Helping middle school students achieve more

One in five students in the United States will not earn a high school diploma — and young adolescents who fall behind in school risk never catching up, leading to unemployment, poor health and poverty, research has shown.

But a new University of California, Davis, study of intermediate school students in urban California and New York shows promise for underachievers. Researchers found that early intervention with teachers, training students that intelligence is malleable and learning achievable, caused struggling students to flourish and improve their grades.

“These results were exciting,” said the study’s lead author, Tenelle Porter, a postdoctoral scholar in the Department of Human Ecology who studies the psychology of education. “Here we show that we can change people’s minds about how education works — that abilities can improve with effort, and struggling students can see progress.”

The study was published June 14 in the journal Psychological Science.

Porter explained that there is often a mindset among children, their families and even teachers that students who are low achievers in middle school may never catch up — that intelligence levels will not increase much after early adolescence.

The study showed, however, that implementing an educational philosophy called a mindset intervention, which holds that the brain, like a muscle, can be strengthened and trained — combined with training teachers how to implement the program in classrooms — raised grades a couple of percentage points over a year, on average. The intervention used in this case was a particular program called “Brainology.”

The study was the first of its kind to include the effect teachers have on the technique, which proved to be doubly effective, grade-wise, to delivering the message by computer to each student without teacher involvement. Underachieving students benefited more than students who already had higher grades.

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