Research into the psychology of intelligence has demonstrated the extent to which students’ academic performance improves when they are taught that intelligence is malleable and that people can get smarter in response to intellectual effort. Building on this research, a team of psychologists led by New York University’s Joshua Aronson has been awarded a $1.4 million grant from the Institute of Education Sciences (IES) to develop teacher-friendly materials for use with 8th and 9th grade students from diverse ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds. The study’s aim is to help 8th and 9th grade students, who are notoriously prone to motivation problems, to think, feel, and behave in ways that promote good learning.

Aronson’s co-principal investigators on the project are Jennifer Mangels, associate professor of psychology at Baruch College, and Matthew McGlone, associate professor of communications at the University of Texas at Austin. IES is a branch of the U.S. Department of Education that funds research studies on ways to improve academic achievement.

Aronson’s research over the past decade had shown how intensive interventions that lead students to adopt the theory that people get smarter in response to intellectual effort produce large improvements in student learning, engagement, test scores, and grades. Yet scalable versions of the interventions that any teacher can employ currently do not exist. Researchers also need to better understand the process of how such an intervention works.

Aronson and his team will develop and refine two unique intervention approaches, engaging fiction and interactive media. Aronson will work with respected young adult author Alison Pollet to create a narrative that teaches students about the malleability of intelligence. The story will be presented in an interactive computer format and will include images from actual intelligence research, such as neurons, dendrites, and MRI scans revealing increased dendrite branching following learning.

A second intervention, a role-playing computer simulation, will be created in the internet-based virtual environment (VE) Teen Second Life. The simulation will be designed and implemented by the Educators Coop, a non-profit organization specializing in educational programming for virtual environments. Following a complete tutorial of the simulation, users will participate in a cognitive neuroscience experiment, in which they perform a spatial task and observe dendritic growth in their avatars’ brains as their performance on the task improves.

Past research suggests that these interventions will be powerful and convenient means of shaping or modifying student attitudes about their intelligence, and that students will find them engaging and enjoyable means of learning. Both approaches will leverage actual research findings from the science of neuroplasticity that will be woven into the narratives.

Researchers will measure the success of the intervention by tests of message comprehension and its impact on changes in theories of intelligence and achievement goals. Throughout the development process, in addition to evaluating usability and feasibility, the research team will consider how key cognitive skills that the student possesses at the time of the intervention (i.e., working memory, executive functions) moderate processing of the intervention.

The results of this iteration process will then be taken to a final stage of development where researchers will attempt to show how these interventions directly influence students’ classroom performance, standardized test performance, and their ability to maintain a learning-focus and exhibit rebound from failure in the context of a challenging, laboratory-based task. The effectiveness of each intervention will be compared to the effects of a control intervention, in which students learn the science of neuroplasticity without the accompanying narrative. Researchers will analyze students’ cognitive abilities and prior performance as moderators of their intervention engagement, learning, grades across the curriculum, and standardized test scores.

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