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...
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.