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Leveraging Mental Muscle for Academic Excellence

Summary: 
Last month, a group of leading researchers, practitioners, and industry representatives convened to discuss how students’ beliefs about their academic abilities can affect how much they learn in school. Research demonstrates that when students learn that their academic ability is not a fixed trait, like eye color, but instead is like a muscle that can grow and develop with hard work, they do better in school.

“No one is born smart.  No one is born knowing how to read, right?  No one is born knowing how to do math, or no one is born knowing how to play the flute -- all of that comes with a lot of hard work…  The only way you know how to read is that you keep trying.” -- First Lady Michelle Obama at Savoy Elementary School on May 24, 2013  

Last month, a group of leading researchers, practitioners, and industry representatives convened to discuss how students’ beliefs about their academic abilities and learning potential can affect how much they learn in school and whether they persevere in the face of academic challenges. Research demonstrates that when students learn that their academic ability is not a fixed trait, like eye color, but instead is like a muscle that can grow and develop with hard work, they do better in school. The most dramatic improvements are typically seen in low-performing students, students of color, and females in STEM-related courses.

The purpose of the meeting, which was co-hosted by OSTP and the Department of Education and sponsored by the Raikes Foundation, was to accelerate research on “academic mindsets”—attitudes that learners have about their learning capacity. A fast-growing scientific literature suggests that by harnessing the power of academic mindsets, school can be made more equitable by reducing achievement gaps, more enjoyable by placing the focus on learning and improving rather than on demonstrating raw intelligence, and more efficient by enabling students to take better advantage of learning resources already available to them.

A number of participants at the meeting called for the Nation to prioritize research in three key areas:

  • Principles:  Furthering a basic  understanding of the foundational shaping influences of academic mindsets;
  • Practices: Learning the most effective ways to teach students the mindsets that lead to success and further developing day-to-day practices that parents and teachers can use to promote productive mindsets; and
  • Assessments: Developing better ways to measure mindsets and other attitudes – e.g., grit, perseverance, and a sense of belonging.

The meeting concluded with funders, researchers, and educators expressing a shared interest in advancing the academic mindsets research agenda by sharing practical knowledge, embedding questions about academic mindsets into upcoming research projects, and supporting the development of academic mindset assessments. As a follow-up to the meeting, the Raikes Foundation is planning a series of summits and other workshops to flesh out these topics in more detail. We also look forward to hearing your ideas for how to further accelerate academic mindsets research and embed it into existing educational programs. Please share them by emailing mindsets@ostp.gov

Maya Shankar is a Senior Policy Advisor in the Tech & Innovation Division at OSTP.

Tom Kalil is Deputy Director of the Tech & Innovation Decision at OSTP.