Can we raise college completion rates by dispelling a myth?

Sixty percent of students in 2-year colleges are required to take remedial math courses. Of these students, over 75% drop or fail the courses. What’s happening? Are the courses simply too challenging? Or is there something else going on behind the scenes?

Many of these students believe they are, “just not a math person.” Students who believe this are less likely to pass required math classes and are, therefore, less likely to graduate from college — even compared with other students who have the same initial skill levels.

Are these students right to think that academic success is simply beyond their reach?

A growing body of research suggests not. In fact, the very belief that one isn’t a “math person” or “isn’t smart” might actually be a self-fulfilling prophecy that undercuts academic success. This is important for two reasons:

First, the myth that math ability is fixed and that some people “have it” while others don’t appears to be widespread among community college students and could therefore play a systemic role in the nation’s abysmal 3-year completion rate for 2-year degrees (it is 22%). Perhaps unsurprisingly, students who hold this belief tend to focus on looking smart over learning, give up when challenged, and interpret effort as a sign that they aren’t smart enough.

Second, research shows that dispelling the fixed ability myth can have a transformative effect on students who spent years thinking that they were “just dumb” and that their academic aspirations were forever out of reach. After learning that she could fundamentally improve her math abilities, a student in one our studies said:

“I have spent many nights hunched over at my desk at 2 in the morning calling myself dumb because I cannot get the right answer on a math problem. But one day I realized, I’m not dumb. Learning just takes work.”

In this research, conducted by PERTS and by other leaders in the field, researchers explain that:

  1. The human brain is actually quite malleable, which means that,
  2. People can become smarter and more capable by learning effective study strategies, studying sufficiently, and seeking out help when they need it.

We call this belief that abilities are malleable a growth mindset. This can fundamentally change how students think about their struggles. Struggles that used to mean, “I’m dumb,” start to mean, “I’m learning.” The visit to the tutoring center that would have previously been an admission of incompetence becomes an empowering act of ownership over one’s own intellectual growth. In a number of rigorous randomized controlled studies, our lab and others in the research community have seen these messages change students’ thinking about their abilities and propel them to greater academic success, including higher rates of STEM course completion in community college.

Now we need to find out how this powerful message can be delivered effectively to community college students nationwide to unburden them from the debilitating belief that academic success is simply beyond their reach. To do so, we are seeking to partner with community colleges nationwide to implement a brief growth mindset program for students. The program takes a total of 60-minutes spread out over two online sessions, and is made up of survey questions, brief passages of reading and writing, and student stories. Join us in improving community college education nationwide!

**To learn more about participating in the program evaluation, visit www.perts.net/college-perspectives.**


PERTS is an applied research center at Stanford University. We partner with schools, colleges, and other organizations to improve student motivation and achievement on a large scale.

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