“I think I can, I think I can, I….”

Sriram, R. (2014). Rethinking Intelligence: The role of mindset in promoting success for academically high-risk students. Journal of College Student Retention: Research, Theory, and Practice, 15(4), 515–536.

Consider your responses to the following three statements:  “a) you have a certain amount of intelligence and you really can’t do much to change it; b) your intelligence is something about you that you can’t change very much; and c) you can learn new things, but you can’t really change your basic intelligence (Dweck et al in Sriram, 2014).”  Not exactly, “I think I can…;” rather I think I can’t.”  Those statements are used to measure something called mindset, a construct studied (primarily in children) to determine their view on intelligence and consequently their ability to learn and be successful.  This article is one of the few that looks at mindset in college students.

Being convinced myself that what a person believes to be true is likely to become their reality, I was immediately drawn to Carol Dweck’s mindset research about how one thinks about their own intelligence (Yeager and Dweck, 2012).  People who think intelligence is malleable are said to have a growth mindset; they also tend to be more goal-oriented.  People who think intelligence is unchangeable are said to have a fixed mindset and are less motivated to put forth effort.  Sriram does a thorough and convincing job of providing support for the development of growth mindset in high-risk college students.   A growth mindset is important because, “besides prior academic achievement, the motivation and energy students apply to their education is the best predictor of their learning and development” (Sriram, 2014).

This article is readable, contributes to the literature, and suggests topics for further research and policy.  The author is methodical and thorough in his approach providing context and rationale for his study.  He works at Baylor University.  His study was of Baylor students who were considered academically high-risk for that institution.  Students were randomly assigned to either a control or experimental group.  Both groups participated in four short (15-minute) web based sessions over the course of four weeks as part of a remedial course they were taking.  The control group was instructed in study skills; the experimental group was exposed to the idea that intelligence can be developed.  Based on a comparison of pre- and post-tests (consisting of the three questions at the start of this blog) the experimental group’s view of their intelligence shifted to a more growth mindset.  They also reported exerting more academic effort.   Given the positive results, happily there were more students in the experimental group (n=60) compared to the control (45 students).

Sriram is not stingy on providing methodological and contextual details. He acknowledges that colleges and universities are spending a lot of money on programs to help students succeed.  With the influx of students to higher education, there are greater numbers of students who show up under-prepared.  Baylor, like most colleges and universities, wants to retain their students and help them to graduate.  Again like so many schools, they have created remedial support.  However, a significant amount of research indicates that remedial coursework does not increase students’ rate of graduation so Sriram set out to find something that might supplement remedial programming.  The few studies on college students’ mindset suggested that a growth mindset might increase motivation and effort.

The reader is meticulously guided through the author’s data collection.  He clearly defines terms and uses the same terms often enough to help the reader make connections.  The analysis is detailed.  He addresses internal and external validity and treatment fidelity.  He examines the pre/post test differences.  He tells the kind of analysis he is doing – ANOVA and MANOVA looking at multivariates and univariate and degrees of freedom and conditional effects.  I was, however, left with curiosity about the details of each of the 15 minute on-line intervention sessions.  The author detailed seven distinct parts of the experimental sessions including a quote, a video, reflection questions, and information about the brain and said that the control groups experienced similar activities.  An appendix with the details of each session including quote and url’s to videos would allow for others to duplicate the intervention.  Perhaps he is saving that level of detail, though, until his results also show higher achievement.  Despite the fact that students in the experimental group displayed more of a growth mindset based on post-test results and greater study efforts than the control group, they did not show higher academic achievement based on end of semester gpa.

The author has possible explanations for that and other surprising results.  He suggests that the brevity of his intervention may be to blame for the lack of increased academic achievement and suggests that future studies look at increasing that.  A surprise was that, on closer examination of the conditional effects, students of color and men did not show increased effort; that was limited to females and students of European descent.

This article reads like a story – a story with new and more complex details that reveal themselves at each reading.  After reading (and re-reading) this article, I am considering adding an intervention to enhance students’ growth mindset to workshops I am constructing on motivation with a colleague for our institution’s new early alert program this fall.  The program will focus on students in developmental classes.  Attendance at the four workshops is optional and we were not anticipating that students would necessarily attend all four.

Considering how to make this research humanizing seems to me it must include dialogue.  In this study the intervention is solely web-based, there is no interaction with other students or instructors.  Getting feedback from the students on their attempts to enhance a growth mindset – and before that being transparent with them about the questions the researcher is attempting to answer – would humanize the research.

If students – especially those who come to college under-prepared – could think about intelligence as dynamic rather than static, that could improve self-confidence resulting in increased motivation to engage in more strategic academic behaviors.  Then the mantra, “I think I can…” will take hold propelling the student to greater effort and, hopefully, college success.

Yeager, D. S., & Dweck, C. S. (2012). Mindsets That Promote Resilience: When Students Believe That Personal Characteristics Can Be Developed. Educational Psychologist, 47(4), 302–314. doi:10.1080/00461520.2012.722805

Sriram, R. (2014). Rethinking Intelligence: The role of mindset in promoting success for academically high-risk students. Journal of College Student Retention: Research, Theory, and Practice, 15(4), 515–536.