Psychologically wise interventions for improving education in Singapore

By making their subjective interpretations (mindsets) more adaptive, psychologically wise interventions improve how students repond to the challenges of education, often leading to deeper learning, greater confidence and better academic trajectories

| By Assistant Professor Patricia Chen | 

A new wave of interventions to improve education is upon us. These 'psychologically wise' interventions from social psychology have been gaining prominence across scientific communities, educators and the mass media worldwide. Unlike most traditional educational interventions, these focus on psychological factors that occur within individuals, and tend to be relatively brief in duration and conveniently scalable.

One example of such interventions is the 'growth mindset' established by Professor Carol Dweck at Stanford University. This is the belief that intelligence is malleable, and that it can be developed over time through hard work and effective strategies. Growth mindset interventions have been incredibly effective at changing beliefs and raising academic achievement; especially so in light of the brevity and cost-effectiveness of these interventions. Today, governments, private organisations and even parents want to know how to cultivate a growth mindset.

What characterises these psychologically wise interventions is their high degree of precision in identifying and addressing the psychological roots of problems — even problems as large as racial achievement gaps in education. Take, for example, the “social belonging” intervention led by Professor Gregory Walton at Stanford University that was published in the leading journal Science. An hour-long intervention session at the beginning of university, which addressed disadvantaged minority students’ doubts about fitting into university, put these students on more positive academic trajectories throughout their undergraduate careers, relative to peers who did not receive the intervention. This intervention, albeit brief, essentially halved the achievement gap between these disadvantaged minority students and their more advantaged peer groups by the end of college, three years later.

What these interventions effectively change is to turn maladaptive thoughts into more adaptive ones. Put yourself in the shoes of a young student. Imagine that you receive an essay back from your teacher and your paper is covered in red markings. What would you think and how would you feel? Some students tend to think, “I'm a lousy writer. My teacher must think I’m really bad,” or, “That teacher just doesn’t like me.” In other words, they see their teacher’s feedback as criticisms about their ability or indications that the teacher does not think they are good. Not surprisingly, these students do not tend to feel motivated to invest time and effort into getting better. This type of thinking is not uncommon among students, even though, when offering feedback, their teachers have their best interests at heart, and want them to improve.

Imagine instead that you see a handwritten message from your teacher clipped to the top of your red-inked essay, which reads: "I'm giving you these comments because I have high standards and I know that you can meet them.” Now, what would your reaction be? Many students who received this ‘wise feedback’ intervention, developed by Professor Geoffrey Cohen at Stanford University, interpreted their teachers’ feedback in a more positive light — they saw the feedback as an affirmation (rather than a criticism). These students were, in turn, more likely to revise their essays incorporating their teacher’s feedback, and to submit final essays of a higher quality.

By changing students’ subjective interpretations in more adaptive ways, psychologically wise interventions enable them to respond to the challenges of learning in more effective ways — including greater persistence, investing in building better relationships with their teachers and peers, and using better learning strategies. In turn, these effective behaviours can often lead to deeper learning, greater confidence, better relationships, and higher performance in school — putting students on more positive academic trajectories in the long run.

When people first hear about these interventions, they may think, “These must be magic,” or, “This is all just common sense.” Psychologically wise interventions are neither. Instead, they are immensely precise techniques that identify and alter the root of the psychology of students, which otherwise poses a barrier to their learning and performance.

Social psychologists specifically target the psychological issues that students face — such as how they interpret critical feedback from teachers, or how they make sense of a bad grade on an exam — and then design precise interventions to address these issues. Like medicine, social psychologists apply the same scientific rigour to developing interventions. They start with a deep theoretical understanding of the psychological root of the problem, refine and pilot test intervention designs, and test the efficacy of the interventions on people using gold standard double-blind, randomised, controlled trials. This creates an evidence-based understanding of the psychological problem at hand, and how and why an intervention works (or does not). This is crucial, as it is impossible to know what interventions are truly effective without scientific testing.

For us in Singapore, we should consider, what would it mean to adopt this scientific approach as a society. The most important ingredients are (a) an open mindset towards experimenting on different learning approaches and pedagogies, and (b) strong support of this research from the ministry, schools, teachers and parents.

I believe that Singapore is ready for the application of psychological science to improve education. At NUS, I lead a team of passionate psychologists who believe that improving learning can be done in a scientifically rigorous and psychologically precise manner. With support from NUS leadership and the National Research Foundation, we look forward to the many exciting things that we can accomplish in the years ahead.


About the author

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Dr Patricia Chen is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Psychology, NUS Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences. She is also a Research Theme Lead at the NUS Institute for Application of Learning Science and Educational Technology (ALSET). She is a recipient of the 2019 National Research Foundation Fellowship.