Growing a Mindset with the Right Words

Growing a Mindset with the Right Words


Words of encouragement can change students’ attitudes and behavior. But can it improve their academic performance?

A two-month study into mindset interventions, conducted by PERTS (short for Project for Education Research that Scales, an educational research center out of Stanford University) and in collaboration with Khan Academy, suggests the answer is yes--as long as it's done appropriately and with the right words.

“Academic mindset” is a term from behavioral research that describes how students think about school and learning. Everyone has an academic mindset, and PERTS programs target those mindsets and measure how they affect academic performance.

According to PERTS associate director, Carissa Romero, students with a “growth mindset” believe they can get smarter by putting in effort and using the right strategies. “Their main goal is to learn,” says Romero, “so they view effort as a positive thing.” Conversely, students with a fixed mindset tend to view intelligence as immutable. Their main goal isn’t to learn; it’s to prove that they’re already smart. These students view the need for effort as evidence of failure, so they give up more easily when presented with a challenge.

PERTS’ study with Khan Academy sought to find out if exposing a growth mindset to students with fixed perceptions would help them perform better.

To test their hypothesis, researchers placed different types of messages above fraction problems on Khan Academy’s website. During January and February 2013, over 250,000 students visiting the website were randomly assigned one of three message types: growth messages like “If you make a mistake, it’s an opportunity to get smarter!”; standard encouragements such as “Some of these problems are hard. Just do your best.”; and scientific statements such as “Did you know: An elephant brain weighs 7/2 as much as a human brain.” A fourth control group did not receive any messages. The message type remained constant over the two-month study, and researchers measured how the messages affected student proficiency.

When the results were in, one message type had emerged as the clear winner. Growth mindset statements increased the number of concepts that students mastered by 3%. The other types of statements had no statistically significant effect.

Similar studies by PERTS have shown even more encouraging results. In one experiment, at-risk high school students who participated in a single 30-minute online mindset intervention earned satisfactory grades (As, Bs, Cs) over the entire semester at a 14% higher rate than their control group peers. In another, community college math students participating in similar intervention had a 12% rate of increase in the number of those who received satisfactory grades.

The results are impressive both in their measurable impact and in the low cost such interventions require, and the researchers at PERTS are refining the programs in schools with the aim to bring these interventions to students all over the country.

Interested in participating? PERTS is currently recruiting schools and districts for the 2014-2015 academic year. Participation is free; you can sign up here.

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