Study: High School Stress Often Hinges On How A Student Views Intelligence

AUSTIN, Texas — It’s very common for students’ grades to experience a decline upon entering high school, at least initially. Different adolescents deal with the newfound pressures differently, and while some tend to rise to the challenge, others can become overwhelmed by stress. An interesting study conducted at The University of Texas has found that students’ views on learning and intelligence can make all the difference when it comes to fighting academic stress.

Let’s face it: school is stressful. While most of us tend to look back at our academic days through nostalgic sunglasses, the academic trials and tribulations that high school students face on a daily basis can be a lot to deal with. High school students especially are constantly reminded that their grades today will determine their success in the future.

The research team set out to learn why some students overcame the stressful transition into high school and some struggled to maintain their academic skills and standards. Their findings pointed to a direct relationship between a student’s learning mindset and their stress resilience, especially when grades begin to decline. More specifically, students’ learning mindsets were defined as whether they considered intelligence a fixed trait that everyone is born with, or a constantly growing attribute that can be improved and nurtured over time.

In all, 499 ninth-graders from two public high schools in Texas were surveyed during their first semester. Researchers assessed each student’s perceptions of intelligence, and asked each participant to fill out daily surveys on their academic stress levels. Cortisol, a hormone secreted by the body while under stress, was also measured using daily saliva samples.

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The results showed that 68% of students saw a decline in their grades during the first 12 weeks of high school. Those worsening grades, however, didn’t cause a higher stress response for everyone.

Worsening grades only caused greater stress responses in students who showed signs of a fixed intelligence mindset, or the idea that everyone’s raw intelligence is fixed as the brain develops and cannot change once set. Stressed out students with this fixed mindset indicated on daily surveys that they couldn’t handle the amount of stress they were experiencing on a daily basis.

Even if their grades were only marginally worse or generally acceptable, these students still reported feeling “dumb” on 31% of their school days.

“Declining grades may get ‘under the skin,’ as it were, for first-year high school students who believe intelligence is a fixed trait,” explains lead author Hae Yeon Lee, a UT Austin psychology graduate student, in a university release. “But believing, instead, that intelligence can be developed — or having what is called a growth mindset — may buffer the effects of academic stress.”

Additionally, students with a fixed-learning mindset tended to stay stressed out over academic events for days on end, while students with a growth mindset were able to bounce back much more quickly. Researchers theorize this is because growth-oriented students are more proactive in solving academic issues, for example, by clarifying lessons with teachers after class if they didn’t understand a particular topic.

The study is published in the scientific journal Child Development.

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