Arten Popov
Arten Popov

Teaching students that intelligence can grow and blossom with effort – rather than being a fixed trait they’re just born with – is gaining traction in progressive education circles. And new research from Stanford is helping to build the case that nurturing a “growth mindset” can help many kids understand their true potential.

The new research involves larger, more rigorous field trials that provide some of the first evidence that the social psychology strategy can be effective when implemented in schools on a wide scale. Even a one-time, 30-minute online intervention can spur academic gains for many students, particularly those with poor grades. The premise is that these positive effects can stick over years, leading for example to higher graduation rates; but long-term data is still needed to confirm that.

Earlier, well-designed tests of simple and relatively inexpensive growth-mindset interventions had surprisingly shown improvements in students’ grades over weeks or months. For instance, promising results from one famous experiment – an eight-session workshop in 91 seventh graders in a New York City school – led psychology researchers Carol Dweck and Lisa Blackwell to start up Mindset Works, a company that offers a computer-based program called Brainology.

However, all the original intervention studies were small and left some educators and policymakers unconvinced. “Some folks, I think, are skeptical just because the effects are big and because they come from something that’s so small,” said Stanford behavioral scientist David Paunesku. “And I think it’s fair that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.” There were doubts, too, whether the classroom-based growth-mindset techniques would work if broadly put into practice without intensive training or supervision from the experts who developed them.

To address those issues, Dweck, Paunesku and associates started the Stanford Project for Education Research That Scales (PERTS) with the goal of conducting large-scale randomized, controlled trials of distilled mindset interventions that were briefer and could be easily delivered by internet. The program, which is directed by Paunesku, collaborates with schools in testing various experimental psychology strategies for shifting the ways students think about their education, so as to motivate them to work hard.

A Light Touch Leads to Meaningful Change

In one intervention trial that was part of his Ph.D. dissertation, Paunesku worked with colleagues to enlist 1,594 students at 13 U.S. high schools, including 519 under-performing teens with the lowest GPAs. In spring semester 2012, the kids all logged online for a 30-minute, no-frills slideshow presentation (which they were only told was part of a general study of how and why students learn).

Half the group watched a lesson explaining the basic anatomy of the brain, but the other half received a growth-mindset “treatment”: They read an article that described scientific research findings about the brain’s malleability and explained that, just as people can get stronger by working out their muscles, anyone who works out their brain through learning can get smarter. The presentation also noted it could be helpful to try different studying strategies. Then, the teens were asked to summarize what they’d learned by composing a note of advice to a hypothetical struggling student.

For example, as one student wrote, “The more you practice or study the more you learn. Your brain has neurons inside that grow whenever you learn something new. Even though you may struggle in a certain subject the neurons in your brain are making new connections and your brain is getting stronger and smarter. … Struggling in school is absolutely normal and we may feel and call ourselves ‘dumb’ during these times. If you practice using better ways to study and learn you will get smarter and might struggle less.”

By the end of spring term, encouraging changes were afoot, particularly in the students struggling with low GPAs: the proportion who earned satisfactory grades rose to 49 percent from 43 percent the previous semester, a relative gain of 14 percent. Students in the control condition, however, showed a slight downward slide. A 14 percent improvement might not sound like much, but it represents that many more kids who lifted themselves above poor or failing grades, Paunesku said. “Hopefully, that will put these kids on a different trajectory where they would be more likely to actually graduate high school,” he said. Students who don’t perform well early in the school year usually end up doing worse and worse and are at risk for dropping out.

Fostering other kinds of academic mindsets may help as well. The same study also tested a “sense-of-purpose” psychology intervention (in a separate 30-minute online session) designed to get the teens to link their schoolwork to a meaningful broader purpose – such as preparing for future goals that “make a positive impact on the world.” That motivational strategy was roughly as effective as the growth-mindset training, Paunesku said. (Combining the two didn’t add up to a bigger benefit.)

“The hypothesis would then be that later on, when the students take the AP classes or when they just encounter a more challenging concept or when they go off to college, that having these more adaptive academic mindsets will serve them well,” he said. To determine whether that’s true, the PERTS researchers would have to track the high schoolers’ performance over longer time-frames; for instance, they’ll be doing two-year follow-ups in some other growth-mindset studies targeting community college students. But such longitudinal work is difficult and costly.

Other not-yet-published, large-scale trials from PERTS and affiliated researchers such as University of Texas (UT) psychologist David Yeager are likewise finding modest boosts in achievement from growth-mindset messages tailored to other learners – ranging from students doing Khan Academy math problems online (who were exposed to single sentences such as, “If you make a mistake, it’s an opportunity to get smarter!”) to incoming UT Austin freshmen who log into a 30-minute online intervention.

Bringing Growth Mindsets into Schools

Designing online interventions that are quick is critical for wide-scale testing and uptake, Paunesku said, because schools might be hesitant to relinquish class time for them. The PERTS growth-mindset session is much shorter than Mindset Works’ Brainology curriculum for middle students, which entails weekly lessons over five to 16 weeks and costs $20 per student for a group of 20 or more. Paunesku and his colleagues are now updating their no-frills interventions with a higher production quality and more engaging content. If further research confirms effectiveness and enough funding support is available, they’d like to make the materials freely accessible to schools, he said.

But Paunesku cautions that “academic mindset interventions are not magic bullets.” There may be many reasons why half of the low-performing kids who received the growth-mindset lesson still failed to earn satisfactory grades. Some may not have found the online presentation persuasive enough, he said, if they grew up repeatedly hearing “fixed”-mindset attitudes – such as, “some people are just bad at math” – from parents and peers. And even if students adopt a more adaptive mindset, other obstacles may still loom: A child might have trouble focusing in class because he’s hungry or anxious about being bullied, or he may not get enough support from his parents with homework.

Paunesku’s high school study is valuable in showing how small changes can have a surprising impact, similar to effects seen in other previous studies of brief growth-mindset messages, said Blackwell, vice president at Mindset Works (which also collaborates with PERTS). However, not only is it not yet known how well the positive impacts of growth-mindset interventions are sustained in the longer term as students encounter more significant challenges and failures in the real world, she notes, but none of the methods work for everybody or do anything to change the classroom contexts in which kids learn.

That is why, Blackwell said, rather than approaching mindsets “solely as an isolated belief within an individual’s psychology,” Mindset Works has broadened its focus to “changing school and classroom cultures and providing individuals with the tools and strategies to sustain a growth mindset over time.” The company rolled out an educator toolkit in 2012 to guide teachers and administrators in cultivating a growth mindset throughout a school.

Paunesku agrees that changing school culture is likely to be fruitful. To complement its half-hour online student interventions, PERTS plans to release an open set of growth-mindset professional development materials, starting with math teachers next year. “There’s so much more good that could come if we could effectively communicate to teachers and train teachers how to do this in day-to-day classroom practices,” he says.

Experimenting in the Trenches

For many teachers, the growth-mindset philosophy is appealing because it makes intuitive sense. At Cobleskill-Richmondville High School in rural upstate New York, assistant principal Casey Bardin has informally experimented with various academic mindset strategies inspired by work at Stanford, including tactics to bolster a sense of social belonging in disadvantaged students.

Last fall, he held one-on-one “goals meetings” with 70 pupils who were flunking three or more classes. Most lacked a support system at school, with no one to relate to there, he said. Bardin offered encouragement by explaining that intelligence grows with hard effort, and then suggested trying different studying tactics. One kid – an African-American in a predominantly white school – was failing math and four other subjects. After Bardin connected him with a senior who could help him with math, the two teens worked together in study hall every day. By spring, the African-American student was passing all his classes.

Similarly, 29 other under-performing students improved their grades after four weeks, with more than half of them no longer failing any courses. By May, 40 of the 70 had pulled up their academic standing. “I was very excited,” Bardin said of the experiment. He now hopes to get buy-in from teachers and other administrators at the high school to expand that work and, down the road, possibly adopt Mindset Works programming, tough budget constraints permitting. Cobleskill-Richmondville High plans to participate in a PERTS research trial next academic year.

New Research: Students Benefit from Learning That Intelligence Is Not Fixed 9 September,2015Ingfei Chen

  • Kent Norton

    The hidden secret point here is the grades mean nothing great SAT GRE Med school-even, mean nothing except the fact that people make better grades test well. yet we do not emphasize learn by doing as John Dewey talked about and also pragmatism that tells what works should be a prime target, not grades. I am drawn to the story of “the little engine that could” I was at the Engine!!!

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  • Judy Snow

    I wonder how old a child has to be for this approach to work? Would it help if as parents and teachers we told even the littlest kids that working hard makes you smarter?

    • Meg

      This approach works from birth – just watch a child trying to learn to crawl – they keep trying until they get it right. Kids don’t know they are ‘dumb’ or ‘smart’ until people tell them they are

    • abstract_i

      No there are no age constraints. The student simply has to have the work ethic. This will not happen if the student doesn’t have the work ethic.

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  • Dox Doxiadis

    Reality check: in most school (and work situations), there is no time to get it wrong and re-try to get it right. By that time, the class has moved on to the next lesson.

    A “learning experience” is a poor substitute for getting it right the first time. The “smart” kids and upwardly mobile employees are those who (usually) succeed on the first try. This must be some innate talent. (In my first salaried job, I was told “we don’t have time for learners”.)

    These are not my opinions, but my real-life observations. Now that I am retired and not on a schedule, I find Dweck’s methods very valuable–but I have to be off schedule.

    • Philip McIntosh

      This just doesn’t make sense given our current understanding of the brain and how learning happens. “Getting it right the first time” is a myth. The first time you see an amazing product or outcome you can be sure it is the result of many iterations and a lot of hard work and do overs. The only things we can get right the first time are trivial things or things that have already been done.

      I’d like to know where that company that “didn’t have time for learners” is now. If they are still in business I’m willing to bet they don’t tell their new employees that now.

      A “learning experience” is not a poor outcome, in fact it is the central point of education. Stick with it. Don’t give up. Eventually, you’ll get it right (but probably not the first time).

    • richensf

      I guess it depends on the culture of your employer as well as your role within the company. I imagine the stale institutions of the 20th century still obsess over perfection, but where I work and within the tech industry and digital ecosystem at large, perfection is a myth. “Move fast and break things” is the aphorism Mark Zuckerberg famously coin at the birth of Facebook. In the 21st century, failing is not the worst fate, never launching is. If you spend your time trying to get it perfect, you will never make it to market. Failures are not without value so long as you learn from your mistakes.

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  • Thom Markham

    Important results and good work that takes us in the right direction. But next step is to understand that the brain alone doesn’t create a ‘mindset.’ It’s a combination of positive emotions and beliefs filtered through the physiology of the heart and brain working together.

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  • Of course they benefit! If you think you are limited to some level of “smartness,” then you will work significantly less.

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  • abstract_i

    It’s interesting because me and a fellow teacher did this a few years ago. The commentators are correct, there is a caveat. One you have to have buy in. There were people that said they would be supportive but were not. Everyone involved has to cooperate….students, parents, and administrators, etc. Any one that doesn’t cooperate will potentially disrupt the process and ultimately cause failure. This is what happen to our program, but initially it did work. We also had an after school program as well as Saturday school just for Mathematics. Our program was extremely successful, but our principal wasn’t supportive and thus the demise of our program.

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  • sergeitoom

    Intelligence with New Mindsight from Thought Leader. Kind Regards, Sergey .

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  • Fernando

    Con respecto a la psicologia que se promueve en las universidades aqui hay una asociasion que promueve algo similar si buscan en google los nombre de cada uno podran saber mas de ellos:

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  • Neal Camp

    It is not your I.Q.. It is what you do with what you have.

  • Katie Lawson

    Is anyone having trouble getting the links from this article to open?

    • Katrina Schwartz

      Katie – Most of the links worked for me, although there were a few to studies that have been put behind paywalls since this article was first published. I changed those ones, but everything should work now. Hope this helps! – Katrina

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  • We need to see mental stress more accurately as “many layers of mental work from past events, problems, experiences; present needs, circumstances, values -conscience -care for others, values of self/society, a whole array of mental work our minds may be working on; and future concerns that accumulate in our lives and hurt our ability to think and learn. This includes weights and values (some faulty) that we may develop over time that may create many other, needless layers of non-essential, even harmful layers of mental conflicts and maintain these layers hurting more so our ability to think, learn and have good mental health (reflection time and less psychological suffering from those layers). By redefining average stress as many layers of mental work, we now have tools to more permanently reduce layers of mental work and improve thinking, learning, and mental/emotional health.
    Some things do not create mental stress at all. Laughing, crying, running, and swimming are not good stresses but low, if any stress. We are using energy, but we are “not creating mental frictions” from it. In this definition, “stress does not occur” when energy is expended without mental frictions. When performing old mental or physical work, provided we do not exceed our immediate knowledge and experience, we do not create stress but simply use energy. By seeing stress more accurately as layers of mental frictions – layers of conscious and subconscious (below the surface) unresolved mental frictions, we can see how our individual environments greatly affect our ability to think, learn, and improve. We can use this better definition of stress to help students and adults continually improve their ability to think and learn by learning how to more permanently reduce layers of mental frictions.
    The first tool: stress is more accurately defined as many layers of mental work. When we are performing mental work, our minds are also subconsciously working on other layers of mental work from various problems, circumstances, etc. All of us, even when feeling fine, are working on different amounts or layers of mental frictions that impede our ability to think and learn. Try to picture an upright rectangle representing our full ability or full mental energy (Figure page 6). Then begin drawing from the bottom, narrowly spaced, horizontal lines to represent layers of small and some large layers of mental frictions our minds may be working on consciously and below the surface or subconsciously. The space we have left represents our leftover ability to think, learn, and grow mentally and emotionally. The length of this space also represents our length of reflection time or time to think more deeply to consider long-term rewards or consequences for a course of action. This shows just how our individual environments greatly affect our ability to think and learn. Many Persons with high layers of mental frictions will have to work harder to receive the same mental reward for mental work expended. Ask yourself, which makes more sense, are we just genetically more or less able, or do our individual environments greatly affect our ability to think, learn, and develop skills. For our own good, we need to recognize how our individual environments greatly affect ability and how we can more permanently reduce mental frictions to continually improve thinking, learning, and mental/emotional health.
    This tool provides a way to permanently reduce layers of mental frictions. We need to do more than just solve a problem or unresolved mental work creating a mental friction. We need to look at the elements in our lives that create those mental frictions and our values that may be creating those problems. Then, we can begin to understand a little each day how the elements of our lives are creating mental frictions as they come up. Then with a small change in a weight or value we are placing on an element in our lives and developing a mental principle or rule in a certain area of our life we can then resolve and more permanently remove that layer of mental friction.
    By slowly understanding how layers of mental frictions are created, we can then learn to approach those elements in our lives more correctly to keep like mental frictions from occurring in the future. This enables “all of us” to more permanently reduce layers of mental frictions that hurt our ability to think and learn. Note, this goes way beyond needs or substantive problems, but goes into many smaller areas of values – conscience of self, others, society, experiences, circumstances, many small areas that take away real mental energy. The Savant is able to perform mathematical or musical feats because theoretically, the mind is dysfunctional in many areas and is delivering extra mental energy to other areas like math or music that in rare instances have been left undamaged. Since we as so-called, normal human beings are affected adversely by many layers of mental frictions in other areas of the mind, which function normally, our abilities in those areas are impeded by our mental energy being more taxed, thus limiting those areas.
    With each more permanently removed layer of mental friction we will continually improve thinking, learning, and extend reflection time (think more deeply, with more complexity, and more correctly). Remember, to more permanently reduce layers of mental frictions we need to change the principle or value that created that mental friction, “not just solve that problem” to prevent similar mental frictions from occurring.
    Also with our maintained layers comes a feeding into improper pace and intensity in approaching newer mental work. As we approach a newer mental work that exceeds our immediate knowledge, skills, or present mental frames we only intensify our present layers and further impede thinking, learning, and motivation to learn or mental reward received for mental work expended. Yes, our individual environments greatly affect our thinking, learning, and motivation to learn. We all need to begin more permanently reduce many non-essential layers and change our pace and intensity in approaching newer mental work to slowly begin creating a newer and better person each day. Also we can use this same approach to help reduce and even prevent psychological suffering from creating the need to escape in various ways through drug/alcohol abuse or suicide. As those layers reach toward the top of that upright rectangle, they create both psychological suffering and a much shorter reflection time. This is the prime recipe for drug/alcohol abuse and suicide. Our false genetics models in school and the teaching of fixed intelligences are killing our students. We need to change this and remove our false genetics models. Theory to all on request.


Ingfei Chen

Ingfei Chen is a freelance writer in Northern California whose work has appeared in Scientific American, the New York Times and Smithsonian.

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