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One Simple Lesson, a Scientific Study and Life-Changing Results

By Dave Stuart Jr.

I want to share with you the most exciting thing I read all summer: it’s a study by David Yeager and Adriana Miu. In less than 1,000 words, I’ll lay it out briefly and then explain why I think it basically proves that our most idealistic conceptions of teaching — that it is magical, that it makes a difference, that it creates change that ripples on for centuries — are actually quite reasonable.

The study

600 freshmen students from three different high schools were given a short reading and writing exercise in September of their 9th grade year. They were randomly assigned to an intervention group (Group A) or a control group (Group B), without knowing which group they were in. [1]

From a press release about the study:

Students assigned to [Group A] read a passage describing how individuals’ personalities are subject to change. The passage emphasized that being bullied is not the result of a fixed, personal deficiency, nor are bullies essentially “bad” people. An article about brain plasticity and endorsements from older students accompanied the passage. After reading the materials, the students were asked to write their own narrative about how personalities can change, to be shared with future ninth graders.

Students in [Group B] read a passage that focused on the malleability of a trait not related to personality: athletic ability.

In other words, kids read a passage, an article, and some words from older students, and then they wrote a narrative summarizing what they had learned. In one case, the readings were about how personality can change and social exclusion isn’t permanent; in the other, the readings were about how athletic ability can change.

It took a class period.

Post Image- Yeager PostThe results

From the press release (emphasis mine):

A follow-up 9 months later in May showed that rates of clinically significant depressive symptoms rose by roughly 39% among students in [Group B], in line with previous research on depression in adolescence. [In other words, Group B’s activity neither harmed nor benefited the students.]

Students [in Group A] who learned about the malleability of personality, on the other hand, showed no such increase in depressive symptoms, even if they were bullied. The data revealed that the intervention specifically affected depressive symptoms of negative mood, feelings of ineffectiveness, and low self-esteem.

Okay, stop. Pause. If you are not completely blown away by this, read it again. This, to me, proves the power of teaching.

Why this encourages me so much

Here are the three things that blow my mind, purely from a teacher standpoint:

  • A short, simple activity yielded widespread, long-term results. A single reading and writing activity in a single class period decreased the onset of depression in the freshman year by nearly 40%. And this decrease was measured 9 months later. 
  • These results are potential life changers. The freshman year of high school is pivotal. When students live beneath clouds of “negative mood, feelings of ineffectiveness, and low self-esteem,” they are less likely to succeed in their classes. As studies of Chicago and New York City dropout rates have shown, “success in high school coursework is directly tied to eventual graduation,” and that success is largely determined in the freshman year. [2] While graduation is no guarantee of a great life, not graduating is a strong guarantee of a hard one.
  • Which means that every one of our lessons has the potential to affect long-term flourishing in a significant way.

This has ramifications across my whole life:

  • What I need much more than information is wisdom. Miu and Yeager weren’t swinging in the dark — they identified a problem (onset of depressive symptoms in the freshman year), brought a theory to bear on the problem (the incremental theory of personality), and they designed an absurdly simple intervention for introducing the theory to students. Just knowing about all those problems wasn’t enough; they needed wisdom in order to connect the dots and put the intervention together.
  • Simplicity and trust trump complexity and control. Miu and Yeager’s intervention was a reading and writing activity — I’m not even sure a teacher was involved. I know that they didn’t train teachers on how to reinforce the messages of the text; kids didn’t do an elaborate project. They simply trusted that fourteen year olds could make sense of the information through reading and writing.
  • On a much smaller, non-empirical scale, this study suggests that every one of our interactions with other people — our students, our spouses, our children, our friends — has great potential. Again, this means we need wisdom — because it’s wisdom that enables us to speak the right words at the opportune moment. Information just can’t do that.

My goodness. I’m so glad to share this with you. I do hope I did the study justice. Have a great weekend.

Footnotes:

  1. Here is the study’s abstract. Here is an NPR story on the Miu & Yeager study. Here is a press release regarding the study.
  2. Here is the Chicago report.

Thank you to David Yeager and Adriana Miu for the inspiration for today’s post.

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18 Responses to One Simple Lesson, a Scientific Study and Life-Changing Results

  1. Cecilia Lynch August 28, 2015 at 8:29 am #

    Dave,
    I want the article. I teach in a large psychiatric hospital with a revolving door. I would love to teach this lesson every eight weeks. I quickly looked at the links and couldn’t find the exact article that the students read and responded to.
    Thanks,
    Cecilia

    • davestuartjr August 28, 2015 at 8:32 am #

      Hi Cecilia,
      You’re going to have to try to figure out how to contact David Yeager or Adriana Miu — I don’t have their contact information, else I definitely would have tried!

    • Elizabeth August 28, 2015 at 9:51 am #

      If you look at the links to the abstract, Yeager’s email address is there.

    • Colleen August 29, 2015 at 1:20 pm #

      If you click on David Yeager’s name in Dave Stuart’s blog post, it will take you to David Yeager’s page.
      On the left, you’ll see publications and clincking on Publication will take you to his publications where can find the study.

      • davestuartjr August 30, 2015 at 8:05 am #

        Dr. Yeager responded and said that his team is working to get the “Group A” intervention into a shareable format. Stay tuned!

        • Beth September 2, 2015 at 1:27 pm #

          Thanks for contacting him! I would like to see it too! (Sounds like it might make a great Article of the Week!) 🙂

        • Renee September 10, 2015 at 9:53 pm #

          When you hear back from Dr. Yeager will you post the info here in the comments, or will you include it in a new blog post? I keep returning to this post, eager to learn more about his intervention article. Thank you for sharing this info with us!

  2. kad4 August 28, 2015 at 8:40 am #

    Thank you for sharing this – intriguing! I look forward to reading more about this.

  3. Jenn B. August 28, 2015 at 9:04 am #

    Dave, thank for the encouragement! Keep it coming!
    Along the lines of one simple thing, you might like this:
    https://www.ted.com/talks/amy_cuddy_your_body_language_shapes_who_you_are
    This Ted Talk goes along with what you are doing with mindset. I actually tried this out with a class the other day before taking a test. Still awaiting the results. My favorite line: “Don’t fake it until you make it; Fake it until you become it.”

  4. Alicyn G August 28, 2015 at 11:09 am #

    Hope springs eternal…thank you for reinforcing this much needed concept in today’s world, particularly as we prepare to return to school! As a therapist working at the HS level, I am cognizant each day of the increasing percentage of students with depression and anxiety.

  5. Jessica Morrish August 28, 2015 at 5:27 pm #

    If you can find the article, would you please post it somewhere? I would love to use it for my health class.

  6. Brenda Burgar August 31, 2015 at 1:38 pm #

    Dave,
    I loved the Ted Talk! I’m using it with my 9th graders, but my seniors were absolutely riveted by it. Many of them have already faced job interviews and more will face them in the future. They are all going to try the 2 minute pose before they have to give their next in-class oral presentation. Thank you so much for this.

  7. annette gromala April 24, 2016 at 7:16 pm #

    Have there been any updates on getting a copy of the article?

    • davestuartjr June 1, 2016 at 3:43 pm #

      None, Annette! I’m thinking about just making one for the 2016-2017 school year.

      • Melanie Laete August 7, 2016 at 4:20 pm #

        Sorry to pester you about this topic, but have you been able to get a copy of the article yet? 🙂 Thanks – I love your blog!

        • davestuartjr August 8, 2016 at 4:33 pm #

          Sadly no, Melanie! 🙁 Thank you for your kind words though!

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