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Social-Psychological Interventions in Education: They’re Not Magic

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Recent randomized experiments have found that seemingly “small” social-psychological interventions in education—that is, brief exercises that target students’ thoughts, feelings, and beliefs in and about school—can lead to large gains in student achievement and sharply reduce achievement gaps even months and years later. These interventions do not teach students academic content but instead target students’ psychology, such as their beliefs that they have the potential to improve their intelligence or that they belong and are valued in school. When social-psychological interventions have lasting effects, it can seem surprising and even “magical,” leading people either to think of them as quick fixes to complicated problems or to consider them unworthy of serious consideration. The present article discourages both responses. It reviews the theoretical basis of several prominent social-psychological interventions and emphasizes that they have lasting effects because they target students’ subjective experiences in school, because they use persuasive yet stealthy methods for conveying psychological ideas, and because they tap into recursive processes present in educational environments. By understanding psychological interventions as powerful but context-dependent tools, educational researchers will be better equipped to take them to scale. This review concludes by discussing challenges to scaling psychological interventions and how these challenges may be overcome.
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Review of Educational
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DOI: 10.3102/0034654311405999
April 2011
2011 81: 267 originally published online 19REVIEW OF EDUCATIONAL RESEARCH
David S. Yeager and Gregory M. Walton
Social-Psychological Interventions in Education : They're Not Magic
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Review of Educational Research
June 2011, Vol. 81, No. 2, pp. 267–301
DOI: 10.3102/0034654311405999
© 2011 AERA. http://rer.aera.net
Social-Psychological Interventions in Education:
They’re Not Magic
David S. Yeager and Gregory M. Walton
Stanford University
Recent randomized experiments have found that seemingly “small” social-
psychological interventions in education—that is, brief exercises that target
students’ thoughts, feelings, and beliefs in and about school—can lead to
large gains in student achievement and sharply reduce achievement gaps
even months and years later. These interventions do not teach students aca-
demic content but instead target students’ psychology, such as their beliefs
that they have the potential to improve their intelligence or that they belong
and are valued in school. When social-psychological interventions have last-
ing effects, it can seem surprising and even “magical,” leading people either
to think of them as quick fixes to complicated problems or to consider them
unworthy of serious consideration. The present article discourages both
responses. It reviews the theoretical basis of several prominent social-psy-
chological interventions and emphasizes that they have lasting effects
because they target students’ subjective experiences in school, because they
use persuasive yet stealthy methods for conveying psychological ideas, and
because they tap into recursive processes present in educational environ-
ments. By understanding psychological interventions as powerful but con-
text-dependent tools, educational researchers will be better equipped to take
them to scale. This review concludes by discussing challenges to scaling psy-
chological interventions and how these challenges may be overcome.
Keywords: social psychology, education policy, implicit theories, stereotype
threat, affirmation, belonging, achievement gaps.
Several years ago a brief intervention was introduced in eight hospitals around
the world in an effort to reduce medical errors. The intervention required surgeons
and nurses to complete a one-page checklist of tasks before beginning a surgery,
such as introducing themselves to one another and correctly timing the application
of antiseptics. An evaluation of this simple intervention found that it reduced surgi-
cal complications by 36% and deaths by 47% (Haynes et al., 2009). Observers and
medical professionals have wondered how this small intervention could have a
large effect, especially when it did not address such clearly important factors as
surgeons’ skills and training. Some have hailed the checklist intervention as “a
classic magic bullet” (Aaronovitch, 2010); others have dismissed it as “[not] Harry
RER405999RER10.3102/0034654311405999Yeager & WaltonSocial-Psychological Inter-
ventions in Education
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Yeager & Walton
268
Potter’s magic wand” (Szalavitz, 2009). Atul Gawande (2009), creator of the
checklist, argues that this sense of mystery arises because many people assumed
that surgeons were already doing the set of practices included in the checklist.
Hence, the checklist’s effects were not easily understood (Gawande, 2009, p. 159).
With a deeper understanding of why the intervention improved outcomes, he
argues, the medical community would be better able to institutionalize the innova-
tion in standard practice.
Interestingly, something similar is happening in education. In recent years,
several rigorous, randomized field experiments have shown that seemingly
“small” social-psychological interventions—typically brief exercises that do not
teach academic content but instead target students’ thoughts, feelings, and beliefs
in and about school—have had striking effects on educational achievement even
over months and years (see Table 1; for reviews see Garcia & Cohen, in press;
Gehlbach, 2010; Walton & Dweck, 2009; Walton & Spencer, 2009; Wilson,
2006). For example, Blackwell, Trzesniewski, and Dweck (2007) found that
middle school students who attended an eight-session workshop teaching them
that the brain is like a muscle and grows with effort displayed a sharp increase
in math achievement for the rest of the school year, an effect not shown by
students who attended a control workshop that taught them study skills. Walton
and Cohen (2007, 2011) found that a 1-hour session designed to buttress African
American college students’ sense of social belonging in school increased the
GPA of these students over the next 3 years, halving the Black–White achieve-
ment gap over this period. And Cohen, Garcia, Apfel, and Master (2006), found
that a 15- to 20-minute writing exercise in which students reflected on their core
personal values reduced the gap in grades between African American and
European American students by nearly 40% at the end of the semester, an effect
that persisted, with a few additional writing exercises, for 2 years (Cohen,
Garcia, Purdie-Vaugns, Apfel, & Brzustoski, 2009).
Like people who hear about Gawande’s checklist, people who learn about
social-psychological interventions may wonder, how could these effects be real?
How could such interventions work? And how could brief experiences change
students’ outcomes months and years later? These questions are especially press-
ing in a context in which far more expensive and comprehensive interventions in
education often yield disappointing results. For example, of the dozens of random-
ized controlled trials published by the Institute for Education Sciences in recent
years, most have found no effects on student outcomes beyond the initial treatment
period, including a 1-year new-teacher support program (Glazerman et al., 2010),
a yearlong middle school mathematics professional development program (Garet
et al., 2010), and a 2-year supplemental reading courses (James-Burdumy et al.,
2010; Somers et al., 2010), among many other reforms.
In this context, social-psychological interventions can appear magical. As a
consequence, it is tempting either to deliver these interventions as quickly and as
widely as possible or to dismiss them as snake oil—as entertaining sideshows, but
not worthy of serious consideration in education reform.
We argue that neither response is appropriate. Social-psychological interven-
tions hold significant promise for promoting broad and lasting change in educa-
tion, but they are not silver bullets. They are powerful tools rooted in theory, but
they are context dependent and reliant on the nature of the educational environment.
(Text continues on p. 274)
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TABLE 1
Summary of Selected Social-Psychological Interventions to Improve Student Achievement
Study Student sample
Theoretical
approach
Summary of randomized
treatment and control
group(s) Summary of results
Effect on
achievement
Attributions and
implicit theories of
intelligence
Wilson and
Linville (1982,
1985)
First-year
college
students
struggling
academically
Leading students to
attribute academic
setbacks to unstable
factors rather than
stable factors can
motivate students to
work harder and not
give up after setbacks
in school.
In one laboratory session, os-
tensibly as a part of a survey,
students watched videos of
upper-year students describ-
ing how their grades in college
were low at first but improved
over time. In a control group,
students saw videos of the same
upper-year students talking
about their social and academic
interests.
One week later, students in the
treatment condition performed
better on a GRE exam. A year
later, these students had earned
higher college GPAs and were
80% less likely to have dropped
out of college. The treatment
effect on GPA appeared to gain
strength over time.
.27 grade points
one year later
Blackwell, Trzes-
niewski, and Dweck
(2007)
Low-income,
Black and
Hispanic or
Latino 7th-
grade students
at an urban
school
Teaching students that
people’s core intel-
ligence is malleable
and grows with effort
and challenge can
motivate students to
work hard and not
give up after setbacks
in school.
In 8 sessions over 8 weeks,
students took part in workshops
on study skills and the function
of the brain and how the brain
can get stronger when a person
works on challenging tasks. Stu-
dents in a control group learned
only study skills.
At the end of the academic year,
the normative decline in math
grades exhibited by students in
the control group was reversed
such that students in the treat-
ment condition had earned sig-
nificantly higher math grades.
.30 grade points
at the end of
the school
year
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Study Student sample
Theoretical
approach
Summary of randomized
treatment and control
group(s) Summary of results
Effect on
achievement
Implicit theories of
intelligence and
stereotype threat
J. Aronson, Fried,
and Good (2002)
Black and
White college
students
Teaching students that
people’s core intel-
ligence is malleable
will buffer students
from the threat of
being targeted by
negative stereotypes
in school.
In a laboratory session, ostensibly
as a part of a “pen pal” program
to support younger students,
students wrote letters to middle
school students endorsing
the belief that intelligence is
malleable. In a control group,
students wrote “pen pal” letters
advocating a theory of multiple
intelligences. A second control
group did not write letters.
At the end of the academic year,
both Black and White students’
GPAs rose significantly in the
treatment condition as com-
pared to both control groups.
Black students (but not White
students) reported increased
engagement and identification
with school.
.23 grade points
at the end of
the next term
Good, Aronson,
and Inzlicht (2003)
Low- and
middle-
income Black
and Hispanic
or Latino 7th-
grade students
at a rural
school
One treatment group
received an attri-
butional retraining
intervention similar to
Wilson and Linville
(1982). A second treat-
ment group received
an implicit theories of
intelligence interven-
tion. A third treatment
group received both
interventions.
Students met with college student
mentors twice and exchanged
occasional emails throughout
the school year. Mentors were
taught to endorse the relevant
treatment message. A control
group received an antidrug mes-
sage from mentors.
At the end of the academic year,
in all three treatment groups
girls’ math scores on a state-
wide standardized test rose
relative to the control group,
eliminating the gender differ-
ence in math performance pres-
ent in the control condition. In
addition, both boys’ and girls’
reading scores increased in all
three treatment groups relative
to the control group.
See notea
TABLE 1 (continued)
(continued)
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Study Student sample
Theoretical
approach
Summary of randomized
treatment and control
group(s) Summary of results
Effect on
achievement
Stereotype threat
Cohen, Garcia,
Apfel, and Master
(2006); Cohen, Gar-
cia, Purdie-Vaughns,
Apfel, and Brzus-
toski (2009)
Low- and
middle-
income Black
and White
7th-grade
students at
a suburban
school
Affirming important
values can buffer
people from the
effects of stereotype
threat.
In one or several 15- to 20-
minute classroom sessions
beginning at the beginning of
the school year, students wrote
about values that were person-
ally important to them as an
in-class writing exercise. In a
control group, students wrote
about values that were not im-
portant to them but might matter
to someone else.
At the end of the first semester,
the value-affirmation interven-
tion increased Black students’
class grades, reducing the gap
between Black and White
students by 40%. Further,
among initially low-performing
Black students, the treatment
raised GPA in all core academic
classes two years posttreatment.
.30 grade points
among Black
students at
the end of
the first term;
.46 grade
points among
low-perform-
ing Black
students after
two years.
Miyake et al.
(2010)
Men and
women in a
college
physics class
Same as above. Same as above. At the end of the 15-week course,
the value-affirmation interven-
tion eliminated a substantial
gender gap in physics grades
and on scores on a nationally
normed physics test that was
present in the control condition.
The effect was strongest for
women who endorsed gender
stereotypes.
.33 grade
points among
women at the
end of the
termb
(continued)
TABLE 1 (continued)
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272
Study Student sample
Theoretical
approach
Summary of randomized
treatment and control
group(s) Summary of results
Effect on
achievement
Walton and Cohen
(2007, 2011)
First-year
Black and
White college
students
Leading students to
attribute worries about
belonging to the dif-
ficulty of the transition
to college rather than
to students’ personal
or racial identity can
buttress ethnic minor-
ity students’ sense of
social belonging in
school and increase
motivation and perfor-
mance.
In a 1-hour laboratory session, stu-
dents read the results of a survey
indicating that many students feel
they do not belong in college at
first but that such worries dis-
sipate with time. Students then
wrote an essay and gave a speech
ostensibly for the next year’s
freshmen about how their worries
about belonging had changed
over time in college. In control
groups, students were exposed to
information irrelevant to issues of
belonging.
Relative to students in
multiple control groups, Black
students in the social-belonging
treatment condition earned
higher GPAs from sophomore
through senior year, reducing
the racial achievement gap by
52%, were more likely to be
in the top 25% of their college
class, and 3 years posttreatment
reported being happier and
healthier.
.24 grade points
among Black
students from
sophomore
through
senior year of
college
Possible selves
Oyserman, Bybee,
and Terry (2006)
Low-income
Black and
Hispanic or
Latino 8th-
grade
students
Leading ethnic minority
students to see that
their academic future
selves are close (and
not far), consistent (not
inconsistent) with their
racial identity, and
attainable even when
facing challenges will
increase students’
motivation.
In 10 workshop sessions, students
wrote about how their future
selves might be academically
successful, and completed exer-
cises to make those future selves
seem more attainable, to make
challenges seem normal and
expected, and to make academic
success not seem like “acting
White.” A control group took
standard elective classes.
Two years later, students in the
treatment group had higher
GPAs, fewer absences, fewer
nominations for disruptive
behavior, and fewer depressive
symptoms and were 60% less
likely to repeat 8th grade.
.28 grade points
two years
later
TABLE 1 (continued)
(continued)
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Study Student sample
Theoretical
approach
Summary of randomized
treatment and control
group(s) Summary of results
Effect on
achievement
Expectancy-value
theory
Hulleman and Har-
ackiewicz (2009)
Middle-
income, ethni-
cally diverse
9th-grade
students
Making science classes
personally relevant
will increase interest
in science, engage-
ment with the learn-
ing process, and im-
proved performance
especially among
students who do not
expect to succeed in
science.
Every 3 or 4 weeks starting at
the beginning of the semester
students wrote a brief essay
describing how the material
studied in their high school sci-
ence class that week could be
applied in their lives. Control
students summarized the week’s
science class topic.
At the end of the semester treated
students who expected to
perform poorly in science had
earned higher science grades;
no effects were found among
students with high expectations
for success in science.
.80 grade
points among
students
with low
expectations
for success
in science at
the end of the
semester
a. Good et al.’s (2003) attributional retraining, implicit theories, and combined interventions produced effects on girls’ math test scores of the following magnitudes: Cohen’s
d = 1.13, 1.30, and 1.50, respectively.
b. Miyake et al. (2010) reported grades on a 100-point scale, so these numbers were converted to grade points for inclusion in this table.
TABLE 1 (continued)
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Although we believe that social-psychological interventions can be scaled effectively
to reach larger numbers of students, how to do so is not simply a matter of handing
out a worksheet. Rather, scaling social-psychological interventions raises impor-
tant theoretical, practical, and ethical questions that as yet have not been ade-
quately explored.
To illustrate the effects of social-psychological interventions, take a second
analogy.1 Consider a passenger jet that speeds down a runway and lifts into the air.
It can seem surprising even to an experienced flier how an object that weighs many
tons could fly. This is because the miracle of flight relies on numerous interrelated
forces, some more obvious than others. It is not hard to see that a plane needs an
engine, wings, and a pilot to fly. Similarly, a student needs content to learn, a
teacher to teach, and a place or community to support that learning. These factors
shape the objective school environment and create essential capacities for success.
But less obvious features of airplanes and of education systems are also critical to
their success. One reason planes fly is because their wings are sculpted to create
an aerodynamic force (“lift”) that elevates the plane. It is natural to wonder how a
small change in the shape of a wing could make a heavy object fly. Basic labora-
tory research helps explain the principles of air flow and shows that the shape and
position of wings cause air to flow faster below them than above them, lifting a
plane beyond what might seem possible. In a similar way, hidden yet powerful
psychological forces, also investigated through basic science, can raise student
achievement. An engineer uses theories of fluid dynamics to fine-tune a wing,
which, in the context of other factors, makes a plane fly. Analogously, a social-
psychological perspective uses basic theory and research to identify educationally
important psychological processes and then subtly alters these processes in a com-
plex academic environment to raise performance.
More specifically, social-psychological interventions can seem mysterious for
at least four reasons. First, it is often hard to see the forces on which these interven-
tions operate (see Lewin, 1952; Ross & Nisbett, 1991). We do not see air flowing
over a wing; nor do we directly observe how negative intellectual stereotypes or
beliefs about the nature of intelligence affect students. We may see the power of
these processes only when they are altered. For this reason, below we describe
laboratory experiments that illustrate the causal effect of basic theoretical pro-
cesses relevant to motivation and then review how interventions designed to alter
these processes affect achievement.
Second, psychological interventions seem “small” relative to traditional edu-
cational reforms, and people may assume that large problems require “large”
solutions. How could a brief psychological intervention make headway in the
face of structural problems that contribute enormously to inequality and poor
outcomes in education? To presage later arguments, psychological interventions
do not replace traditional educational reforms but operate within the context of
existing structures to make them more effective. Psychological interventions
change students’ mind-sets to help them take greater advantage of available
learning opportunities.
This analysis draws on a core tenet of social psychology, namely, that every
attitude and behavior exists in a complex field of forces—a “tension system”—in
which some forces promote a behavior whereas other forces restrain that behavior
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Social-Psychological Interventions in Education
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(Lewin, 1952; Ross & Nisbett, 1991; Wilson, 2006). One lesson from this analysis
is that the structure of the system determines its potential for change—an interven-
tion that increases students’ motivation to learn or that removes barriers to learning
will improve academic outcomes only when learning opportunities exist in the
educational environment.
Another lesson of this analysis is that there are two routes to behavior change (see
Miller & Prentice, in press). One route is to increase forces that promote a behavior, for
instance by giving students incentives for better grades. But when promoting forces are
adequate—as when, at some level, learning content, teachers, and students' willingness
to learn are present—student success may be held back instead by restraining forces,
such as worries about ability or negative stereotypes. In these cases, less intuitively, one
can remove forces that restrain their learning, allowing students to take greater advan-
tage of learning opportunities. As a consequence, even a seemingly small intervention
but one that removes a critical barrier to learning can produce substantial effects on
academic outcomes. At a broader level, this theoretical foundation underscores the
fundamental inappropriateness of viewing social-psychological interventions as silver
bullets; rather than operating in isolation, such interventions rearrange forces in a com-
plex system.2
A third challenge to understanding the effects of social-psychological interven-
tions is that it is hard to see how relatively brief messages can affect students’
views and behavior, especially when students receive many messages from adults
that seemingly have little effect. As we will explain, social-psychological interven-
tions can be brief yet impactful because they target students’ subjective experi-
ences in school and because they rely on a rich tradition of research on persuasion
and attitude change to powerfully convey psychological ideas.
Fourth, what can seem especially mysterious is how a time-limited or one-shot
social-psychological intervention can generate effects that persist far ahead in
time. For instance, people may assume that an intervention has to remain in mind
to continue to be effective. But like any experience, a psychological intervention
will become less focal as it recedes in time. As we suggest below, a key to under-
standing the long-lasting effects of social-psychological interventions is to under-
stand how they interact with recursive processes already present in schools, such
as the quality of students’ developing relationships with peers and teachers, their
beliefs about their ability, and their acquisition of academic knowledge. It is by
affecting self-reinforcing recursive processes that psychological interventions can
cause lasting improvements in motivation and achievement even when the original
treatment message has faded in salience (e.g., Walton & Cohen, 2011).
In the next section, we describe how we conducted this review. We then sum-
marize four prominent social-psychological interventions, emphasizing the psy-
chological process each intervention targeted and relevant laboratory and field
research. Next we discuss how the effects of these interventions persisted over
time. In doing so, we aim to provide a more nuanced understanding of how social-
psychological interventions work and to suggest how this understanding can
inform efforts to deliver these interventions more broadly.
Method for the Current Review
This is a theoretical review designed to elucidate the theoretical underpinnings
of social-psychological interventions in education, not a comprehensive review of
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276
them. To locate relevant interventions, we searched the tables of contents and
abstracts of highly cited relevant journals including Child Development,
Developmental Psychology, Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology,
Journal of Educational Psychology, Journal of Experimental Social Psychology,
Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Personality and Social Psychology
Bulletin, Psychological Science, and Science (see Table 1). We searched for studies
that (a) evaluated an intervention that communicated a social-psychological mes-
sage but did not teach academic content, (b) randomly assigned students to treat-
ment or control conditions, and (c) observed effects on students’ grades in a course
or in school overall over time. In addition, we examined the curricula vitae of
prominent psychologists conducting intervention research, searching for replica-
tions, extensions, or studies examining boundary conditions. Some important stud-
ies were excluded because they met only some of our criteria. Among the excluded
studies were those that used social-psychological strategies to motivate specific
behaviors in school, such as mastering an individual learning objective or perform-
ing better on a single task, rather than raising achievement in general (e.g., E.
Aronson, Blaney, Stephin, Sikes, & Snapp, 1976; Destin & Oyserman, 2009;
Duckworth, Grant, Loew, Oettingen, & Gollwitzer, in press; Jamieson, Mendes,
Blackstock, & Schmader, 2009; Ramirez & Beilock, 2011; Vansteenkiste, Simons,
Lens, Sheldon, & Deci, 2004).
Notably, our search targeted specifically social-psychological interventions—
interventions designed to change students’ thoughts and feelings in and about
school. This approach excluded cognitive psychology interventions, which inves-
tigate instead how principles of human cognition and learning can inform the
design of effective curricula and pedagogy (and which have been reviewed else-
where; e.g., Bransford, Brown, & Cocking, 1999; Ritter, Anderson, Koedinger, &
Corbett, 2007). Nonetheless, in some cases we use the term psychological inter-
ventions as shorthand to refer to social-psychological interventions.
Four Social-Psychological Interventions to Improve Student Achievement
To illustrate general lessons, we focus on basic theory and research underpinning
four prominent social-psychological interventions. These interventions have pro-
duced some of the most striking effects observed in the field and illustrate key themes.
Although we present the studies separately, we note that the processes they target are
few in number and interrelated, including students’ beliefs about their potential for
growth and belonging in the classroom and their efforts to cope with negative stere-
otypes in school. It is important to note, however, that similar conclusions could be
drawn from an analysis of other interventions. Table 1 provides a summary of relevant
studies that we do not discuss in detail (also see Gehlbach, 2010).
Interventions to Change Students’ Attributions for Academic Setbacks
A long line of basic theory and research in social psychology shows that peo-
ple’s attributions—how they explain the causes of events and experiences—shape
their responses to those events and subsequent behavior (Kelley, 1973; Weiner,
1986). For instance, if a student concludes that a bad grade means that he cannot
cut it in math, the student may not invest the time and effort needed to improve his
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math grades (Bandura, 1977). If so, he may continue to perform poorly, reifying
his attribution of inability, leading to an exacerbation cycle of negative attributions
and poor performance (cf. Storms & Nisbett, 1970; also see Wilson, 2006). On the
other hand, if a student thinks that a bad grade means that she needs time to learn
the ropes, the student may redouble her efforts and perform better over time. Is it
possible to change students’ attributions so they see poor grades as the result of a
temporary and not permanent cause? Would such an intervention improve stu-
dents’ academic performance over time?
Intervention 1: Wilson and Linville (1982). Wilson and Linville (1982, 1985)
tested this hypothesis (also see Wilson, Damiani, & Shelton, 2002). They devel-
oped a brief intervention to teach students that poor academic performance is nor-
mal at first in the transition to a new school, that it does not reflect a lack of ability,
and that students’ grades typically improve as they adjust to the new school.
In a series of classic studies, Wilson and Linville (1982, 1985) brought strug-
gling first-year college students to a laboratory and told them that they had inter-
viewed college students about their transition to college. They asked students to
watch some of these videotaped interviews. Students in the treatment group (ran-
domly assigned) saw videos of upperclassmen describing how their grades in col-
lege were low at first but got better with time. These upperclassmen attributed their
early poor performance to unstable causes that dissipate, such as a lack of familiar-
ity with college classes. Students in a control group saw videos of the same upper-
classmen talking about their academic and social interests with no mention of
first-year grades. A year later, students’ official GPAs were collected. Students in
the treatment group had earned higher GPAs than students in the control group (see
Table 1). Moreover, this effect seemed to gain in strength with each successive
term. This finding is consistent with the hypothesis that the intervention set in
motion a recursive or self-reinforcing attributional process whereby better perfor-
mance each term reinforced more adaptive attributions for early academic strug-
gles. In addition, treated students were 80% less likely to drop out of college. This
basic intervention has been replicated many times with diverse populations (see
Haynes, Perry, Stupnisky, & Daniels, 2009; Wilson et al., 2002) including adoles-
cents (e.g., Good, Aronson, & Inzlicht, 2003).
Intervention 2: Blackwell et al. (2007). Dweck and colleagues have investigated
how students’ implicit theories of intelligence shape their interpretation of and
response to academic setbacks (Dweck, 2006; Dweck & Leggett, 1988; Molden &
Dweck, 2006). In laboratory research, Dweck finds that students who believe that
intelligence is fixed and unchangeable (an entity theory of intelligence) are more
likely to attribute academic setbacks to a lack of ability than students who believe
that intelligence is malleable and improvable with hard work and effort (an incre-
mental theory of intelligence). Students with the incremental theory instead
see setbacks as the result of insufficient effort or a poor strategy. In turn, such
attributions shape whether students respond to setbacks helplessly (withdrawing
effort) or resiliently (redoubling effort, seeking help, using a better strategy, etc.).
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In one series of laboratory studies, Mueller and Dweck (1998) gave fifth-grade
students a moderately difficult set of logic problems. After completing them, stu-
dents were praised. Some children (randomly assigned) received intelligence
praise—praise that could induce an entity theory of intelligence (“That’s a really
high score. You must be very smart at these problems”). Others received effort
praise predicted to induce an incremental theory of intelligence (“That’s a really
high score. You must have worked hard at these problems”) or neutral praise
(“That’s a really high score”). Next, students were given an especially difficult set
of problems on which all students performed poorly. Finally, students were given
a crucial third set of problems equally challenging as the first set.
The effect of the type of praise was dramatic. On the final set of problems,
children who received neutral praise performed no better and no worse than they
had on the first set. Children who received effort praise did better and asked to do
more challenging problems in the future. But children who received intelligence
praise solved 30% fewer problems and asked to do only easy problems from then
on. Being led to attribute success to fixed intelligence with just a sentence of praise
undermined students’ motivation and performance following a failure experience
(for a relevant longitudinal study, see Blackwell et al., 2007, Study 1).
On the basis of these and other results, Blackwell and colleagues (2007, Study 2)
designed an intervention to lead middle school students to view intelligence as
malleable. Students in a New York City public school attended an eight-session
workshop in which they learned about study skills and scientific research showing
that the brain grows connections and “gets smarter” when a person works on chal-
lenging tasks. Students in a randomized control group learned only about study
skills. Results showed that students in the control group continued the downward
decline in math grades that normally occurs in middle school. But students who
learned the incremental theory reversed this trend and earned better math grades
over the course of the year (see Figure 1). Study skills alone did not lead to
improvement in math; students needed the incremental mind-set and motivation to
put those skills into practice.
The effect of implicit theories is robust. Other implicit theory interventions
have generated similar improvements in diverse populations (e.g., J. Aronson,
Fried, & Good, 2002; Good et al., 2003; see Table 1). In addition, implicit theories
interventions have been implemented structurally in middle and high school math
classes across the United States by the Charles A. Dana Center (2008) at the
University of Texas, yielding large effects on such important outcomes as the per-
centage of high school students who repeat algebra (e.g., reducing this figure from
24% to 9%).
Interventions to Mitigate Stereotype Threat
A significant problem in education involves the persistence of large differences
in academic achievement between different social groups, such as between racial
or ethnic minority students and nonminority students and, in math and science,
between women and men. Although structural factors contribute to these differ-
ences, psychological processes also play an important role (Walton & Spencer,
2009). Research on stereotype threat shows that the worry that one could be
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perceived through the lens of a negative intellectual stereotype in school can
undermine academic performance (Steele, 2010; Steele, Spencer, & Aronson,
2002). For instance, the stereotype that certain ethnic groups are less intelligent
than others and that women are less skilled in quantitative fields than men creates
stress, distraction, and anxiety for people targeted by negative stereotypes in per-
formance situations, and this, in turn, undermines academic performance (see
Schmader, Johns, & Forbes, 2008). Stereotype threat is so pervasive that it causes
common measures of academic performance including grades and test scores to
systematically underestimate the ability of negatively stereotyped students (Walton
& Spencer, 2009). Can psychological strategies mitigate stereotype threat in field
settings? Could these strategies raise stereotyped students’ performance and reduce
achievement gaps? (For related interventions that raise the performance of ethnic
minority students, see E. Aronson et al., 1978; Steele, 1997.)
Intervention 3: Cohen et al. (2006, 2009). Cohen and colleagues (2006, 2009)
hypothesized that helping reduce the stress and worry caused by stereotype threat
could boost the academic performance of negatively stereotyped students. Their
intervention was designed on the basis of a long line of psychological research
investigating how people cope with threats to their sense of self (Festinger, 1957;
Greenwald, 1980). Most relevant here, self-affirmation theory proposes that people are
motivated to protect their view of themselves as good, moral, and efficacious (Sherman
FIGURE 1. Math grades by experimental condition (covariate-adjusted means) in
Blackwell, Trzesniewski, and Dweck (2007). Reprinted by permission from John Wiley
and Sons, Inc.
Note. Experimental = incremental theory workshop group; control = study skills workshop
group.
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& Cohen, 2006; Steele, 1988). When people’s sense of self is threatened, they
experience high levels of stress. Self-affirmation theory proposes that reminding
people of diverse, positive aspects of themselves can lead people to see
negative events and information as less threatening and reduce stress and thus help
people function more effectively (Sherman & Hartson, in press). One way to shore
up people’s sense of self is by asking people to write about values that are person-
ally important to them. Indeed, laboratory experiments find that brief value-
affirmation writing exercises can help negatively stereotyped students perform
better on academic tasks (Martens, Johns, Greenberg, & Schimel, 2006; Taylor &
Walton, in press).
Cohen and colleagues (2006, 2009) tested whether a value affirmation could
improve stereotyped students’ real-world school performance. In a double-blind
randomized controlled experiment, they delivered a value-affirmation intervention
to White and Black seventh grade students as an in-class writing exercise. Half of
students completed a value affirmation—they identified two or three values that
were personally important to them and wrote about why those values mattered to
them. Control students identified values that were not important to them and wrote
about why they might matter to someone else. The 15- to 20-minute exercise was
administered at the beginning of the school year, before a recursive cycle of feel-
ings of threat and poor academic performance could take hold. Teachers were blind
to students’ condition assignment to forestall expectancy effects.
The results were striking. Students’ grades were collected over the next 2 years.
By the end of the first semester, treated Black students earned significantly higher
grades than peers in the control condition, reducing the gap between Black and
White students by about 40%. A boost in students’ GPA across all academic classes
persisted for 2 years with a few additional value-affirmations exercises (see Figure
2; Cohen et al., 2009). This basic effect has been replicated in multiple studies,
including among women in science and with Latino adolescents (see Miyake et al.,
2010; Sherman et al., 2011).
Intervention 4: Walton and Cohen (2007, 2011). One consequence of negative
stereotypes is to cause people to wonder whether they will be fully included
and valued in an academic environment. Anyone may wonder if he or she will
get along with others in a new setting, like a transfer student at a new school.
But students who face negative stereotypes may worry about their belonging
more pervasively. This feeling of uncertainty about belonging can cause stu-
dents to perceive negative social events in school—such as feelings of loneli-
ness or receiving criticism from an instructor—as evidence that they do not
belong in the school in general, an inference that undermines motivation
(Walton & Cohen, 2007; also see Mendoza-Denton, Purdie, Downey, Davis, &
Pietrzak, 2002).
Walton and Cohen (2007, Experiment 1) examined students’ response to social
adversity directly in a laboratory study. They posed a subtle threat to college stu-
dents’ sense of social belonging in a field of study. They asked students to list
either two friends who would fit in well in the field or eight such friends (cf.
Schwarz et al., 1991). Listing eight friends was difficult, and equally so for White
and Black students. The question the study tested was what meaning, if any, this
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1
1.5
2
2.5
3
3.5
Preintervention
Term 1
Term 2
Term 3
Term 4
Term 1
Term 2
Term 3
Term 4
Year 1 Year 2
Mean GPA in Core Courses
European Americans—Affirmation & Control
High-Performing African Americans—Affirmation
High-Performing African Americans—Control
Low-Performing African Americans—Affirmation
Low-Performing African Americans—Control
FIGURE 2. Mean GPA in core courses for each term over 2 years, as a function of
student group (African American vs. European American), experimental condition,
and preintervention level of performance of African Americans (an average of the prior
year’s GPA and preintervention seventh-grade performance) in Cohen, Garcia, Purdie-
Vaughns, Apfel, and Brzustoski (2009). Reprinted by permission from the American
Association for the Advancement of Science.
Note. African Americans were categorized into low and high performers based on a median split
within their racial group. Because European Americans in the two conditions did not differ sig-
nificantly, their data were combined. Means adjusted for baseline covariates and students’
assigned teacher team.
difficulty had for students. For White students, the difficulty listing friends carried
no particular meaning—White students’ interest and motivation in the field were
unchanged whether they had been asked to list eight friends or two. But for Black
students, the difficulty experienced listing eight friends seemed to mean that they
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and, moreover, their racial group did not belong in the field. As compared to con-
trol participants, their motivation in the field dropped precipitously, and they dis-
couraged a Black peer from pursuing the field as an area of study.
Building on this laboratory research, Walton and Cohen created an intervention to
forestall global inferences of nonbelonging in school (Experiment 2). Adopting proce-
dures developed by Wilson and Linville (1982, 1985), they gave first-year college
students information indicating that students of all ethnicities worried at first about
their belonging in the transition to college but that these worries dissipated with time
and eventually all students came to feel at home. This information was designed to
convey that doubts about belonging and negative social events are normal at first in
college and are nondiagnostic of an actual lack of belonging. Students then engaged in
a series of activities designed to reinforce the treatment message—for instance, they
wrote an essay for incoming students the next year about how their own feelings of
belonging in college had changed over time (see J. Aronson et al., 2002). Control stu-
dents went through the same exercises, but the information they were exposed to was
irrelevant to issues of belonging. In total, the intervention lasted about an hour.
The intervention had striking benefits for Black students. In two cohorts of
students and relative to several control groups, the intervention improved Black
students’ grades in college from sophomore through senior year, halving the
Black–White achievement gap (see Figure 3; Walton & Cohen, 2007, 2011). This
effect was statistically mediated by a change in Black students’ construal of social
adversity on campus. Daily diary surveys completed in the week following the
intervention showed that, in the control condition, Black students’ daily sense of
belonging in school rose and fell with the level of adversity they experienced each
day. To these students, negative social events seemed to convey that they did not
belong in the school in general. The treatment cut off this relationship—here,
Black students experienced similar levels of adversity, but adversity no longer led
them to question their belonging. For instance, consider a Black freshman who had
a bad day. Say his teacher criticized him in class or he was not invited to dinner by
dormmates. Already worried about his belonging, he is more likely than a White
student to see it as proof that he does not belong. A student who goes through the
intervention, however, still encounters such events but they no longer carry global
meaning; they are negative, but not diagnostic. Statistically, Walton and Cohen
(2011) found that it was this change in construal that mediated the effect of
the intervention on the 3-year gain in Black students’ GPA. In addition, 3 years
posttreatment, the intervention also improved Black students’ self-reported physi-
cal health and happiness, both outcomes linked strongly to a secure sense of
belonging.
In research in progress, tailored versions of the social-belonging intervention
have improved grades and school-related attitudes and behaviors among African
American middle school students (Walton, Cohen, Garcia, Apfel, & Master, 2011)
and female undergraduate engineering students (Walton, Logel, Peach, & Spencer,
2011).
Understanding Social-Psychological Interventions in Education
Readers may wonder, how did these interventions work at all—how could they
change students’ psychology to improve academic outcomes even in the short
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283
term? And how did they maintain their effects over time? Below we address each
question in turn, followed by a discussion of how social-psychological interven-
tions could be delivered effectively to more students.
How do social-psychological interventions change students’ psychology to improve
academic outcomes in the short term? They do so by precisely targeting students’
experience in school from the student’s perspective and by using impactful delivery
mechanisms. Although the four psychological interventions reviewed above tar-
geted different (albeit related) psychological processes, each began with a precise
understanding of students’ subjective experience in school—what school seems
like to the student in the classroom, not how school appears to an observer,
researcher, or teacher. These interventions may seem “small” to observers, and
often they are in terms of time and cost and in relation to other school reforms.
From the perspective of a researcher or teacher, an implicit theories workshop or
a value-affirmation writing exercise is just one of many classroom experiences
given to students. But to a student sitting at a desk in the third row worrying about
whether a poor test score means she is stupid or whether others will reduce her
to a negative stereotype, an experience like learning that the brain can grow and
form new connections when challenged or being invited to describe personally
3.00
3.10
3.20
3.30
3.40
3.50
3.60
3.70
3.80
3.90
4.00
Fall
Term
Spring
Term
Fall
Term
Spring
Term
Fall
Term
Spring
Term
Junior Year Senior Year
European Americans, Social-Belonging Treatment
African Americans, Social-Belonging Treatment
African Americans, Randomized Control
European Americans, Randomized Control
Social-Belonging
Treatment
First Year Sophomore Year
Fall
Term
FIGURE 3. Mean academic performance as a function of semester, student race, and
experimental condition (raw means) in Walton and Cohen (2011). Reprinted by per-
mission from the American Association for the Advancement of Science.
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important values may feel quite “large” (E. Aronson et al., 1978). Such interven-
tions directly address students’ experience in school and thus their school-related
behavior.
Critically, if a social-psychological intervention does not deliver its message in
a way that changes how students think or feel about school or about themselves in
school, then nothing has been delivered at all. Each intervention reviewed above
used a delivery mechanism that, although brief, drew on research on the psychol-
ogy of persuasion to make the experience maximally impactful for students. Rather
than simply delivering an appeal to a student who passively receives it, each inter-
vention enlisted students in actively participating in or generating the intervention
itself (see Lewin, 1952). These strategies can induce deep processing and prepare
students to transfer the content to new settings (Chase, Chin, Oppezzo, & Schwartz,
2009; Schwartz & Martin, 2004). For instance, one delivery mechanism featured
in several interventions involved asking students to write letters to younger stu-
dents advocating the treatment message (e.g., J. Aronson et al., 2002; Walton &
Cohen, 2007; 2011). As research on the “saying-is-believing” effect shows (E.
Aronson, 1999), generating and then advocating a persuasive message to a recep-
tive audience is a powerful means of persuasion (for a related example, see
Hulleman & Harackiewicz, 2009).
Although these delivery mechanisms are psychologically powerful, the inter-
ventions are in an important sense “stealthy,” a quality that may increase their
effectiveness (Robinson, in press). In none of the interventions were students
exposed to a direct persuasive appeal or told that they were receiving “an interven-
tion” to improve their performance. Students in Wilson and Linville’s (1982, 1985)
intervention thought they were responding to a survey. Students in the Walton and
Cohen (2007, 2011) intervention took the role of mentor to younger students (also
see J. Aronson et al., 2002). They were not told that they themselves were the
targets of the persuasive message. Other studies used class assignments to deliver
the intervention, such as a neuroscience workshop (Blackwell et al., 2007) or an
in-class writing assignment (Cohen et al., 2009; Hulleman & Harackiewicz, 2009),
both of which had no obvious link to students’ academic performance. Overall,
these indirect approaches may be more effective than overt strategies. They do not
feel controlling and so they minimize resistence and reactance to the message.
They also allow students to take credit for their success rather than risking the pos-
sibility that students attribute positive outcomes to a heavy-handed intervention.
Furthermore, stealthy interventions do not stigmatize students—they do not con-
vey to students that they are seen as in need of help or perceived as likely to fail,
which could undermine an intervention’s intended effect. Indeed, telling people
that a value affirmation is intended to make them feel better can reduce its effec-
tiveness (Sherman et al., 2009).
Another way these interventions are “stealthy” is by being brief. One recent ran-
domized field experiment found greater behavior change after a short (5-minute)
intervention to reduce drinking among college student, than after a longer (50-min-
ute) intervention (Kulesza, Apperson, Larimer, & Copeland, 2010; also see Petry,
Weinstock, Ledgerwood, & Morasco, 2008). Although these studies did not focus on
educational outcomes, they contradict the intuition that “bigger” interventions are
necessarily “better.”
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This analysis leads to counterintuitive predictions about how to maximize the
impact of psychological interventions. It would be reasonable to think, for exam-
ple, that training teachers (or parents) to reinforce psychological messages or dou-
bling the length of an in-class growth mind-set workshop from 8 to 16 sessions
would amplify an intervention’s benefits. However, if adolescents perceive a
teacher’s reinforcement of a psychological idea as conveying that they are seen as
in need of help, teacher training or an extended workshop could undo the effects
of the intervention, not increase its benefits. Moreover, in the case of the Cohen
et al. (2006) intervention, for example, if stereotype threat was a force preventing
students from achieving their potential and this force was removed through a val-
ues affirmation, it is not clear that additional strategies to remove the same restrain-
ing force in other ways, for instance, by having teachers reinforce a student’s
values, would increase the effect. In this way, the teaching of academic content in
school is fundamentally different from the delivery of psychological interventions.
Academic content is complex and taught layer on layer: The more math students
are taught, in general the more math they learn. Changing students’ psychology, by
contrast, sometimes requires a lighter touch.
Nevertheless, when different interventions target different psychological barri-
ers to learning, combining interventions may produce additive effects. For instance,
one recent study found that both a social-belonging intervention and an interven-
tion to train students to self-affirm in times of stress (an “affirmation training”
intervention) raised the achievement of female engineering students, yet did so
through different mechanisms. The social-belonging intervention led women to
perceive that others viewed female engineers more positively; the affirmation-
training intervention prevented the perception that others viewed female engineers
negatively from undermining women’s engineering grades (Walton, Logel, et al.,
2011). It is intriguing to speculate that a combined intervention could yield greater
effects, provided that the mechanism used to deliver one intervention does not
interfere with the meaning of the other intervention.
In summary, social-psychological interventions change students’ behavior by
(a) targeting students’ experience in school from the student’s perspective and
(b) deploying powerful yet stealthy persuasive tactics to deliver the treatment mes-
sage effectively without generating problematic side effects, such as stigmatizing
recipients.
How do social-psychological interventions affect student outcomes over long peri-
ods of time? They do so by affecting recursive processes that accumulate effects
over time. A critical question about psychological interventions is how brief exer-
cises could improve students’ achievement months and years later. In general, we
think it is exceedingly unlikely that psychological interventions generate long-
lasting benefits because students keep the treatment message vividly in mind over
long periods. Consistent with this analysis, in Walton and Cohen’s (2011) social-
belonging intervention, students were asked at the end of their college careers to
recall the treatment message. Despite the large benefits of the intervention for
African American students over the 3-year assessment period, few students accu-
rately recalled the treatment message and the vast majority denied that taking part
in the 1-hour study had had any effect on their college experience.
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How then do psychological interventions generate long-lasting benefits?
They do so by setting into motion recursive social, psychological, and intellec-
tual processes in school. As students study and learn and build academic skills
and knowledge, they are better prepared to learn and perform well in the future.
As students feel more secure in their belonging in school and form better rela-
tionships with peers and teachers, these become sources of support that promote
feelings of belonging and academic success later. When students achieve success
beyond what they thought possible, their beliefs about their potential may
change, leading them to invest themselves more in school, further improving
performance and reinforcing their belief in their potential for growth. As stu-
dents do well, they are placed in higher level classes—gateways that raise expec-
tations, expose them to high-achieving peers, and improve subsequent academic
opportunities. Through these recursive processes, students gain momentum and
achieve better academic outcomes over time—or they do not. A well-timed,
well-targeted psychological intervention taps into these recursive processes and
thus changes the trajectory of students’ experiences and outcomes in school (see
Cohen et al., 2009).
Consistent with this analysis, research tracking the long-term effects of social-
psychological interventions finds repeatedly that such interventions change stu-
dents’ academic trajectories. Indeed, the mean-level effects of psychological
interventions on student grades are accounted for by changes in the trajectory of
students’ academic performance over time. The value-affirmation intervention, for
instance, was delivered to students early in seventh grade and had long-term effects
primarily among previously poor-performing African American students (see
Figure 2; Cohen et al., 2009). Evidence suggests the affirmation cut off a down-
ward spiral in performance, preventing worse performance from leading to greater
feelings of stress and threat and undermining subsequent performance (also see
Blackwell et al., 2007; Sherman & Hartson, in press). Analogously, the Walton and
Cohen (2007, 2011) social-belonging intervention set in motion a positive recur-
sive process that improved students’ grades over 3 years in a steady step-by-step
fashion (see Figure 3; also see Wilson & Linville, 1985).
How do psychological interventions change the trajectory of students’ academic
outcomes? Research directly addresses this question. For example, Blackwell and
colleagues (2007, Study 1) found that when students believed that they could get
smarter over time, they were more likely to believe that working hard could help
them succeed in school and they endorsed the goal of learning from coursework.
These beliefs and goals motivated greater use of effective learning strategies (such
as increasing effort after setbacks) and less use of ineffective strategies (such as
spending less time on a subject after setbacks). Over time, this increased effort and
use of more productive learning strategies helped students take advantage of instruc-
tion in school, persist longer, seek help when needed, and ultimately learn more in
school. These changes in beliefs and strategies statistically mediated a 2-year upward
trajectory observed in middle school math grades for students with an incremental
mind-set. By understanding this interaction between psychological processes (e.g.,
students beliefs about the nature of intelligence) and school structures (e.g., learning
opportunities present in school), it is easier to see how changing students’ beliefs
could affect their school achievement over long periods.
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Other research investigates how interventions that mitigate concern about neg-
ative stereotypes can raise students’ achievement. For example, research shows
that stereotype threat can undermine learning, not just academic performance. In
one laboratory experiment, African American students who studied novel aca-
demic material in a threatening rather than nonthreatening learning environment
performed worse on a test of that material a week later even in a nonthreatening
performance setting (Taylor & Walton, in press; also see Rydell, Shiffrin, Boucher,
Van Loo, & Rydell, 2010). This effect did not occur for European Americans. In a
second study, Taylor and Walton (in press) found that a value-affirmation undid
this effect of threat—it helped African American students learn more despite
threat. The results suggest that one way a value-affirmation intervention may
improve long-term academic outcomes is by helping students acquire the building
blocks of academic skills and knowledge needed to perform well in subsequent
academic settings.
Other studies examine recursive social-relational processes. For instance, as
noted, Walton and Cohen’s (2007, 2011) social-belonging intervention led to a
term-by-term improvement in African American students’ grades over 3 years (see
Figure 3), and this boost in grades was mediated by a change in students’ construal
of adverse social events in school—these events no longer carried a global, threat-
ening meaning to students (Walton & Cohen, 2011). If students feel more secure
in their belonging in school, they may approach others in the academic environ-
ment more and with more positive attitudes, building better relationships, reinforc-
ing their feelings of belonging, and laying the groundwork for later academic
success (also see Mendoza-Denton et al., 2002).
If effective psychological interventions alter recursive processes in school, then
the timing of these interventions is critical. In many cases, it may be essential to
deliver psychological interventions at key educational junctures, such as at the
beginning of an academic year (Cohen et al., 2006; Cohen et al., 2009), during an
important transition such as when students enter a new school (Walton & Cohen,
2007, 2011; Wilson & Linville, 1982, 1985), or before an academic gateway, such
as before students are tracked into algebra versus lower level math classes
(Crosnoe, Lopez-Gonzalez, & Muller, 2004; Hallinan, 2001) or before a high-
stakes exam (Papay, Murnane, & Willett, 2010). Illustrating the importance of
timing, one study found that the earlier a value-affirmation intervention was deliv-
ered the more it improved students’ grades and, furthermore, that timing mattered
more than frequency (Cook, Purdie-Vaughns, Garcia, & Cohen, 2011). This find-
ing echoes Raudenbush’s (1984) classic meta-analysis of teacher expectancy
effects, which found that teacher expectancy interventions were effective only
when delivered within the first few weeks of school.
The importance of recursive processes in sustaining the effects of psychological
interventions over time reinforces the proposition that these interventions do not
work in isolation; rather, they operate in a complex system involving numerous
structural factors (Lewin, 1952). When well targeted and well timed, a psycho-
logical intervention relies on recursive social, psychological, and intellectual pro-
cesses that are present in school to produce sustained gains in students’ school
achievement.
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Discussion
How Can Social-Psychological Interventions Be Scaled
to Benefit More Students?
The review above discusses how social-psychological interventions can boost
student achievement and address long-standing achievement gaps. But as Bryk
(2009) argues, to scale an educational innovation it is not enough to know that it
can work in one context; “we need to know how to make it work reliably over
many diverse contexts and situations” (p. 598; also see Morris & Hiebert, 2011).
There are several challenges to scaling psychological interventions, many of which
are common to educational innovations in general. Instead of reviewing the vast
literature on scaling educational interventions, in this discussion we address how
lessons from this literature apply specifically to efforts to scale social-psycholog-
ical interventions and suggest how key challenges might be overcome. In particu-
lar, we focus on two topics: (a) What should be scaled, and what are the barriers to
scaling this? and (b) What kinds of strategies and expertise are needed to scale
social-psychological interventions effectively?
What Should Be Scaled, and What Are the Barriers to Scaling This?
It is the specific psychological experience created by a psychological intervention
that should be reproduced at scale, not incidental features of the intervention. For
instance, a scaled-up growth mind-set intervention should lead students to believe that
when they experience setbacks their ability can improve, not necessarily teach them
neuroanatomy. This is analogous to other well-designed reforms in education, where
it is essential to scale the student learning experience rather than the specific activities,
worksheets, or examples used to create this experience. When a psychological inter-
vention is delivered to more students, what barriers can prevent the intended psycho-
logical experience from being replicated? We address three barriers below.
First, past research reminds us that it can be easy to scale up superficial features
of an educational innovation without reproducing the intended psychological or
educational experience (see, e.g., Fullan, 2001; Labaree, 1998; Tyack & Cuban,
1995). Under these circumstances the intervention would not be predicted to have
the intended effect. Take the case of the California mission project. The project
began as a small but successful initiative in which fourth grade students conducted
independent research on one of the Spanish missions in California, created a rep-
lica of the mission—in some cases, even making adobe bricks by hand—and pre-
sented a class report. The project seemed to increase intrinsic motivation (Checkley,
2008); for instance, in news reports teachers said students were highly engaged
and students reported planning summer vacations around visiting their mission
(“Drawings Aid,” 1931; Haessler, 1973). Excited by the early returns, reformers
quickly took the initiative to scale, requiring nearly every fourth grader in
California to do a mission project. Soon enough, local stores sold premade “mis-
sion kits” with fact sheets on each. What began as a project requiring original
research and intensive thinking ended as a trip to an arts and crafts store. Although
no formal evaluation has been done, it would be surprising if this version of the
project continued to produce benefits for student motivation. When an intervention
is taken to scale without the theoretically essential components, it will not have the
intended effects.
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Similarly, if scaled improperly, social-psychological interventions could
become something different entirely—not a test of whether the theory works at
scale but a worksheet to be handed out or a lesson to “get through.” It is easy to
imagine, for instance, how a value-affirmation intervention, if delivered poorly,
could become a caricature—a hollow, ego-boosting exercise in self-praise (per-
haps one reminiscent of a scene from Saturday Night Lives Stuart Smalley skit;
“I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and doggone it, people like me”)—not a tool
for affirming students’ values and reducing stress and threat in school.
Second, even when interventions are delivered with an effort to reproduce the-
oretically essential components, research finds that they can sometimes be derailed
by seemingly small changes in how the intervention is delivered. This occurs if
such changes lead recipients to perceive a different meaning in the intervention
(for striking examples, compare Langer & Rodin, 1976, to Schulz & Hanusa,
1978; compare Paluck, 2009, to Paluck, 2010; also see Marigold, Holmes & Ross,
2007, Study 3). For instance, in the effective Hulleman and Harackiewicz (2009)
intervention reviewed in Table 1, students generated and wrote reasons why
schoolwork was relevant to their lives, and this led to a .80 grade point (out of 4.0)
boost at the end of the school year for students with low expectations for success
in class. But when students were told why the schoolwork was important instead
of generating their own reasons, the intervention had a negative effect on students
with low expectations for success—in effect, by telling low-ability students how
important their schoolwork was, they were reminded that they might not be able
to accomplish those important goals, leading to less interest (Godes, Hulleman, &
Harackiewicz, 2007).
The challenge of delivering psychological interventions may be more acute
when they are delivered by teachers or other educational practitioners (cf. Morris
& Hiebert, 2011). The history of school reform reminds us that teachers can vary
in whether they deliver an intervention in the way intended or in name only, chang-
ing the meaning and effect of the intervention (Fullan, 2001; Tyack & Cuban,
1995). Labaree (1998) argues that each teacher has a “duchy” that operates rela-
tively independently once the classroom door closes, leading to excellence that is
unhampered by outside control in some classrooms and low performance that is
resistant to attempts at improvement in other classrooms. Any educational reform
that relies on teachers to deliver a message in a classroom is affected by this reality.
This certainly applies to social-psychological interventions.
However, unlike many traditional educational reforms, psychological interven-
tions involve relatively brief, discrete exercises, potentially reducing heterogene-
ity in implementation. For example, a values-affirmation or social-belonging
intervention consists of a self-contained reading and writing activity. Implicit the-
ories interventions can be delivered effectively online (through, e.g., www.brainol-
ogy.us or www.perts.net; for an evaluation, see Romero, Paunesku, & Dweck,
2011), as could many of the other interventions summarized in Table 1 (also see
Morisano, Hirsh, Peterson, Pihl, & Shore, 2010). Of course, even when using
an online approach, basic preconditions such as classroom management may be
necessary for an intervention to succeed. Just completing an intervention in a
rowdy classroom or one where other students can read or comment on a student’s
responses (e.g., a description of her or his core values) could undermine an inter-
vention’s effectiveness. One study that examined this possibility found that a
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social-psychological intervention administered in classrooms varied in its fidelity
to experimental protocols and yielded no overall positive effect, whereas the same
intervention delivered in a controlled setting (a laboratory) was effective (Hulleman
& Cordray, 2009).
A third potential challenge to scaling psychological interventions involves how
the meaning of an intervention can change in different contexts. If the meaning of
an intervention changes, its effect may change as well. One way to help make an
intervention meaningful for diverse students is to structure the exercise to allow
students to personalize their responses so intervention materials evoke the intended
experience in the way that is most relevant to them. For instance, in an affirmation
intervention, students rank order values in terms of their importance to themselves
and then write about their top-ranked value; they are not told which value to select.
In a social-belonging intervention, students think about their own personal experi-
ence in the transition to a new school and write about how their experience illus-
trates the general process of change students experience transitioning to the school
and coming to feel at home there. This element of personalization allows each
student to make the intervention her or his own. In many settings, identical materi-
als, if administered in well-managed classrooms and with fidelity, may be person-
ally meaningful to diverse students and thus produce positive effects for them.
However, the effectiveness of social-psychological interventions may also be
enhanced by embedding contextually appropriate elements. For instance, the val-
ues students rank order in an affirmation intervention should include values that
are, in fact, personally important to students in the population at hand; if the list
does not include a broad range of values and ones important in the local context
(e.g., in some settings more than others, religious values), the intervention may be
less effective. Similarly, contextually appropriate colloquialisms or anecdotes
embedded in a social-belonging intervention—specific stories about older stu-
dents’ feelings of belonging in the transition to students’ own school—may
increase the intervention’s effectiveness. Of course, making the materials more
specific to some students could reduce an intervention’s relevance for dissimilar
other students.
In addition, relational dynamics between teachers and students could affect the
meaning an intervention carries for students (cf. Raudenbush, 1984). It could seem
insincere if a teacher with whom a student has a hostile relationship asks the stu-
dent to complete a value affirmation, perhaps undermining the effectiveness of the
intervention. Similarly, an incremental mind-set intervention might have no effect
if students believe that the person who tells them about their potential for growth
and improvement does not believe this himself or herself.
Importantly, the materials and procedures used in an intervention can differ
across contexts and still produce similar psychological experiences. However,
these changes must be guided by theory. For example, Dweck and colleagues have
taught an incremental theory of intelligence by asking participants to read brief
scientific articles describing how the brain can get smarter (e.g., Nussbaum &
Dweck, 2008), by providing effort versus intelligence praise after success (Mueller
& Dweck, 1998), by conducting neuroscience workshops (Blackwell et al., 2007),
by orchestrating email exchanges during a yearlong program with a mentor (Good
et al., 2003), and by asking students to write a pen pal letter to a younger student
(J. Aronson et al., 2002). These approaches differ in various ways. But each
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conveys the core message that intelligence is malleable. When equipped with a
well-specified theory of the psychological experience an intervention is designed
to create, materials and procedures can be modified, as necessary, to create the
target experience most effectively for a particular context and population.
In sum, we do not believe that practitioners should pick up previously effective
experimental materials and freely adapt them without planning or evaluation. Nor do
we believe they should hand out the original materials without considering whether
they would convey the intended meaning in the local context. Although in many
cases materials and procedures developed for one context may work well in a new
context, adapting them might increase their effectiveness. As in a curricular initia-
tive, deciding how, when, and whether to adapt materials and procedures is difficult.
We therefore turn to the question of what kind of expertise is needed to create the
intended psychological experience for students in diverse contexts.
What Kinds of Expertise and Collaborations Are Required to Scale Social-
Psychological Interventions Effectively?
To increase the reliability of social-psychological interventions across contexts,
researchers and practitioners will have to decide whether to customize an interven-
tion and, if so, how to do so to best evoke the intended psychological experience.
Making these decisions draws on wisdom in two important areas: (a) theoretical
expertise, or an understanding of the psychological experience that is targeted by
the intervention, and (b) contextual expertise, or an understanding of the psycho-
logical experiences and backgrounds of students in the local context
If so, delivering psychological interventions at scale may be done best by creat-
ing an equal collaboration between researchers with a basic theoretical understand-
ing of psychological processes and contextual experts, including qualitative
researchers, administrators, and educational practitioners who have profound,
intuitive knowledge or metis (Scott, 1998) of local students and contexts.
Contextual experts can identify areas where the procedures or materials used in an
intervention match or do not match local constraints and meanings. Theoretical
experts can assess whether potential modifications lead an intervention to hit or
miss its intended psychological mark. Because subtle changes to delivery mecha-
nisms can shift the meanings of interventions for students, sometimes in nonobvi-
ous or unpredictable ways, researchers and practitioners should approach efforts
to scale psychological interventions with humility and with rigorous, step-by-step
evaluation. Qualitative methods may supplement experimental methods in these
evaluations.
Such equal collaborations have proven effective in other contexts, such as the
National Writing Project (McDonald, Buchanan, & Sterling, 2004), which scaled
an initiative to improve writing instruction using a network of researchers and
teachers who customized, refined, and delivered writing instruction to more than
5,000 students in seven states. Across 15 evaluation studies, National Writing
Project students made more gains in writing than matched comparison group stu-
dents (National Writing Project, 2010)—a promising result considering the vari-
ability in instruction across contexts. Another education research and development
initiative, the Strategic Education Research Partnership (Donovan, Wigdor, &
Snow, 2003), has found similarly positive results for students’ academic vocabu-
lary (also see Morris & Hiebert, 2011). More relevant here, some organizations are
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beginning to apply a similar approach to social-psychological interventions. For
instance, the new education research and development enterprise created by the
Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching has formed a network of
community colleges and researchers focused on the improvement of outcomes for
developmental (or remedial) math students (Bryk, 2009; Bryk, Gomez, & Grunow,
in press). Psychological interventions form one part of this team’s strategy. This
collaboration and others like it between researchers and practitioners can create
relational trust, a critical component of educational change (Bryk & Schneider,
2002; Bryk, Sebring, Allensworth, Luppescu, & Easton, 2010), and may increase
the likelihood that materials and procedures will be appropriate in local contexts.
These collaborations may prove fruitful for scaling psychological interventions.
Along similar lines, it may be useful to revisit past suggestions for creating a
new class of professional—a “psychological engineer”—a person with the exper-
tise needed to scale psychological interventions effectively. Such professionals
would be trained in experimental methodology and psychological theory, although
their primary work would be not to advance psychological theory but to under-
stand and alter psychological dynamics in applied settings. This would require
expertise in user-centered design and related qualitative inquiry, in the conduct of
equal collaborations across the theory–real world divide, in the measurement of
psychological processes, and in the delivery and experimental evaluation of psy-
chological interventions. Such a professional could design and implement inter-
ventions, evaluate their effects, and troubleshoot interventions that do not produce
their intended effect. For instance, using measures of psychological processes, a
psychological engineer could examine whether an intervention failed to affect the
intended process and, if so, examine with practitioners how the delivery mecha-
nism could be improved. Alternately, if the intervention affected the intended pro-
cess, the psychological engineer and practitioners could examine whether this
process was important in the local context in affecting relevant outcomes.
In collaborative efforts to scale social-psychological interventions, the flow of
ideas between theory and application will be a two-way street (Bronfenbrenner,
1979; Lewin, 1952). As interventions are created and deployed and their effects
assessed, theories of psychological processes may be refined, leading to improved
interventions. This is directly analogous to work in other applied sciences, where
basic research and application feed back on each other in a mutually beneficial
cycle. When social-psychological interventions are taken to scale, the constraints
of application at many schools may lead to refinements in their essential elements
and the elimination of less important features, making them more streamlined,
powerful, and robust. For instance, it could be useful for scaling purposes to reduce
Blackwell et al.’s (2007) incremental theory intervention to fewer workshop ses-
sions. But the process of reducing this intervention would require experimental
work to identify the theoretically critical elements, potentially resulting in both
new insights about basic psychological processes and a better intervention.
Second, when interventions are tested on broad samples, important boundary
conditions will likely be discovered. It could be that for some students or in some
conditions the suite of interventions reviewed in Table 1 might be ineffective.
When contextual experts collaborate on these projects and see these results, they
may think of other psychological processes that were not addressed—most likely,
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processes that psychologists did not anticipate. This could lead to new experiments
investigating these processes, new theories, and new interventions. Indeed, an
important source of theory in the social sciences is the attempt to explain failed
interventions (see, e.g., the discussion of McCord, 1978, in Ross & Nisbett, 1991).
This interplay of theory, research, and application would benefit both psychologi-
cal science and the solution of social problems.
In sum, psychological interventions may be scaled most effectively when
researchers and practitioners combine requisite theoretical and contextual exper-
tise. Existing organizations provide guidance for how to do this, but this process
may also be expedited by the creation of new roles within the field of education.
We anticipate that such efforts will benefit both basic psychological theory and
student outcomes.
Conclusion
Social-psychological interventions are not magic. They are not inputs that go
into a black box and automatically yield positive results. Instead, they are tools to
target important psychological processes in schools. These interventions grew out
of basic laboratory research and theory investigating these processes. They have
produced long-lasting gains in achievement in multiple studies, but they are
dependent on the capacities, meanings, and recursive processes present in local
contexts. If scaled up in appropriate ways, social-psychological interventions have
the potential to contribute, in conjunction with other reforms, to the solution of
endemic problems in education.
Nevertheless, because social-psychological interventions rely on subtle, non-
obvious forces, they can lead to polarized reactions—either “uncritical acceptance
and overgeneralization on one hand; [or] vilifying criticism on the other” (Jussim
& Harber, 2005, p. 135; also see Wineburg, 1987; cf. Gawande, 2009). By under-
standing the mechanisms underlying the effects of social-psychological interven-
tions, we hope that educational researchers can move past such reactions.
Social-psychological interventions complement—and do not replace—traditional
educational reforms. They do not teach students academic content or skills,
restructure schools, or improve teacher training. Instead, they allow students to
take better advantage of learning opportunities that are present in schools and tap
into existing recursive processes to generate long-lasting effects. Just at it would
be absurd to replace skilled surgeons with Gawande’s (2009) one-page checklist,
it would be absurd to replace traditional educational reforms with social-psycho-
logical interventions. Instead, as a surgical checklist allows a trained doctor to
perform as well as he or she is capable, social-psychological interventions can
unleash the potential of students and of the educational environments in which
they learn. Indeed, social-psychological interventions may make the effects of
high-quality educational reforms such as improved instruction or curricula more
apparent (Cohen et al., 2009).
Although we are optimistic that social-psychological interventions can be taken
to scale, doing so will require hard work. These are not quick fixes that can be
administered broadly without consideration for local contexts or the meaning stu-
dents make of them. They will benefit from an R&D model that incorporates
authentic collaborations between researchers and contextual experts and rigorous
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evaluation at each step (Bryk, 2009; Bryk et al., in press; Morris & Hiebert, 2011).
But in a context in which many reforms in education have produced at best uneven
results, psychological interventions have a demonstrated potential to address fun-
damental problems, including low student achievement and large group differ-
ences, at low cost and over significant periods of time. We look forward to future
research that includes psychological strategies in the broader suite of reforms to
promote positive change in education.
Notes
The writing of this article was supported by a Spencer Foundation Dissertation
Fellowship for Research Related to Education and a grant from the Thrive Foundation
for Youth, both to the first author. We are grateful to Tony Bryk, Geoff Cohen, Carol
Dweck, Hunter Gehlbach, Matthew Kloser, Richard Shavelson, David Sherman, James
Stigler, Sander Thomaes, and Uri Treisman for their comments, to Alexandria Ordway
for her original research on the California Mission Project, and to Brian Spitzer for his
help.
1Although analogies can mislead if taken too far, they can also be helpful for under-
standing new ideas in science and, in particular in this case, for understanding how
multiple variables relate (Duit, 1991; Kuhn, 1979; Thibodeau, & Boroditsky, 2011).
2Poor academic achievement is not the only social problem that social-psychologi-
cal interventions can address, even in the presence of structural impediments (for an
overview, see Reis & Gosling, 2010). Among other social problems, brief social-psy-
chological interventions can have lasting effects on the health of the elderly (Langer &
Rodin, 1976; Rodin & Langer, 1977) and of college students (Pennebaker, 1997;
Pennebaker & Beall, 1986), the success of dieters (Axsom & Cooper, 1985; Logel &
Cohen, 2011), environmental conservation (Goldstein, Cialdini, & Griskevicius,
2008), youth aggression (Hudley & Graham, 1993; Thomaes, Bushman, Orobio de
Castro, Cohen, & Denissen, 2009; Yeager, Trzesniewski, & Dweck, 2011), and inter-
group relations (e.g., Page-Gould, Mendoza-Denton, & Tropp, 2008; Paluck, 2009; cf.
Paluck, 2010).
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Authors
DAVID S. YEAGER is a Ph.D. candidate in the Stanford University School of Education,
Developmental and Psychological Sciences, 271 Jordan Hall, Stanford, CA 94107;
e-mail: dyeager@stanford.edu. He is supported by a dissertation writing fellowship from
the Spencer Foundation. His research focuses on social cognitive development, motiva-
tion, adolescence, research methodology, and psychological interventions.
GREGORY M. WALTON is an assistant professor in the Social Psychology area of the
Stanford University Department of Psychology; e-mail: gwalton@stanford.edu. His
research focuses on self and identity, stereotypes, motivation and achievement, and social
cognition.
at Stanford University Libraries on June 7, 2011http://rer.aera.netDownloaded from
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