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Education Lab Blog

Education Lab is a project to spark meaningful conversations about education solutions in the Pacific Northwest.

May 22, 2014 at 5:00 AM

Researchers: If students believe they can get smarter, they often do

Illustration by Donna Grethen / Op Art

Illustration by Donna Grethen / Op Art

Of all the factors that affect how — and how much — students learn, mounting research suggests the way they view intelligence is one of them.

Do they believe intelligence is something they can’t change, as fixed as the color of their eyes?

Or do they see it more like a muscle that, through training and effort, can grow?

At the Education Writers Conference earlier this week in Nashville, I spent a morning listening to three researchers who believe the latter, and have added to the studies that suggest that simply helping students understand that they can improve their intelligence leads to higher grades.

They think that’s because students are willing to work harder if they believe it will pay off, and are more willing to seek help because what they call a “growth mindset” removes some of the fear of looking stupid.

Even brief discussions of the malleability of the brain seem to boost achievement.

In one experiment, 886 community college students who were enrolled in remedial math classes participated in a 30-minute online exercise. For some, the exercise focused on a generic explanation of brain science. The others learned that brain science was showing that tackling tough, intellectual work would make them smarter.

The second group had higher grades at the end of the semester.

Two of the researchers were involved in that experiment — Dave Paunesku, a research director at Stanford University and David Yeager, now at the University of Texas at Austin, where he’s been involved with a similar program that was recently featured in The New York Times. The third was Camille Farrington of the University of Chicago, lead author of a report that summarizes five types of noncognitive factors that affect academic performance.

They know all this sounds a little too good to be true. They stressed that working to change students’ beliefs about their abilities is no panacea. Yeager is co-author of a paper that makes that argument in detail.

They’re also not saying all students are equally smart.

But they do think the way students view intelligence is among a number of social and emotional factors that can affect academic performance.

So what practical advice did they have for parents and teachers who want to promote a growth mindset in students?

Here are a few:

  • Tell students that working hard will build their brain.
  • Avoid sending messages that intelligence is fixed, such as “See, you got it, you are smart!”
  • Give students accurate information about how the brain works
  • Praise effort and strategy rather than skill or speed.
  • Celebrate mistakes as opportunities to learn.


Comments | More in News | Topics: Camille Farrington, Dave Paunesku, David Yeager


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