Growth mindset study seeks to expand to area high schools

By Will Ferguson, College of Arts & Sciences

Ehrlinger-80PULLMAN, Wash. – Believing in your ability to learn can make you smarter. This is the idea Joyce Ehrlinger, assistant professor of psychology at Washington State University, is bringing to high school classrooms in the Inland Northwest.

For the last year, Ehrlinger and a team of researchers have worked with math students at Pullman and Moscow high schools to develop a growth mindset, the belief that the ability to learn is not fixed by your IQ but can be developed through dedication and hard work. She is currently looking to expand the study to high schools in Spokane, the Tri-Cities and elsewhere in the region.

Teachers interested in participating in the study, supported by a $1.6 million grant from the federal Institute for Education Sciences, may contact Ehrlinger via email at or by phone at 509-335-0680.

Specific help to improve

“Say you fail a math test. For someone who thinks math is an ability you either have or don’t have, this negative feedback makes them pull away from math completely,” Ehrlinger said. “For someone with a growth mindset, failing a test is not a complete overarching statement about them as a person and their abilities; rather, it gives them specific information about where they can improve.”

Ehrlinger’s post-doctoral work with Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck provided conclusive evidence a growth mindset ultimately leads to higher grades, higher SAT scores and greater confidence to tackle difficult subjects. However, psychologists do not have a strong understanding of why or how the growth mindset helps overall performance.

Ehrlinger’s hope is to fix this with her current study.

Choosing challenges to grow

She and her research team visit math classes and provide students with an assessment to determine their feelings about their own intelligence. Then, as students progress through a regular lesson plan, they are given the opportunity to review additional material, self-quiz or not study at all.

A week or so later, students are given an intuitive presentation that explains how strengthening neuronal connections in the brain through hard work and practice will help them grow smarter.

“We predict students with a growth mindset would be more likely to pick self-quizzing and more challenging forms of studying,” said Shane Bench, a post-doctoral researcher working for Ehrlinger.

“If you keep doing simple addition over and over again it is not making you any better at math,” he said. “Normally you have to try something that is a bit tough for you. When you do that, it leads to these stronger connections and ultimately will open up a lot of doors.”

Read an earlier article about Ehrlinger’s work at


Joyce Ehrlinger, WSU psychology department,, 509-335-9127