The Mindsets That Foster “Productive Persistence” In Students

In this briefing paper prepared for the Noyce Foundation, Nancy Stano (University of Texas/Austin) summarizes seven promising interventions that build motivation and “productive persistence” in students (a term coined by Uri Treisman to describe the interplay between motivation and engagement). The promise of these interventions, says Stano, is that they “help students rewrite their personal academic identity narratives, altering their academic mindsets – the beliefs, attitudes, and ways of perceiving themselves as students and their learning environment. Combining these positive academic mindsets and necessary academic skills, students are then able to look beyond short-term concerns to longer-term or higher-order goals and are equipped to withstand challenges and setbacks as they persevere toward these goals.” Here is Stano’s list:

Theory of intelligence – A belief in the malleability of their intelligence, that intelligence develops in part through strategic effort, leads students to a “growth” rather than a “fixed” mindset. Students with a growth mindset attend class more often, complete more challenging classroom activities, persist and ask for help when they encounter roadblocks to learning, and earn higher grades. 

Self-efficacy – Confidence in their ability to be successful at a given task influences how students think and behave. “Regardless of what may be objectively true about their capabilities,” says Stano, “students’ subjective beliefs about their abilities guide the choices they make, the effort they put forth, and the persistence and perseverance they display in the face of difficulties.” The three main sources of self-efficacy are: (a) mastery experiences that the student has had; (b) witnessing mastery performance in others of similar ability; and 

(c) social persuasion from peers, teachers, and parents. 

Attributions – The reasons students give for their successes and failures fall on several continua: internal/external, controllable/uncontrollable, and stable/unstable. “Productively persistent students make internal, controllable attributions for their successes and failures,” says Stano, “citing something from within to explain the outcome.”

Belongingness – “When students believe that they are part of the academic community and are socially connected to their peers and teachers, they are more motivated, more engaged, and earn better grades,” says Stano. “These strong ties increase productive persistence behaviors and can even help to ameliorate the effects negative stereotypes could have on a student’s identity.”

Value and interest – “If being successful in a particular task is not valuable or of interest to the student,” says Stano, “the student is unlikely to put forth effort and persist when faced with a setback.” Being given too many choices in the classroom can also confuse students and undermine effort and intrinsic motivation.

Goals – These are most helpful when students set their own targets, the goals are challenging yet attainable, and steppingstone goals are clear. “Students need to believe that the future self represented is possible,” says Stano, “that ‘people like me’ can have this outcome.” 

Self-regulation – This consists of “the purposeful behaviors, cognitions, and motivational practices students employ as they strive to attain their learning goals,” says Stano. “These skills allow students to avoid distractions, stay on task, and navigate obstacles that may arise on their academic achievement path.” The key phases are forethought, performance, and self-reflection.

These interventions have a major effect on student achievement, says Stano, when the following conditions exist:

  • The interventions target students’ subjective experiences in school. The key is getting students to believe that their efforts will pay off, that they belong in a classroom community, and that the work is relevant to their lives.
  • The interventions are subtle and indirect. “Direct instruction on these topics could lead students to develop a negative, deficit way of thinking about their capabilities,” says Stano. “Rather, these interventions are indirect and have even been referred to as ‘stealthy’ because participants are often unaware of how their own thought processes are altered as a result of their participation.” 
  • The interventions initiate self-reinforcing processes. The interventions must short-circuit negative thoughts and start a “virtuous cycle” of positive performance and attributions. 
  • The interventions are well-timed. “Students are especially vulnerable to forming negative mindsets and exhibiting poor academic behaviors during periods of transition to new academic environments,” says Stano – for example, entering high school or college. “During transition periods, students must navigate not only the changing context of school… but they also struggle in defining their beliefs about themselves as learners as curriculum changes and performance expectations increase.” 

Stano mentions three programs that promote these productive mindsets:

  • Academic Youth Development (AYD): A collaboration between the Charles E. Dana Center and Agile Mind
  • Malleability of Intelligence Empirical Research
  • AfterSchool KidzLit

“Math and Science Engagement: Identifying the Processes and Psychological Theories That Underlie Successful Social-Psychological Interventions” by Nancy Stano, The Noyce Foundation, June 2012; Stano can be reached at

From the Marshall Memo #470

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