There’s a saying that believing in something doesn’t make it true — but there could be an exception when it comes to your ability to learn, says a Washington State University researcher.
Joyce Ehrlinger, an assistant psychology professor on the Pullman campus, and her colleagues have spent the past year studying hundreds of students in math classrooms in Pullman and Moscow and whether they have a “growth mindset,” the belief intellectual capability is determined by study habits and determination rather than inherent ability.
Now she wants to spread her research throughout the state, including to Tri-City high schools, with the help of a $1.6 million federal grant.
“It’s a huge predictor of success in school,” Ehrlinger told the Herald. “(Students) end up working harder when they have this mindset and work smarter.”
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Educators in the Richland School District are already using teaching approaches developed from similar research to help students struggling in math. The results are promising.
“(Students) get the idea that just because you don’t easily learn something doesn’t make you stupid,” said Amy Sperline, a math teacher at Enterprise Middle School.
The growth mindset was first introduced to Ehrlinger when she was a graduate student, though she rejected it at the time, she said. Instead, she was convinced people generally have a fixed mindset, that they are either capable of something or they aren’t.
Ehrlinger herself shirked challenges, such as taking a class from a renowned professor, simply because she feared being inadequate.
“I found myself worrying, ‘but what if I don’t do well or say something stupid?’” Ehrlinger recalled.
That experience and others led her to see how a fixed mindset didn’t imply inability, just fear of it. Intrigued, she worked with Carol Dweck at Stanford University on the growth mindset. Their data showed students with a growth mindset earn higher grades, do better on the SAT and do better in difficult subjects.
Her latest research found that a students’ mindset even determined their study habits. Those with a growth mindset were more likely to quiz themselves on what they were learning, a fairly effective means of studying, Ehrlinger said. Students with fixed mindsets, however, are more likely to skim a textbook as a means of studying, a method that is less likely to benefit them.
“They’re really regulating their own learning and sometimes doing so in really poor ways,” Ehrlinger said of high school students.
Sperline’s work with students at Enterprise Middle School using a curriculum called Math 180 is derived from Dweck’s research into the growth mindset while conforming to the new Common Core math standards. The program encourages students to take on challenges rather than avoid them and learn from comments on their work and grades, regardless of how they do on an assignment or test.
“I see (the students) having hope again, having a more positive attitude toward math,” Sperline said.
AVID, another Richland schools program aimed at improving studying habits and organization, also encourages a growth mindset in students, said Assistant Superintendent Erich Bolz.
There’s still a lot about growth mindset psychologists don’t know, Ehrlinger said. That’s part of her desire to expand her research to the Tri-Cities and other high schools around the state—she needs data on hundreds more students to aid her research.
She plans to reach out to schools but also hear from other math educators as a means to collect data while also helping students understand how they can help themselves just by changing their frame of mind.
“We can teach kids that they can actually become smarter,” she said.