Can You Change Student Mindset and Achievement?

By Ellen Ullman

See what happens when community college students participate in an online intervention from Stanford’s PERTS Lab.

When Georgia Lorenz first heard about Stanford’s PERTS Lab a few years ago, she was intrigued. PERTS stands for the Project for Education Research That Scales, and Santa Monica College (SMC), in California, was looking for ways to increase student achievement.

“PERTS offers quick, online programs that are research-based and designed to help students succeed, and the whole idea of grit-and-growth mindset was bubbling up here,” says Lorenz, vice president of academic affairs at SMC.

So Lorenz signed up for the College Perspectives Program, which is designed to increase community college students’ achievement and motivation by applying growth mindset research. It is free and consists of one 45-minute online session and one 15-minute online session, during which students complete a reflective exercise about their lives.

One of the goals of the program is to help students change their negative mindset and become motivated learners. For SMC, this became a reality.

“We did see a bump in grades in our developmental math course-takers who completed the program,” Lorenz says. “I could see this intervention becoming part of the student orientation process as an initial step and having additional interventions later on, in class, to strengthen this notion that you can get good at math, just like you can get good at basketball.”

Students at Ivy Tech Community College, in Indiana, also had a positive experience from working with PERTS. “I wanted to see what we could do to meet the national norm for completion,” says Ron Sloan, vice chancellor of academic affairs at Ivy Tech. “I looked at our math sequence and remediation, pedagogy, and so on, but one faculty member kept saying that we had a lack of student motivation, and it resonated.”

After getting connected with PERTS, Sloan chose to participate in the online intervention course. “The opportunity to work with one of the world’s greatest graduate schools in psychology [Stanford] for free was appealing,” he says. “I knew teachers could do a lot of things but that we also had to approach the underlying issues students have.”

Sloan likes that the online courses provide evidence that hard work and appropriate strategies can help you improve your intelligence. “It helps students to own the material. Once you’ve had the experience of seeing hard work and good strategies, then that becomes the motivation to do better.”

After completing the intervention, students became 15 percent more likely to maintain full-time enrollment. Student completion of STEM courses increased by more than 20 percent, too.

“It would be hard to spend about an hour of class time more valuably than to get that result,” Sloan says. “It was such a positive response for such a short-term intervention.”

Expanding the study

PERTS has been conducting these interventions with community colleges since 2012 and will publish the results later this spring. According to Sarah Gripshover, program director for college programs for PERTS, the overall findings are positive. “We found preliminary evidence that students were more likely to be enrolled full time at the end of the semester following the intervention,” she says. “We’re excited about these results and are working on replicating them.”

Lorenz is interested in seeing the long-term effects and encourages other community colleges to participate. “The study is easy to implement and speaks to the affective dimension of student mindset that we don’t attend to,” she says.

Sloan agrees that reaching the underlying mindset of students is essential. “We continue to have a need for great teaching, curriculum and advising, but I think this supplements so well that it would be foolish not to approach this cognitive approach to education. What you gain may not be immediately apparent to every faculty member, but look at the studies. It’s a great investment of time.”

Thanks to funding from the Joyce Foundation and the Institute of Education Sciences, PERTS is now conducting a large-scale efficacy trial. The organization is actively seeking community colleges that want to conduct this two-part mindset intervention.

For more details on requirements and to sign up, go to the College Perspectives Program.

Ellen Ullman

is a contributor to the 21st-Century Center.

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