Don’t Stop Believing: How our Beliefs influence our Learning

Do you think you are smart? What are the consequences of perceived notions of intelligence on education? Should learners feel like they can succeed before entering a classroom? Some of these questions are addressed in a joint study out of Columbia University and Stanford University “Why do beliefs about intelligence influence learning success? A social cognitive neuroscience model” written by Mangeles, Butterfield, Lamb, Good, and Dwek. This study takes a neurological approach while asking students their beliefs in regards to Theories of Intelligence (TOI). TOI represents the two perspectives that students can have on how they learn.

Half of the students in the study believe that their immediate success in learning a subject is what proves their understanding, while the other half view failure of a particular subject at the beginning as a temporary stop on the way to understanding. Students were asked, via a Likert scale, how they felt about the learning process. Utilizing the scale the researchers were able to divide the groups into the two different TOI perspectives. The two groups were divided by entity theorist (who believe intelligence is a fixed quantity) and incremental theorist (who believe intelligence as acquirable), and both were asked to take an exam. Students were given a multi-subject exam which asked questions from all of the major school subjects: Math, Science, English, History, and Arts. At the end of the test, negative and positive feedback were given out to students based on the questions they got wrong or right. Students then completed another exam with only the questions that they got wrong. Belief played a large role in whether the students did well on the second exam or not.

        “Most students aim to succeed on academic tests. Yet, there is increasing evidence that the likelihood of their success is influenced not only by actual ability, but also by the beliefs and goals that they bring to the achievement situation.” (Mangles, Butterfield, Lamb, Good, and Dwek 2006).

Not surprising to the researchers, the students whose TOI fits with the incremental theorist were able to perform much better on the second test then their entity theorist counterparts. The question then follows: how can we organize classes in such a way that both theories of intelligence are engaged in the course? Perhaps a blend of both failure and success might be the perfect formula to allow both groups to succeed. Learners must have belief in themselves that they will succeed in order to do so. We, as educators, have to figure out a way that we can nourish that development.

This concept of bolstering students belief in their success, should not be such a novel idea within education. In fact, our current grading/ranking system within schools stands at odds with what these researchers were able to discover. The students who put less stock in grades and rank, were more likely to have the self-confidence to succeed after failure. Education is filled with challenges and obstacles, and educators must consider who can benefit from a system that only rewards those who get it right the first time.



Mangels, Jennifer A. et al. “Why Do Beliefs about Intelligence Influence Learning Success? A Social Cognitive Neuroscience Model.” Social cognitive and affective neuroscience 1.2 (2006): 75–86. PMC. Web. 7 Mar. 2017.

Valentine [Sky] rocked the FIU Online Instructional Designer "hat" for over 10 years. Her areas of expertise included social media, user interface design & game design thinking, Quality Matters, and the Canvas LMS. Since 2019, she was an Instructure/Canvas Advocate. Additionally, Valentine provided her HigherEd expertise as a Canvas Certified Educator program course facilitator. She was also an Adjunct Instructor with FIU's Marketing and Logistics department.