Intelligence is malleable: Study finds underachievers can improve their grades

DAVIS, Calif. — Subjects like math, biology, and history come easier to some students than others. Now, researchers from the University of California-Davis report that teaching struggling students early on that their intelligence is malleable goes a long way toward improving their grades.

In other words, struggling students need to really believe that, if they study and focus, they can expand their knowledge, increase their intelligence, and achieve higher grades. Researchers report that when teachers intervened with this philosophy early enough, it made a real difference in students’ long-term academic outcomes.

“These results were exciting,” says lead study author Tenelle Porter, a postdoctoral scholar in the Department of Human Ecology studying psychology of education, in a university release. “Here we show that we can change people’s minds about how education works — that abilities can improve with effort, and struggling students can see progress.”

Is it really ‘too late’ to recover academically?

Porter explains that many kids, parents, and even some teachers tend to subscribe to the belief that if a child falls behind the rest of his or her class at some point in middle school, the pupil may never recover academically. Put another way, academic underachievers’ intelligence levels may not increase much after early adolescence.

However, this research shows that an educational philosophy intervention called a mindset intervention can help. This philosophy states that the brain is just like any other muscle. The more you use it, the more powerful it will become.

If underperforming students learn this principle, and teachers know on how to properly implement the intervention in class, study authors say grades should improve by a couple of percentage points over the course of the academic year. More specifically, scientists call this intervention “Brainology.”

This new study was the first ever to analyze the impact of teachers on this technique, but the findings clearly indicate that teachers can help. When teachers were involved, the approach proved to be twice as effective academically (higher grades) in comparison to only delivering the intervention by computer to each student without any teacher involvement whatsoever.

Moreover, underachieving students benefited far more from the intervention than their classmates with better grades.

“Students learned, ‘wow, I can be smarter,’” Porter adds.

Teachers still play a major role

This research featured close to 2,000 ethnically diverse sixth and seventh-grade students and 50 teachers from 12 schools in either Orange County, California or New York City. The study took place during the entire school year just before the COVID-19 pandemic. The intervention was provided across a variety of different subjects as well, including math and science.

“We can be confident this method works in various subjects,” Porter explains.

The team says teachers are already using Brainology in hundreds of U.S. schools and plenty of learning institutions abroad. To start, students learn the foundation of a growth mindset by learning how the brain works and how it grows smarter over time through consistent effort.

Obviously, the role of a teacher in an intervention like this is a big one. Kids who are struggling in school need support, and a teacher should be source of just that.

During the study, teachers delivered three of every four lessons in Brainology and also led their students in actively understanding and implementing the intervention. For example, a teacher may ask a student to describe a specific academic area they want to improve, and then help that student put together a study plan.

The study is published in the journal Psychological Science.

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