(Mind)-setting students up to succeed: social-psychological interventions in the classroom

One student

One student’s prediction of this half term in history

How does my ‘average’ student see herself as a learner?  Many are confident in their abilities and eager to succeed.  There are others though: sure they are stupid or incapable; certain that intelligence is fixed; weighed down by perceptions about who can succeed (not them).  How can I change these beliefs?

Their ideas seem deep-rooted; often, I realise the existence of a block in a student’s mind but feel that my brief affirmation as to their capacity for success, provided they try, has done little to change their underlying view of themselves and school.  Assemblies focusing on growth mindset or identifying role models may go some way to solving this.  Often I feel deeper intervention is needed and question when and how I can do this.  There may be a solution:

In recent years, several rigorous, randomized field experiments have shown that seemingly “small” social-psychological interventions—typically brief exercises that do not teach academic content but instead target students’ thoughts, feelings, and beliefs in and about school—have had striking effects on educational achievement even over months and years.” (Yeager and Walton, 2011, p. 2)

What are social-psychological interventions?

Social-psychological interventions focus upon changing students’ “beliefs about their potential for growth and belonging in the classroom and their efforts to cope with negative stereotypes in school (Yeager and Walton, 2011, p.10).”  These beliefs can act as “restraining forces: (p.9)” most teachers have witnessed the additional efforts made by students who hold a growth mindset, compared to those who believe intelligence is fixed, for example.  Other beliefs have similar, powerful effects, notably how students attribute their success and failures (whether they see setbacks as temporary and localised or general judgments upon their competence, for example) and their stereotype threat (a belief that ‘people like me’ (black students at university, girls in physics, for example) don’t belong).  Social-psychological interventions set out “change students’ thoughts and feelings in and about school (Yeager and Walton, 2011, p.10)” to redress these beliefs.

How do social-psychological interventions work?

Yeager and Wilton’s study builds from a discussion of nine social-psychological interventions.  Here are three; for each I’ve summarised the original study and explained my adaptation.

1) Students identify the relevance of what they’ve learned*

Original study: Each month, students wrote a brief essay describing how the material they had studied in science could be applied in their lives, answering the following question “Apply this topic/concept to your life, or to the life of someone you know. How might the information be useful to you, or a friend/relative, in daily life? How does learning about this topic apply to your future plans?”  At the end of the semester, students who expected to perform poorly in science had earned higher grades; no effects were found among those with high expectations for success in science (Hulleman and Harackiewicz, 2009).

My adaptation: How is the history we have learned useful or relevant to you/to modern life?  I have had to add in a number of prompt questions, the first the most important:

  • Think beyond ‘a test’ and give examples.
  • What concepts do you understand better?
  • What modern situations do you understand better?
  • How do you understand yourself better?
  • What role models has this topic provided you?
  • Who could this knowledge be useful to?

An example response I read this week

(My post on measuring what we value explores this idea further).

2) Students persuade their juniors they can succeed

Original study: Participants read about how new students often feel they do not belong in college, but that their worries dissipate in time; they then wrote an essay and gave a speech ostensibly to the next year’s freshmen about how their worries had changed over time.  Relative to multiple control groups, black students in the treatment group earned higher Grade Point Averages throughout college, reducing the racial achievement gap by 52%, were more likely to be in the top quartile, and three years post-treatment reported being happier and healthier.  ((Walton and Cohen 2007, 2011) This is one of two similar studies on advising younger students in Yeager and Walton (2011)).

My adaptation: I’ve done this a number of times: I asked Year 9 students to give advice on getting the most out of history in Year 9 for the next group; I had Year 13 offer advice on how to complete coursework well after they’d finished the first of two questions.  In both cases, my aim was to reinforce (or generate) positive behaviour.


Possibly my favourite example – you can see the rest of the collection from the class in this post.

3) Students values are affirmed

Original study: At the beginning of the school year, students wrote about values that were important to them as an in-class writing exercise.  The value-affirmation increased black students’ grades, reducing the gap between black and white students’ grades by 40%; the treatment raised low-attaining black students’ Grade Point Average two years after the treatment (Cohen et al., 2006).

My adaptation: I used this with the first form I was attached to at my current school, asking them to select values which were important to them (such as “living in the moment, religious values” and “relationships with friends”) and then to explain why, during induction week.

Why are social-psychological interventions powerful?

Psychologically, they:

  • Enlist students – rather than appealing to them, students generate the intervention themselves by articulating the desired message (‘saying is believing’).
  • Are ‘stealthy’ – students are asked to complete surveys or write to their successors; this avoids the stigmatisation of being targeted for intervention or a perception of being controlled.
  • Are recursive – as students change the way they see themselves, they work harder or deal better with setbacks, initiating a virtuous cycle which long outlasts the memory of the initial intervention.

For schools, they are:

  • Brief – Yeager and Walton cite evidence that a five-minute intervention targeting college drinking can be more effective than a fifty-minute one; many interventions are single sessions or short exercises, easy to incorporate within lessons.
  • Cheap – an effective intervention requires limited time and money.
  • Effective – they actually close the achievement gap, supporting vulnerable students simply and powerfully.

How robust is this?

All the studies in Yeager and Walton’s paper “randomly assigned students to treatment or control conditions, and… observed effects on students’ grades in a course or in school overall over time (2011, p.10).”


I’m excited by these findings, but they are not a panacea; students’ new beliefs are only likely to flourish if the key elements of effective learning are in place.

I’m also wary of the manipulation this represents.  I’d rather provide a paternalistic treatment to address beliefs which inhibit students’ learning than leave them labouring under, for example, stereotype threat or giving up due to a fixed mindset.  But our duty to consider the ethical implications of our actions is particularly acute in cases such as these.

However, if I could wish away the cares holding back the ‘average’ student with whom I began this post, I certainly would; I suspect she would too.  Social-psychological interventions offer a way in which I can realise this wish.

Update: August 2015

A study published earlier this year further investigated these interventions and tested whether they could be adapted to work at a larger scale.  I reproduce the abstract below:

“The efficacy of academic-mind-set interventions has been demonstrated by small-scale, proof-of-concept interventions, generally delivered in person in one school at a time. Whether this approach could be a practical way to raise school achievement on a large scale remains unknown. We therefore delivered brief growth-mind-set and sense-of-purpose interventions through online modules to 1,594 students in 13 geographically diverse high schools. Both interventions were intended to help students persist when they experienced academic difficulty; thus, both were predicted to be most beneficial for poorly performing students. This was the case. Among students at risk of dropping out of high school (one third of the sample), each intervention raised students’ semester grade point averages in core academic courses and increased the rate at which students performed satisfactorily in core courses by 6.4 percentage points.”


Post script – ‘Psychological engineers’ or research-informed teachers?

Identifying a range of tiny ways in which these subtle interventions can be derailed, Yeager and Wilton note that: “The challenge of delivering psychological interventions may be more acute when they are delivered by teachers or other educational practitioners (2011, p. 23)” and therefore “We do not believe that practitioners should pick up previously effective experimental materials and freely adapt them without planning or evaluation (p. 25).”  Noting the importance of linking theoretical expertise with a “profound, intuitive knowledge… of local students and contexts (p. 25)” they call for the creation of “a new class of professional—a ‘psychological engineer’ (p. 26).”  Where they see a psychological engineer, I see the well-informed research-practitioner in schools.

Grateful acknowledgements to Jay Altman, who alerted me to this paper in the first place.

Further reading

On stereotype threat: a (slightly limited and dated) research summary from the American Psychological Association.

On demonstrating relevance to students: my argument for its importance and exploration of how it can be achieved.

On measuring what we value (including exam questions designed to tweak students’  beliefs; loosely informed by this reading)

Updated further reading – for a far more thorough treatment of this question, I recommend this by Nick Rose.


Cohen, G. L., Garcia, J., Apfel, N., & Master, A. (2006). Reducing the racial achievement
gap: A social-psychological intervention. Science, 313, 1307–1310 (articlesupporting material)

Hulleman, C. S., & Harackiewicz, J. M. (2009). Making education relevant: Increasing
interest and performance in high school science classes. Science, 326, 1410–1412 (article, supporting material)

Yeager, David and Gregory Walton (2011), ‘Social-psychological interventions in education: they’re not magic,’ Review of Research in Education(article)

5 responses to “(Mind)-setting students up to succeed: social-psychological interventions in the classroom

  1. Humans appear to have a marked tendency to focus on negative things about themselves. This doesn’t just apply to those under 18 years old. I am of the view that there are intrinsic limits to what a person can achieve….but, that rarely will that limit be reached whilst at school…..and that an individual will have no idea of what they are capable of. (From my observations, most adults have no idea of what they are capable of either). People develop at different rates, though, and this sets up the negativity thread. I have often found it necessary to point out to colleagues at work how they have progressed over time, how they have developed, and how their contribution has become more valuable. They just can’t see it. It is this consistent feedback, with evidenced examples, that allows them to start to believe there might be some truth to it….and, of course, results in a positive feedback loop. I think you are looking to do a similar thing.

  2. What an absorbing and clearly argued post – but characteristic of so many that you share, Harry. I agree to a discomfort in thinking of our role as ‘psychological engineers’ ( a bit too dystopian sounding ) but I think this approach puts a conceptual framework around what those effective teachers do who marry the academic to the personal in the minds of their students. That fatalism that has, over a dozen years, caused them to conclude that any effort they invest doesn’t bring about the changes they desire in often chaotic out-of-school contexts, or who have a myriad of competing concerns and worries – that means how they perform on any one day in a particular piece of work slides down the steep face of priorities – can become self-reinforcing. But these, selectively used and timed interventions can both demonstrate an ethos of care for them as growing individuals as well as studiers of someone’s specialist subject, as well as metrics of their own growth as a result of applied effort. It’s a super post. And Chemistry Poet’s comment is equally valuable. Great reads all.

  3. Pingback: 37 Ideas to Grow Gritty Learners by @Powley_R | UKEdChat - Supporting the Education Community·

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s