Applied Psych Study Added to National Database of Effective Interventions

A widely cited educational intervention developed by Steinhardt’s Joshua Aronson has been added to the Department of Education’s What Works Clearinghouse, a resource for informed education decision-making.

In order for research to be added to the What Works Clearinghouse, it must be nominated for inclusion, which usually happens when a study is widely cited. It then must be vetted by the Institute of Education Sciences (the Department of Education’s research arm) to demonstrate that a given practice, program, or policy can be a useful intervention in schools. The studies that pass muster are then added to a searchable database and promoted in reports supporting the findings.

“It is so gratifying for me to have this work recognized and to know that the Department of Education finds it worthy.  Even better is knowing this work has been replicated by other researchers in other contexts around the world,” said Aronson, associate professor of applied psychology and resident scholar at the Metropolitan Center for Research on Equity and the Transformation of Schools.

Aronson developed the intervention to protect students from the harmful effects of “stereotype threat,” where awareness of negative stereotypes about a group can impair the learning, performance, and achievement of individuals from that group. In Aronson’s intervention, college students developed their own resilience by encouraging it in others.

Students who were part of the intervention were asked to write encouraging letters to (fictitious) younger students from disadvantaged backgrounds. The researchers provided participants with information about the malleability of intelligence, describing that intelligence can be grown with effort. The researchers asked the college students to share this information in their letters to the young students.

By writing these encouraging letters, the researchers expected intervention participants, especially Black students, to view their own intelligence as a capacity that can be changed with effort. The researchers evaluated the impact of the intervention on students’ academic achievement by obtaining grade point averages from the spring quarter following the intervention from the university registrar.

The study, published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology in 2002, found that students in the intervention group had higher spring quarter GPAs than the combined comparison groups (3.46 vs. 3.19). In its January 2016 report, What Works Clearinghouse confirmed that this difference is statistically significant and practically meaningful.

Aronson and his students’ study had enormous influence on the field of education, spurring a flurry of research activity on what would come to be called “the growth mindset.” The term is now widely known among educators and parents, and is thought to be a critical factor in whether students are academically resilient.

“To have made a lasting contribution that helps children learn better is of, course, satisfying.  At the same time, I’d caution that growth mindsets are not a panacea,” Aronson said. “They are often just what kids need, but far from all they need to do well in school.”