Intelligence beliefs can affect grades

By Kelly Fugo

Students at the University are preparing for final exams, and they have different beliefs about whether their efforts will lead to good grades on their exams.

Achievement outcomes are dependent on effort, said Chi-Yue Chiu, a University professor in the psychology department’s social-personality division.

Chiu and his colleagues study undergraduate students to link belief systems with goals and achievement. Students, he said, have different beliefs about whether achievement outcomes are fixed or malleable. Different beliefs can affect students’ motivation to take corrective measures after failure of an exam, Chiu said.

Anup Patel, senior in LAS, said that his fate is sealed when it comes to his biochemistry test.

Patel studied for his biochemistry final for three days, but said the outcome will probably not be altered by his effort.

“It’s an absurdly hard test,” he said.

Karen Van Hoosier, sophomore in LAS, is more optimistic that the hours spent studying for her organic chemistry test will lead to a good grade.

“I feel like I’m really prepared,” she said. “Hopefully, studying will pay off because it’s a really difficult class.”

Chiu also studies how students explain positive or negative outcomes on a particular exam. Some students would explain their success or failure in terms of their own fixed abilities, and some would explain in terms of more malleable processes like effort, Chiu said.

“I try to understand how people explain and how the explanations affect their motivation and future performance,” Chiu said.

Chiu and his colleagues published findings on belief systems and motivation in 1999 in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. In this study, Chiu and his colleagues examined the effects of intelligence beliefs on motivation to seek help after failure.

Participants in the study were asked to read articles stating that either intelligence is fixed as a product of genes of an individual, or intelligence is malleable and can change with effort.

Then participants were given a conceptual ability test with challenging questions and very limited time. After receiving low grades on the exam, students were offered more practice problems as a way to improve their performances.

Reading the fabricated intelligence articles made the participants feel a certain way about their test performances. Those who read that intelligence is malleable were more likely to engage in remedial effort after poor performance on an exam compared to those who read that intelligence is fixed.

Participants were debriefed after the study so they would not leave with either of the extreme views of intelligence, Chiu said.

Beliefs about the malleability of intelligence are likely to be shaped, in part, by the feedback teachers give to students about their performance in school, Chiu said. Praising a student’s innate abilities will enhance their confidence level at that time but later, in the face of failure, the student will conclude that he/she is not able to do the task, he said.

Instead of focusing on the student’s innate ability, teachers should focus on the performance as it relates to effort, Chiu said.

“And then the student understands that whether or not he or she can solve a particular problem depends not on innate ability, but finding the right strategy to solve the problem,” he said.

John Powell, a clinical counselor with the Counseling Center, has worked with University students for 22 years. He has observed that younger students sometimes are not prepared for the discipline required for studying for college exams.

“Effort is the one thing that students are in control of,” Powell said. “They can’t control the outcome. They can only control the effort. But if they don’t see their efforts as being linked to outcome, then that’s going to be harder for them.”

One of Powell’s duties as a counselor is to help students become more successful academically. When students repeatedly try and fail, Powell asks them about their past successes that were linked with effort. Often, students refer to playing a sport or musical instrument. Success in these two areas is very much related to effort, Powell said, because they both take repeated practice.

Too much effort and stress can lead to diminished performance so students should step back from studying to take a break, he said.

“It’s a real different mindset for the student who says, ‘I can’t get this,’ as opposed to the student who says, ‘I haven’t gotten this yet,'” Powell said.