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Believing You Can Get Smart Improves Grades

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A handwritten letterreads: I'm giving you these comments because I have very high expectations and I know that you...


College students often earn mediocre grades.


Helping college students understand that intelligence is a skill they can develop over time, rather than a talent they were born with, causes their GPAs to rise.

The Details

Joshua Aronson, a social psychologist, and his colleagues randomly assigned 79 African- and European-American college students to participate in one of three conditions.

In the growth mindset condition, the researchers invited participants to mentor at-risk middle-school pen pals who had sent letters about their academic troubles. Aronson and his colleagues asked participants to write back and explain that intelligence is not like a talent we are born with, but rather like a muscle we can grow with effort. (In reality, there were no pen pals. Instead, the researchers wanted participants to convince themselves that intelligence could grow).

In the control pen pal condition, the researchers prompted participants to explain to their pen pals that people have different types of intelligence, and that struggling in one subject does not prove they lack intelligence across the board.

In the baseline control condition, participants had no pen pal.    

At the end of the year, the research team discovered that students in the growth mindset condition had higher GPAs than students in the two control conditions, even when controlling for SAT scores. In addition, African-American students who convinced themselves they could grow their intelligence reported valuing academic achievement more and finding more enjoyment in studying, going to class, and taking tests, as compared to African-American students in the two control conditions (which did not differ from each other).

Why This Works

When challenged, many students fear their intellectual abilities are being called into question. In response, they shy away from their work, sometimes harming their grades. Teaching students to think of intelligence as a skill they can develop protects them from this fear and helps them thrive.

When This Works Best

Although learning a growth mindset improves grades for many students, this intervention is most helpful for those who are already struggling in school. The intervention may be even more helpful for African-American students and other groups who labor under the stereotype that they lack academic talent.

The Original Study

Aronson, J., Fried, C. B., & Good, C. (2002). Reducing the effects of stereotype threat on African American college students by shaping theories of intelligence. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 38(2), 113-125.

See Also

Good, C., Aronson, J., & Inzlicht, M. (2003). Improving adolescents' standardized test performance: An intervention to reduce the effects of stereotype threat. Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology, 24(6), 645-662.

Blackwell, L. S., Trzesniewski, K. H., & Dweck, C. S. (2007). Implicit theories of intelligence predict achievement across an adolescent transition: A longitudinal study and an intervention. Child Development, 78 (1), 246-263.

Steele, C. M., & Aronson, J. (1995). Stereotype threat and the intellectual test performance of African Americans. Journal of personality and social psychology, 69(5), 797.

Steele, C. M. (1997). A threat in the air: How stereotypes shape intellectual identity and performance. American Psychologist, 52(6), 613-629.


Art courtesy of Rebecca Hetey