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Positive psychology for educational applications
Department of Psychology,
University of Glasgow.
There have recently been a number of studies showing dramatic direct educational
interventions on educational test scores. It seems very likely that in HE
these would furthermore translate into lower dropout (besides two more also
described below). The Taylor & Walton (2011) study has an advance in
method, where they separately measure effects on learning and test
Study 1: Dweck and "mindsets"
Children (about 10 years old) did intelligence test problems (Raven's
matrices): 10 problems per set, only 4 minutes allowed per set; 3 sets with
intervening measures: medium hard, hard, medium hard. Different types of
praise given (with the marks) after the first set: for ability, for effort, or
nothing. After the second (harder) set, they were told they had done badly on
that set. Then a third set (of medium difficulty comparable to the first set)
was given to generate measures of the effect. On a scale of 0-10, scores went
up by about 1 with the "good" intervention and down by about 1 with the "bad"
intervention. It also affected their attitude of wanting to persist with such
problems (scale 1-6; "How much would you like to take these problems home to
work on"). And furthermore affected whether they sought information that
would help them learn to be even better at the problems, or information such
as how others had done that would let them judge themselves.
Immediacy: Affected later task (over about 20 minutes).
Improvement size: On a scale of 0-10, scores went up by
about 1 with "good" intervention and down by about 1 with the "bad"
The content of the intervention (listening for 5 seconds):
One sentence of praise given orally by the experimenter, along with feedback
(score) on a task (plus failure on the next set of tasks).
All were told, after the first set, "That's a really high score"; then either
"You must be smart at these problems" or nothing or "You must have worked hard
at these problems". After the second set, all were told they'd done "a lot
Mueller. M. C. & Dweck. S. C., (1998)
"Praise for Intelligence can Undermine Children's Motivation and Performance"
Journal of Personality and Social Psychology vol.75, No.1, pp.33-52
Study 2: reducing underperformance by African Americans
In a north eastern US middle school a study with 119 African American (AA) and
124 European American (EA) students and random allocation of each to control
and intervention groups, with the teacher blind to this allocation, gave a 15
minute written assignment in class early in the year. The AA students with the
positive psychology intervention showed about a quarter of a grade improvement
in end of term grades. The effect was significant (p < 0.02), was greatest
for the weakest students, and halved the number that "failed" in the sense of
getting grade D or worse. There was no effect for EA students, so this
intervention may not work more generally.
Immediacy: Affected grade for the semester.
Improvement size: One quarter of a grade; abolished 40%
of the achievement gap; failure rate (D grade or worse) reduced from 20% to 9%.
The content of the intervention (writing for 15 mins.):
The affirmation and control exercises presented a list of values (such as
relationships with friends or family or being good at art). In experiment 1,
treatment students were asked to indicate their most important value, control
students their least important value. In the replication study, treatment
students were asked to indicate their two or three most important values,
control students their two or three least important values. Treatment students
in both studies then wrote a brief paragraph about why their selected value(s)
were important to them. Control students wrote about why the chosen value(s)
might be important to someone else. To reinforce the manipulation, students
indicated their level of agreement with statements concerning their chosen
value(s) (such as "I care about these values," in the treatment condition
versus "some people care about these values", in the control condition).
Cohen,G.L., Garcia,J., Apfel,N. & Master,A. (2006)
"Reducing the racial achievement gap; A social-psychological intervention"
Science vol.313 p.1307-1310
Cohen,G.L., Steele,C.M., Ross,L.D.. (1999) "The mentor's dilemma: Providing
critical feedback across the racial divide"
Personality and social psychology bulletin vol.25 no.10 pp.1302-1318
Study 3: reducing female underperformance in maths
In Canada, women undergraduates took a test that
had a maths, then a reading comprehension, then another maths test.
The comprehension test was the place for the intervention, with different
essays given to different (randomly assigned) groups, on the topic of gender
differences in maths performance. Those getting the positive versions
(arguing either that there are no real gender differences or that differences
are due to experiential effects) did significantly (p < 0.02) better than the
others on the second math test.
Immediacy: Affected the next task (next few minutes).
Improvement size: about 20% in score.
The content of the intervention (reading or listening for
Each test condition used a different essay. Two of the essays
argued that math-related sex differences were due to either genetic or
experiential causes. Both essays claimed that there are sex differences in
math performance of the same magnitude. One essay [a third] argued that there
are no math-related gender differences. The [fourth] essay primed sex without
addressing the math stereotype. (The second and third essays elicited
significantly better performances than the first and fourth.)
Dar-Nimrod,I. & Jeine, S.J. (2006)
"Exposure to scientific theories affects women's math performance"
Science vol.314 p.435
Study 4: Open University boost from emphasising strengths
Note that this study, unlike the 3 above, showed an effect of small size
(only 4 to 5% of students) (although statistically significant, and
educationally and financially worthwhile). It is also possible to reinterpret
its effect: although it was designed on the basis of Dweck's ideas, it could
be that the affected learners were really responding to a sign of caring by
the institution rather than to a change in their own "mindsets".
Study 5: penpal Aronson
Aronson,J., Fried,C.B., & Good,C. (2002)
"Reducing the Effects of Stereotype Threat on African American College
Students by Shaping Theories of Intelligence"
Journal of Experimental Social Psychology
vol.38 no.2 March 2002 pp.113-125
Study 6: Mangels
Mangels,J.A., Butterfield,B., Lamb,J., Good,C., & Dweck,C.S. (2006)
"Why do beliefs about intelligence influence learning success? A social
cognitive neuroscience model" SCAN vol.1 p.75
Study 7: Fullilove
Fullilove,R.E., & Treisman,P.U. (1990)
"Mathematics achievement among African American undergraduates at the
University of California, Berkeley:
An evaluation of the mathematics workshop program"
Journal of Negro Education vol.59 no.3 pp.463-478
Study 8: Dijksterhuis
Dijksterhuis,A. & van Knippenberg,A. (1998)
"The relation between perception and behavior, or how to win a game of
J. of personality and social psychology vol.74 no.4 pp.865-877
This comes from studies on how we unconsciously imitate others; or a
stereotype. So priming people with the notion of old people makes them slow
and stupid; of hooligans makes them more antisocial; of professors, improves
Study 9: Taylor & Walton
Taylor,V.J. & Walton,G.M. (2011)
"Sterotype threat undermines academic learning"
Personality and social psychology bulletin vol.37 no.8 pp.1055-1067
This study has a much improved experimental design, that separately measured
how much effect the intervention had at the time of learning, and at the time
of testing. It showed that it has an effect at both of these, and the effects
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