Positive thinking, higher test scores

Low-income minority students and girls earn higher test scores when they’re told that they can improve their abilities over time. The New York Times reports on a study conducted in Austin, Texas.

The mentors encouraged the students to view intelligence as a faculty that can be developed or to attribute their academic difficulties to their new educational environment. At the end of the year, students took statewide standardized math and reading tests.

. . . The girls who were taught that intelligence developed over time scored significantly higher on the standardized math test than girls in the (control) group. Similarly, the minority and low-income students who were told that they could overcome challenges and achieve academic success scored significantly higher on the standardized reading test than students in the (control) group, the researchers found.

This tracks research by Claude Steele on “stereotype threat,” the fear that the negative stereotypes about your group are true. Students do worse if they’re reminded of the stereotype before the test and do better if they’re told the test doesn’t measure intelligence. One of the researchers on this study has worked with Steele.

It also reminds me of research on the difference between Asian and American parents’ attitudes: While Asians tend to believe that effort determines success, Americans are more likely to believe that inborn intelligence is the key factor. When an Asian child does poorly in school, Mom tells him to work harder. The American student can say, “I’m just no good in math,” and get away with it. Or, these days, he can say, “The test is unfair! I was stressed! It didn’t measure the totality of my potential for self-actualized wholeness!”

It wouldn’t be that difficult to teach all students that they’ll improve if they work hard. It’s true, after all.

Via Number 2 Pencil.

About Joanne


  1. Walter Wallis says:

    The soft bigotry of lower expectations – more damaging than Jim Crow.

  2. This is the kind of self-esteem we should be instilling in our kids: that they can do well if they work hard. Unfortunately, most self-esteem taught these days is that they’re already good, despite not accomplishing anything.

  3. Come on…… Do you really want to teach a whole generation of children to strive for something better??? What would we do with all our social programs??? Remember: The individual is a victim; society is ‘to blame.’

  4. It’s also annoying to those of us who do very well on tests. People say “oh, but math is easy for you” and totally write off the =years= I have spent reading and studying math.

    Yes, math is easier for me than most other folks, but I’ve been working on it for over 20 years. I did all my homework. I studied for tests (I still study for tests — and now I get paid to pass them!) I might not have had to study as hard for any given test, but that’s because I’ve been working constantly over time.

    I’ve taken tests right after my father died, when I was 8 months pregnant, and when I had a horrible cough (not all at the same time, of course). I was so prepared that these stressors had little effect on whether I did well.

    No excuses.

  5. Naive question maybe, but how do we teach this to our kids? I have a small daughter, she is by nature a prickly person, but I don’t want that to stand in the way of her learning to work through things that are difficult, and achieve anything she wants to. Right now she’s having trouble drawing circles. So she tries once, or twice, has a meltdown about how she’s not good at it, and wants me to draw the circle for her. I’ve tried explaining to her that if she practices and tries she’ll get better, but at this point she’s busy crying about how she’s an awful circle drawer. I’m just stumped by her behaviour. I don’t think it’s acceptable to behave that way, she needs to know that not everything comes easy that she’s going to have to work at a lot of things in life. But by the time she’s calmed down, she refuses to have anything to do with circles, simply refusing to draw anything. It’s easy to say that I know what her values should be, it’s another to help her learn.

  6. Kamatari –

    I have a little perfectionist like that too. She is very good at most things, but when she encounters something that she’s not immediately good at, she would always get angry and frustrated, and then demand that her dad or I do it for her. We got conned that way for a while, but now have learned to encourage her to keep trying on her own.

    What really helped was for her to find something to do that she loved and that she was passionate about, but that she wasn’t automatically the best at. In her case, that became gymnastics. It has taken several years, but she has learned, with the encouragement and discipline of her coaches, to discipline herself and to keep working at something she’s not immediately good at. The change has been miraculous. The challenge is getting that learning to carry over into other areas of her life, and I’m not shy about drawing verbal parallels to her achievements in gymnastics when she’s struggling with something else. Not that this will work with all kids, but it has worked with mine.

  7. Wacky Hermit says:

    I get such wonderful results in my class and in my tutoring practice when I compare math learning to the development of muscles. I point out to my students that Arnold Schwarzenegger was a wimpy little baby when he was born, and arrived at his Mr. Universe physique through hard work. He may have had a “leg up” from his genes, but genes don’t make anybody buff. Likewise some people may be born with mental abilities that are conducive to math learning, but they are not born with the math in their heads and they still have to learn it like everybody else. I describe the stereotype of the “math person” who is born able to do math, and point out that such people are entirely mythical. And just this little bit of insight seems to help immensely. If nothing else, it improves attitudes toward math and toward the hard work I make my students do.

  8. Wacky Hermit says:


    Something you might try to help your daughter draw circles (that is, if you can get her to draw at all) is to get some thin paper (tracing paper), draw a bunch of circles with a compass or your computer, and have her trace them. Then she can try to draw them herself (on a different sheet of paper so that she doesn’t compare the two attempts). More than likely she will have improved even just a little after tracing a bunch of circles. Then praise the heck out of her improvement.

    If you can’t get her to make another attempt, maybe you can get her a book of designs, made with circles in them, to color. She might get inspired and want to invent her own, but she’d have to draw her own circles to do it.

  9. Wow. Thanks for the helpful suggestions.

  10. I saw a somewhat similar study, in which college students were divided into two groups. The first group was praised for their “intelligence.” The second was praised for their hard work. Over time, the second group outdistanced the first.

    Peter Drucker has long written about the importance (in business) of focusing on actual performance rather than “potential.” These results seem like the academic version of that principle.

  11. There are lots of studies of this nature. One I remember is that a group of teachers were told that they were “special teachers” and so would get to work with a “special group of students.” The teachers and students were actually picked randomly, as was the control group of teachers who were not told their students were “special.” The ones told they were special out-achieved the control group.

  12. Caffeinated Curmudgeon says:

    The “you can’t study for these tests” meme is not new.

    As I recall taking standardized tests in the 1950s, we were told that studying for the tests was not effective and that students should not do it. I think this was the “party line” from the testing services at the time.

    My response, and that of some others I knew, was “well, studying can’t possibly lower my scores.”

    A stash of a couple decades Readers Digest with the “Increase your Word Power” pages, and similar materials, were handy for the purpose. Compendia of previous years’ tests and answer guides from testing companies were also available at the time and I bought some.

    99th percentile scores, college admissions and scholarships ensued.

  13. greeneyeshade says:

    this also tracks a story i remember about a teacher thrown into a new class without being briefed. he looks at the class roster and sees numbers like 141, 127, 182 … and decides he’s got a gifted group, teaches them accordingly and gets great results. after which somebody tells him his kids were considered dull; he’d been teaching to their locker numbers.
    seriously, i’m just old enough to remember when people still told you that hard work trumped talent every time, going back to the tortoise and the hare. just when and how did that change?

  14. aschoolyardblogger says:

    To the circle mom,
    One other thing you might try when you have a circle discussion, is to ask you daughter what she see about the circle she thinks is imperfect that makes it imperfect. Get her to describe that the bottom part sinks in, or the top is too flat, or whatever she sees as the imperfection. Then you suggest that she try another and see if she can take these things into consideration. Next one might be imperfect in another spot. But after awhile, they will become more perfect because she will be thinking more in terms of what makes a circle. The talking and describing are as important in learning to perfect something as the manual practice.

  15. dave'swife says:

    Circle Mom-
    Why not give her a plastic glass and let her trace around it and make all the sircles she please. It’s about problem solving skills. There are more than a few ways to make circles. I know that the Montessori (sp?) method to teach letters is to have the child draw each letter in a small box of sand. Shouldn’t that work for circles too and be extra fun at the same time? Same goes for drawing circles on the bathroom mirror when it’s fogged. Circles with chalk on the sidewalk. Circles with cooked spaghetti noodles. Circles in a flattened hunk of Playdo, maybe made with a crochet hook, a toothpick or even the other end of a child’s paintbrush. Trace around a Frisbee. Trace big and small objects. Stay big if it suits her. Move on if it doesn’t.
    Just a thought; hope it helps.


  1. Potential

    I had the opportunity to volunteer in a large high school helping students with reading. I started with students that teachers had earmarked as poor readers. Most of these students were not as much poor readers as they were poorly

  2. Whole Teaching

    When I go to my exercise class (a one hour one day a week program, which is the hardest hour of my week) I always park myself in the same place in the room. A public school speech therapist parks