Brief online “pep talks” can boost student learning

Screen Shot 2015-01-26 at 9.21.58 PMBrief online interventions that instill a “growth mindset” and a sense of purpose can improve learning, especially for struggling students.

These interventions could potentially reach vast numbers of students at low cost.

“Two interventions, each lasting about 45 minutes and delivered online, raised achievement in a large and diverse group of underperforming students over an academic semester,” writes Gregory Walton, an assistant professor of psychology at Stanford University, along with his colleagues.

More than a million high school students drop out every year, unprepared for either college or the workforce, according to the article in the journal of Psychological Science. Often the cause is underperformance.

In the United States, a debate exists over how to raise student achievement, especially among those who struggle in the classroom. Attempts at educational reforms such as teacher training, school restructuring, and curricular changes have yielded mixed success and high costs, according to the study.

Now, the researchers say that it may be possible, through brief, online interventions, to improve not only the academic achievement of vast numbers of students but their future lives as well—at extremely affordable costs. The key is the mindset of the students.


In their study, the researchers explored the impact of two types of online interventions on 1,594 students in 13 high schools.

One intervention involved the development of a “growth mindset” and the other a “sense of purpose.”

Students with a growth mindset believe that intelligence can be developed, as opposed to those with a “fixed” mindset who believe that people are born with a certain amount of intelligence, the researchers say.

The sense-of-purpose intervention was designed to help students articulate how schoolwork could help them accomplish meaningful life goals.

Both interventions aimed at helping students, especially poor performers, believe they can learn and grow and achieve purpose in life.

The research measured changes in students’ grades in core academic subjects. The results show that among students at risk for dropping out (one-third of the sample), both interventions raised grade-point-averages and increased the rate at which the students performed satisfactorily in each course by 6.4 percentage points.

“The findings suggest the possibility that brief, internet-based activities like the ones we tested could be used to improve learning outcomes for hundreds of thousands or even millions of students around the country at an extremely low cost,” says David Paunesku, a behavioral scientist and lead author of the paper.


Paunesku explains that growth mindset interventions help show students that their intelligence can grow when they work hard on challenging tasks. From this view, struggle is an opportunity to learn, not a sign of weakness or failure.

For example, one of the growth mindset exercises had students read an article describing the brain’s ability to grow and even reorganize itself as a consequence of hard work and astute academic strategies. The goal was to tell students they have the potential to become more intelligent through study and practice, and that scholarly setbacks do not indicate limited potential.

In the sense-of-purpose interventions, students were asked to write about how they wished the world could be a better place. They read stories about how doing well in school can help students make a positive impact on the world. And finally, students were asked to think about their own goals and how school could help them achieve those objectives.

“If our short, web-based activities can help students see school as a place where they can grow their abilities and become the kind of person they want to be, and if that change in perspective makes students more motivated and successful, then it seems likely that there are many opportunities in the classroom to send these messages to better engage students,” says Paunesku.

While many studies tout the power of psychological interventions to boost academic performance, few demonstrate how they could be used in a practical sense in real schools, according to the Stanford researchers. Much past research was tested on a one-time basis with far greater researcher involvement and control than would be feasible in a large-scale implementation.

Now, the new research shows that growth mindset and sense-of-purpose interventions can be scaled to virtually unlimited numbers of students at low cost, Paunesku says.

Coauthors of the study include additional psychology researchers at Stanford University and University of Texas at Austin.

Source: Stanford University