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Researchers: Don’t Over-Hype ‘Grit’ As Student Success Factor

Back to Skills

At EWA’s 67th National Seminar at Vanderbilt University last month, we took a “deep dive” into the impact of noncognitive factors on student learning. This is the third of three guest posts from that session: Part 1Part II. 

There’s been an explosion of interest in recent findings on the role of mindset and “grit” in student success. But along with this enthusiasm comes real concern by researchers.

David Yeager, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Texas, said he and his colleagues don’t want to see their promising work turn into just another flash in the pan when society is so hungry for solutions in education.

“We are terrified as a field,” said Yeager, speaking during a deep-dive session on noncognitive factors in learning at EWA’s National Seminar in Nashville.

Yeager is fearful that rich and privileged schools will rush to adopt mindset interventions before they can be scaled for the disadvantaged populations that could benefit the most. The worst scenario would be that the mindset movement becomes just another education fad, discarded prematurely because of perceptions that it doesn’t live up to the promise.

“If there’s anything about education,” Yeager said, “we can say that that has happened again and again and again.”

So his plea to journalists is this: Don’t hype the mindset data.

Indeed, the findings on the growth mindset seem too good to be true, said Yeager, co-author of a 2011 paper called “Social-Psychological Interventions in Education: They’re Not Magic.”

The research shows that even brief psychological interventions (a single 30-minute online exercise, for example) aimed at students’ beliefs about their capacities to learn can have dramatic and long-lasting effects. The exercise explains to students that intelligence is not a biologically fixed trait, that they can actually develop and grow their brains through hard work. Thus, a simple intervention can lead students to adopt a so-called “growth mindset” instead of a “fixed mindset.”

These interventions have shown a transformative effect, particularly for at-risk students during educational transitions such as ninth grade or the first year of college. Students who have been educationally underserved because of race or socioeconomic status tend to underestimate their potential to succeed in the classroom, Yeager said.

A mindset change can improve a student’s ability to overcome inevitable bumps in the academic road. When a student has the knowledge that almost everyone struggles during the first semester of college, for example, he or she is more likely to persevere instead of dropping out at the first sign of trouble.

Yeager said modest interventions have increased by as much as 50 percent the college persistence rates of urban charter school graduates. Studies of college freshmen at the University of Texas at Austin and Stanford University have shown that these interventions can reduce achievement gaps by half.

“They come across as magic tricks, as in sleights of hand,” Yeager said of the interventions. “How could this possibly be true?… If you interview an economist about this, the first thing they’ll say is, ‘We don’t believe the findings, there’s no way these things will replicate.’”

The fact is, Yeager said, researchers now have data from 20,000-30,000 students in studies with double-blind, randomized, and controlled designs.

“The evidence base for mindset intervention effects is among the strongest of any evidence base in the history of education, and the sizes of the effects, even across great heterogeneity, are as large or larger than anything we know of,” Yeager said.

However, that doesn’t mean that the results don’t also turn on the context of educational settings or that teachers don’t have to be careful in trying to employ interventions widely. Mindset isn’t a magic bullet.

Changes in mindset can set in motion a set of processes in a classroom, but kids are still dependent on resources available to them, Yeager said. “These effects are real, but they’re not easy solutions to hard problems like inequality,” he said.

He also worries that the underlying goals will be misinterpreted.

“The concern is that society will say that we’re blaming individuals, saying they have a flawed way of thinking, and we’re just trying to fix their flawed thinking,” Yeager said. “That it’s victim-blaming and it’s unfair and wrong.”

What would be truly unfair, Yeager said, is not to provide a tool that can empower disadvantaged students to overcome a psychological barrier to educational success.