may experience feelings of learned helplessness, especially those who have made an effort to study yet still did not do well. (Fincham, Hokoda & Sanders, 1989).

When it comes to helping students who experience learned helplessness in their studies, the first step towards change is to help them establish a sense of control over their schoolwork. This can be in the form of helping them seek knowledge about course requirements and assignments and in setting small, achievable goals so that they begin to “acquire a sense of mastery over environmental challenges”. (McKean, 1994, as cited in Hockenbury & Hockenbury, 2011).

This leads us to the opposite of learned helplessness, which is learned industriousness. Learned industriousness is a behavioral theory developed by Robert Eisenberger. Eisenberger asserts that “rewarding a difficult task produces classical conditioning involving the pairing of effort (the conditioned stimulus) with a positive unconditioned stimulus (the reward), thereby reducing effort’s aversiveness. When a difficult task is followed by reward, the effort would become less aversive, increasing the amount of effort the individual subsequently chooses to spend performing this and other difficult tasks.” (Eisenberger, 1999)

In other words, whenever high effort is reinforced, this leads to the reinforcement of the high effort itself.

Eisenberger (1999) found that out of the college students who were rewarded for solving cognitive problems, those who were rewarded for solving the more difficult problems ended up writing better essays than those who were rewarded for solving the easy problems.

Passivity in learned helplessness can be overcome by teaching control. Here are some strategies to help move learners from learned helplessness to learned industriousness:

  1. Learner interest – create a learning experience that engages the interest of the learner. Fisher & Noble (2004) found that task interest was positively correlated to how much effort an individual invests in the task, linking higher effort to higher intrinsic motivation. Making learning concepts relevant to the learner also increases learner interest.
  2. Goal setting – set goals that are ambitious and challenging yet not overly ambitious that they are unachievable. It also helps if the goals are set to be progressively more difficult, thereby allowing the learner to feel a sense of achievement along the path to mastery. This approach is consistent with the concept of productive struggle, which is widely used to make sense of student learning in mathematics classrooms. Productive struggle is define as “effortful practice that goes beyond passive reading, listening, or watching—that builds useful, lasting understanding and skill.” (Hiebert & Grouws, 2007). This article on Edutopia lays out some great strategies for using productive struggle to enhance learning.
  3. Reinforcement – Following the learned industriousness theory by Eisenberger, when high levels of reinforcement is given to low effort on a simple task, this will lead to low effort on future tasks. However, when low levels of reinforcement (intermittent reinforcement) is given to high effort on difficult tasks, this will lead to high levels of effort on future tasks. (Eisenberger, Kuhlman & Cotterell, 1992). Carol Dweck’s research into students’ attitudes about failure and her theory on growth mindset is relevant to the idea of reinforcement in student learning. According to Dweck, growth mindset is the belief that one’s skills and qualities could be cultivated through effort and perseverance. Teachers giving praise to students should be mindful of praising the effort instead of the student’s intelligence in order to drive positive effects on student motivation. (Mueller & Dweck, 1992).

Encouraging Learned Industriousness in the Digital Age

As the world becomes more digital and technology advances at an increased speed, students and teachers alike are forced to continuously upskill themselves in order to stay relevant.

The focus here though, should not just be on teaching more relevant digital skills but instead on encouraging digital agency. Digital agency is defined as “an individual’s capacity to act independently and make their own free choices in the digital workplace.” (Evans-Greenwood et al., 2019)

Evans-Greenwood et al. (2019) also posit that “rather than focusing on knowledge and skills”, the focus should instead be on shaping “attitudes and behaviors” when it comes to encouraging learned industriousness in the digital age. This again ties in with Mueller & Dweck’s (1992) theory of using growth mindset language as reinforcement techniques to drive positive attitudes and behaviors.


  1. American Psychological Association. (n.d.). APA dictionary of psychology. American Psychological Association. https://dictionary.apa.org/learned-helplessness.
  2. Butkowsky, I. S., & Willows, D. M. (1980). Cognitive-motivational characteristics of children varying in reading ability: Evidence for learned helplessness in poor readers. Journal of Educational Psychology, 72(3), 408–422. https://doi.org/10.1037/0022-0663.72.3.408  
  3. Cherry, K. (2021, April 5). What causes learned helplessness? Verywell Mind. https://www.verywellmind.com/what-is-learned-helplessness-2795326
  4. Eisenberger, R., Kuhlman, D. M., & Cotterell, N. (1992). Effects of social values, effort training, and goal structure on task persistence. Journal of Research in Psychology, 26, 258-272.
  5. Eisenberger, R. (1999). Industriousness: How Can It Be Learned? Psi Chi, the International Honor Society in Psychology. https://doi.org/10.24839/1092-0803.eye3.3.24
  6. Evans-Greenwood, P., Patston, T., & Flouch, A. (2019). The digital-ready worker. Deloitte Insights. https://www2.deloitte.com/us/en/insights/focus/technology-and-the-future-of-work/learned-helplessness-workforce.html.
  7. Hiebert, J., & Grouws, D. A. (2007). The effects of classroom mathematics teaching on students’ learning. In F. K. Lester (Ed.), Second handbook of research on mathematics teaching and learning (pp. 371–404). Information Age.
  8. Hockenbury, D. H., & Hockenbury, S. E. (2011). Discovering psychology. Worth Publishers.
  9. Fincham, F. D., Hokoda, A., & Sanders, R. (1989). Learned helplessness, test anxiety, and academic achievement: A longitudinal analysis. Child Development, 60(1), 138–145. https://doi.org/10.2307/1131079
  10. Fisher, C. D. & Noble, C. S. (2004). A within-person examination of correlates of performance and emotions while working. Human Performance, 17(2), 145-168.
  11. Goetz, T. E., & Dweck, C. S. (1980). Learned helplessness in social situations. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 39(2), 246–255. https://doi.org/10.1037/0022-3514.39.2.246
  12. Mueller, C. M., & Dweck, C. S. (1998). Praise for intelligence can undermine children’s motivation and performance. Journal of personality and social psychology. https://doi.org/10.1037/0022-3514.75.1.33
  13. Nuvvula, S. (2016). Learned helplessness. Contemporary Clinical Dentistry. https://doi.org/10.4103/0976-237X.194124.
  14. Sriram, R. (2020, April 13). The neuroscience behind productive struggle. Edutopia. https://www.edutopia.org/article/neuroscience-behind-productive-struggle.

3 thoughts on “Overcoming Learned Helplessness in the Digital Age

  1. Nick R says:

    Mun, I appreciate your solution to combat learned helplessness. Reward high effort to reinforce high effort itself. Any student, regardless of grade level, wants to feel appreciated. Sometimes I feel like we, as educators, reward only the work (the product) and not the effort/process that went into the work. In reference to learner interest helping learned helplessness, I wonder if real-world learning opportunities might also be useful. Thank you for sharing!

  2. Deanna Bush says:

    Thank you for this fascinating post. The list of learned helplessness characteristics followed by manageable strategies for encouraging resilience is really useful as we work with students this fall.

  3. JK Freeman says:

    I appreciate your explanations of the terms “learned helplessness” and “learned industriousness” within the context of an academic environment. You make an excellent point about focusing on “shaping attitudes and behaviors” rather than knowledge and skills to promote learned industriousness in the digital age. Great work!


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