Blog: The Educated Reporter

Researchers: Students’ Self-Perceptions Factor Into Their Achievement

At EWA’s 67th National Seminar at Vanderbilt University last month, we took a “deep dive” into the impact of noncognitive factors on student learning. This is the first of three guest posts from that session. Parts II and III will follow.

Telling students to work harder doesn’t mean a thing if those students don’t believe they can learn the material. In fact, a growing body of research shows that the way kids view intelligence has a powerful effect on both whether and how much they learn.

Dave Paunesku of Stanford University’s PERTS Lab used a cartoon to explain to the EWA seminar audience two different ways students view themselves: First, like Homer Simpson, who says, “Trying is the first step towards failure,” or second, like Rocky Balboa, who tries harder with every setback.

Homer has a “fixed mindset” believing that intelligence is a fixed trait that can’t change. Faced with a challenging problem, he gives up. Rocky has a “growth mindset,” seeing intelligence or performance as something you can change through effort. He works harder in the face of a difficult challenge.

The type of mindset that a student has can have big consequences.

In a study of 1,500 high school students, those who were considered to have a growth mindset were three times more likely than students with fixed mindsets to score in the top fifth of their class, said Paunesku. Those with fixed mindsets were four times more likely to score in the bottom fifth. 

And now, more studies suggest that those beliefs can be changed with brief, low-cost growth mindset programs, like Brainology, that can help students overcome doubts about themselves.

In a randomized, controlled trial, students took part in a 30-minute online mindset program, in which they learned about the biology of the brain, such as its neuroplasticity and malleability. And they learned they can increase their intelligence. In a two-week follow-up, students exposed to the program earned satisfactory grades at a 14 percent higher rate than students who didn’t take part.

“Students [in the bottom third] assigned growth-mindset treatment earned significantly more A’s, B’s and C’s in core classes,” Paunesku said.

Session panelist David Yeager participated in that study and is now experimenting on the entire freshman class at the University of Texas at Austin, a project featured in The New York Times Magazine cover story Who Gets To Graduate.

Panelist Camille Farrington of the University of Chicago said the hyper-focus on cognitive factors in school ignores the other half of the equation: how the stories kids tell themselves in their heads about who they are can drive their choices about learning.

“If we only pay attention to the content knowledge and skills, we forget the story of who students are, and why they’re here,” said Farrington, author of the book Failing at School.

Studies show that students earn higher grades not only when they believe they can grow their intellectual abilities, but also when they believe school work is relevant to their lives and when they feel like they belong.

“Grit” and perseverance have been described in the media as innate character traits of individual students. Instead, research suggests the amount of effort students put into school work depends, in large part, on the classroom environment.

Farrington said 30 years of research indicates that if students believe any one of the following factors that drive motivation, they will persevere and get better grades:

  • I belong to this academic community;
  • I can succeed at this;
  • My ability and competence grow with my effort;
  • Or this work has value to me.

Farrington said research also shows good grades aren’t motivating factors for most students. And how schools currently use “failure” works against developing a growth mindset. “If you want kids to learn from failure, it has to be structured in a way that’s not terminal,” she said.  “Now we grade everything; it’s averaged into the final grade. Kids know that. Once they start failing, the system is rigged so they can’t recover from it. Then they give up. We want kids to pick up after they’ve failed.”

Researchers said there are things classroom teachers can do to encourage a growth mindset. For example: letting students stew over problems; praising kids not for the right answer, but for the strategy or effort they used to find the right answer; teaching students that it’s good to ask questions and to consult with their peers; and celebrating mistakes as opportunities to learn.



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