Short online ‘pep talks’ can boost students

A large study shows how a 45-minute online intervention can improve struggling high school students' attitude to schoolwork, and thus their academic performance.

There's been a lot of talk in recent years about the importance of mindset in learning, with those who have a “growth mindset” (ie believe that intelligence can be developed) being more academically successful than those who believe that intelligence is a fixed attribute. A new study shows that a 45-minute online intervention can help struggling high school students.

The study involved 1,594 students in 13 U.S. high schools. They were randomly allocated to one of three intervention groups or the control group. The intervention groups either experienced an online program designed to develop a growth mindset, or an online program designed to foster a sense of purpose, or both programs (2 weeks apart). All interventions were expected to improve academic performance, especially in struggling students.

The interventions had no significant benefits for students who were doing okay, but were of significant benefit for those who had an initial GPA of 2 or less, or had failed at least one core subject (this group contained 519 students; a third of the total participants). For this group, each of the interventions was of similar benefit; interestingly, the combined intervention was less beneficial than either single intervention. It's plausibly suggested that this might be because the different messages weren't integrated, and students may have had some trouble in taking on board two separate messages.

Overall, for this group of students, semester grade point averages improved in core academic courses and the rate at which students performed satisfactorily in core courses increased by 6.4%.

GPA average in core subjects (math, English, science, social studies) was calculated at the end of the semester before the interventions, and at the end of the semester after the interventions. Brief questions before and after the interventions assessed the students' beliefs about intelligence, and their sense of meaningfulness about schoolwork.

GPA before intervention was positively associated with a growth mindset and a sense of purpose, explaining why the interventions had no effect on better students. Only the growth mindset intervention led to a more malleable view of intelligence; only the sense-of-purpose intervention led to a change in perception in the value of mundane academic tasks. Note that the combined intervention showed no such effects, suggesting that it had confused rather than enlightened!

In the growth mindset intervention, students read an article describing the brain’s ability to grow and reorganize itself as a consequence of hard work and good strategies. The message that difficulties don't indicate limited ability but rather provide learning opportunities, was reinforced in two writing exercises. The control group read similar materials, but with a focus on functional localization in the brain rather than its malleability.

In the sense-of-purpose interventions, students were asked to write about how they wished the world could be a better place. They read about the reasons why some students worked hard, such as “to make their families proud”; “to be a good example”; “to make a positive impact on the world”. They were then asked to think about their own goals and how school could help them achieve those objectives. The control group completed one of two modules that didn't differ in impact. In one, students described how their lives were different in high school compared to before. The other was much more similar to the intervention, except that the emphasis was on economic self-interest rather than social contribution.

The findings are interesting in showing that you can help poor learners with a simple intervention, but perhaps even more, for their indication that such interventions are best done in a more holistic and contextual way. A more integrated message would hopefully have been more effective, and surely ongoing reinforcement in the classroom would make an even bigger difference.


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