A 13-year-old high school student named Emma is watching intently as a little ball moves rapidly up and down her laptop screen. Eventually, using just the power of her brain, she is able to gain control over its movements. This may seem like a scene from a sci-fi movie, but Emma is a real high school student, in a real classroom. Participating in our recent study, she was able to gain valuable insight into the power of her brain.

High school students like Emma differ in their assumptions about the extent to which their abilities can change. Some are convinced that math ability, for example, is set in stone – these students have a ‘fixed mindset’. Others believe that with effort, it’s always possible to improve math ability – these students have a ‘growth mindset’. Students with a growth mindset are often – though not always – more resilient learners who are better able to deal with setbacks, invest more effort in learning, and ultimately achieve better school outcomes.

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Fostering a growth mindset

“Given the potential benefits of a growth mindset, there have been many attempts to develop interventions” that help students develop such a mindset. But the results so far have been disappointing. We wondered whether existing interventions have simply not been convincing enough to have the desired effect. In some studies, students have learned, theoretically, that stronger connections are formed between brain cells each time you practice or learn something new, and that abilities can be influenced and developed – but that information remained rather abstract.

“Students with a growth mindset are often – though not always – more resilient learners who are better able to deal with setbacks, invest more effort in learning, and ultimately achieve better school outcomes.”

To make this information less theoretical and more convincing at a practical level, we’ve been exploring ways to leverage the power of learning through experience. Students were fitted with a small electroencephalography (EEG) headset that picks up electrical brain activity. We then showed them their brain activity, displayed on a laptop screen in the form of a moving ball. The ball moved up when students were more focused and down when they were less focused. We asked the students to influence their brain activity – and thus to affect the ball’s movement – by focusing their attention. As they did so, they were able to experience the power of a growth mindset – the improvement that can be achieved with effort, by influencing their own brain activity. Directly influencing one’s own brain activity in this way is called ‘neurofeedback’. This neurofeedback experience was a lesson embedded in a growth-mindset intervention, which also included three theoretical lessons about the brain’s ability to change and learn.

Emma described her experience of neurofeedback like this: “At first I thought I wouldn’t be able to change anything, but now I’m convinced that I can influence my brain. Investing effort in learning and practising allows me to forge stronger connections among my brain cells.” Something significant happened to Emma’s belief system: She integrated what she had learned during the theoretical lessons with her experience in the neurofeedback lesson. Through synergy, theoretical and experiential learning about growth mindset amplified each other.

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Measuring brainwaves to understand how children learn

In total, 426 students aged 12 to 13 participated in our study. Half received our newly developed growth-mindset intervention; the other half received a control intervention in which they learned about the brain, but not specifically about how it learns. The results did not disappoint us. One year later, those who received the growth-mindset intervention not only reported a stronger growth mindset, but also achieved higher math grades. This effect was almost five times as large as the benefits observed in previous attempts to foster a growth mindset. Moreover, two years later, the students proved to be more resilient against school-related burnout symptoms during the COVID-19 pandemic. While these latter findings are still preliminary, we suspect this is because their growth mindset led them to employ more adaptive coping styles.

“Investing effort in learning and practising allows me to forge stronger connections among my brain cells.”

Emma, student

The results appear to confirm our hypothesis that growth-mindset interventions can be improved by providing convincing learning experiences. This opens up exciting new avenues to explore: We may further optimize the neurofeedback lesson; consider other ways to foster experiential learning, for example by using virtual reality; or find clever low-tech solutions to provide similar experiences. The goal is to make our intervention more accessible and scalable, in order to reach and help many more students like Emma.

Footnotes

This research was funded by the European Research Council (ERC), Starting Grant 716736 (BRAINBELIEFS).

During the neurofeedback experience, students engaged in several different exercises focusing on controlling their brain activity. In addition to moving the ball up and down, students completed a ‘brain cells’ exercise in which neuron connections on the screen sped up when students were more focused and slowed down when they were less focused.

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