January 2015

Students Sacrifice Wellbeing for Academics

Students Sacrifice Wellbeing for Academics

January 29th 2015, Written by Jahla Seppanen

In today’s education landscape, teenagers are asked to go above and beyond. The pursuit of excellence, however, can generate unhealthy perfectionism among students. The Indigo Education Company, as well as the Future Business Leaders of America (FBLA), believe that non-academic education is key to promoting both emotional health and academic achievement.

According to the 2014 annual survey by the American Psychology Association, teenage stress levels are far above those of working adults. Students express pressure to perform without flaw: to be the best in their classes, to win academic awards, and to take on extra-curricular activities by the handful. At this week’s Colorado Leadership Conference, Sheri Smith of the Indigo Education Company encouraged students to balance their personal dreams with external pressures.

Smith asked a room of over one hundred teenagers participating in FBLA, “How many of you have heard this before? ‘I think you should do this – you should go to this college, get these grades, and pursue this career.’” Every teenager in the room raised a hand.

“A should,” Smith explained to FBLA students, “is very different from a want.” Smith urged students to reconnect with their internal desires.

Smith asked FBLA students to share their personal desires by anonymously texting Smith’s cell phone. A stream of responses poured in: I want to be an aerospace engineer; I want to own my own business; I want to go to college out of state; I want to be happy, to be a mother, to love myself. The list of wants consisted of academic and career goals as well as hopes for personal wellbeing.

Smith believes that students have internalized perfectionist expectations and, in the process, have forgotten how to be happy.  “Learning to listen to your heart is a skill,” Smith said.

Developing non-academic skills, such as Confidence, Creativity, and Personal Effectiveness, can play a major role in balancing academic stressors. The Indigo Education Company and the FBLA both work to incorporate non-academic competencies into current education systems, enabling students to manage the stress associated with college applications and difficult homework.

A group of three students attending Smith’s talk explained that FBLA has given them the confidence to pursue their “wants” instead of their “shoulds.”

These girls are learning to reconnect with their individual goals, both academic and personal. “I’m the quiet type,” high school senior, Kailey, said. “[FBLA] helped me with Leadership, because I want to be in a position of influence and respect.”

Classmate Brianna said, “I’m very anti-social, and it’s given me experience in being social. [FBLA] built my confidence. School can feel like a popularity race, but now I feel like I should just be myself.”

Non-academic instruction can happen at school and in the home. Smith proposes an exercise for parents, which will help their students focus on the trajectory of their schooling while make the teenager feel acknowledged and listened to:

Ask your student what their “shoulds” are. Listen, but do not respond. Then ask the student to name their “wants.” What should result is a clear and honest look at the expectations your student is carrying, and the true passion they hope to develop through their education and career. Try helping your student develop a healthy notion of hard work that acknowledges their intrinsic brilliance.

Resource cited: http://www.nbcnews.com/health/kids-health/teens-more-stressed-out-adults-survey-shows-n26921

Future Business Leaders of America (FBLA) is a non-profit education association servicing over a quarter million students with career skills that will prepare them for the business world. FBLA goals include, developing competent, aggressive business leadership, strengthening the confidence of students in themselves and their work, and creating more interest in and understanding of American business enterprise.

New Motivator Research: Aesthetics Matter for High School Students

New Motivator Research: Aesthetics Matter for High School Students

March 14th 2015, Written by Marie Campbell

Indigo recently administered the Indigo Assessment to students at two high schools, one a suburban charter school and the other an inner-city charter school in Denver. While these controlled groups cannot be considered indicative of all high schools across the nation—at least until further research is performed—initial findings reveal unusually high levels of the Aesthetic motivator among the two student bodies.

The Indigo Assessment measures motivators as described in the work of Drs. Eduard Spranger and Gordon Allport in their study of human value, motivation, and drive. In short, motivators describe why people do things: the internal desires that drive behavior. For example, the Aesthetic motivator indicates a desire for harmony and beauty, whereas the Theoretical motivator describes those who learn for the sake of knowledge. Other motivators include Utilitarian (those motivated by tangible results and productivity), Social (desire to help others), Individualistic (power, leadership, self-advancement), and Traditional (motivated by beliefs or value systems).

According to Indigo’s initial findings, both schools rank unusually high in Aesthetic compared to the national mean. See the results from one school below. (Difference between high schoolers and adults reaches almost two full standard deviations.)

While these findings are, as yet, too limited to warrant sweeping assertions, one possible conclusion is that high school students respond to aesthetics more strongly than adults. If this is the case, courses in music, the arts, and environmental awareness become integral for student success.

Indigo has already seen positive results from this data, proving that simple interventions based on motivational clues can result in rapid student progress. For example, one sophomore earning a failing grade in math ranked unusually high in the Aesthetic motivator. Noting her passion for aesthetics, a guidance counselor asked how the class environment might be affecting her ability to learn.  She quickly blurted out that the room was a disaster; as soon as she entered the classroom, she couldn’t think.  The guidance counselor asked the teacher to clean up the room, and immediately this young woman’s grades went up.

Results like this reveal just how important it is for educators to understand what truly motivates students—those internal desires that drive students to learn. Indigo looks forward to expanding research in this area.

New Research Spots Critical Resiliency Gap Among Low-Income Students

New Research Spots Critical Gap Among Low-Income Students

January 28th 2015, Written by Marie Campbell

Today’s educators are beginning to understand that student success—that is, the kind of success that carries into all of adult life—has less to do with skills in vocabulary, mathematics, or the sciences, and more to do with basic, personal skills such as emotional control and the ability to plan for the future. As Paul Tough, author of How Children Succeed (2012), declares in an interview, “We don’t teach the most important skills”—skills like “persistence, self-control, curiosity, conscientiousness, grit and self-confidence” (qtd. Vander Ark). These non-academic competencies enable students to one day apply for and hold jobs, foster healthy relationships, and participate in politics. Here at Indigo, we call these competencies “21st century skills,” and we believe they affect every area of students’ lives, both academic and personal. It is lack of these skills, more than any other factor, that creates a false divide between low- and high-income students.

Indigo is continually seeking solutions to income disparity in secondary and post-secondary education. It is our hope that through the use of non-academic data, we will enable educators to close the rich/poor gap currently affecting college attendance and completion rates. In pursuit of this goal, Indigo researchers recently administered the Indigo Assessment to two high schools, one a suburban charter school and the other an inner-city charter school in Denver.

While these controlled groups cannot be considered indicative of all high schools across the nation—at least until further research is performed—initial findings suggest an extreme disparity between low- and high-income students when it comes to non-academic skills.

As seen in the chart below, areas of weakness for low-income students include Persuasion, Problem Solving, Self-Management, and Creativity—all basic skills necessary for academic success. In these areas, suburban students score almost a full standard deviation ahead of their inner-city peers.

Resiliency represents another area of concern for inner-city students. As the following chart displays, inner-city students fall two full standard deviations below national average. While adults score an average of 7.2 for Resiliency, inner-city students score only 5.3.

In fact, both high schools rank significantly lower than the national (adult) average, suggesting that high school students may have a harder time recovering from adversity than adults. (Please note: This claim requires more research to become verifiable.)

Resiliency has long been on the educational radar as a critical skill for student success. Bonnie Benard, in a 1995 edition of the ERIC Digest, defines resiliency as the internal property “by which we are able to develop social competence, problem-solving skills, a critical consciousness, autonomy, and a sense of purpose.” Benard argues that healthy school environments can contribute powerfully to the development of student resiliency, encouraging schools to “establish high expectations for all youth” and foster caring student-teacher relationships. Indigo’s findings fully support these long-established claims while highlighting one vital element: the acute lack of Resiliency among underprivileged students.

While specific curriculum interventions have not yet been developed for increasing scores in non-academic competencies, Indigo does see a correlation between student success and the ability of educators to focus on students’ strengths.  For example, eight high-school students in a pilot program went from 30 failing grades to 3 in just ten weeks—all from simple, weekly lunch meetings.  These students took the Indigo Assessment during the first lunch meeting; in the second meeting, Indigo staff explained their reports.  The remaining 8 sessions used a group-discussion forum to highlight specific strengths for each student, never once mentioning students’ weaknesses or attempting remediation. At the end of this 10-week period, all of the students’ grades had gone up.

According to a recent New York Times article, this type of intervention is also seeing positive results among first-generation college students at University of Texas Austin.  Chemistry professor David Laude found that many of his low-performing students—students with scores of D or F—came from low-income families (Tough, “Who Gets to Graduate?”). Laude believed these students were capable of success; they simply lacked self-confidence. He therefore formed smaller class sections for low-performing students, hoping to foster a sense of belonging and battle self-doubt. Laude soon saw low-income students rise to the level of their high-income peers (Tough). Thanks to Laude, U.T. has developed a scholarship program called Dashboard. The central strategy: “Select the students who are least likely to do well, but in all your communications with them, convey the idea that you . . . are confident they can succeed” (Tough). Through group discussions, lectures, and community service projects (Tough), Dashboard sees low-performing students become confident, successful student leaders.

Indigo hopes to continue working with the inner-city school measured above, developing new curricula to foster critical 21st century skills.

Works Cited

Benard, Bonnie. “Fostering Resilience in Children.” ERIC Digest (Aug. 1995): n. pag. Web. 21

Oct. 2014.

Tough, Paul. “Who Gets to Graduate?” The New York Times. N.p., 15 May 2014. Web. 12 Nov.


Vander Ark, Tom. “How Children Succeed: Attachment, Advisory & Adversity.” Getting

Smart. N.p., 27 Sept. 2012. Web. 15 Oct. 2014.

New DISC Research: Need for more Inclusive Honors Section?

New DISC Research: Need for more Inclusive Honors Section?

January 28th 2015, Written by Nathan Robertson

Indigo’s primary goal is to improve secondary and post-secondary education through the integration of non-academic data with pre-existing curricula. In pursuit of this goal, Indigo is conducting ongoing research regarding the effects of Behavioral Styles on students’ academic experience.

By assessing students at two high schools, one a suburban charter school and the other an inner-city school in Denver, Indigo recently discovered that students’ individual behavioral styles may affect their likelihood to be placed in advanced or Honors classes.

The Indigo Assessment measures Behaviors according to the DISC system, a tool that divides behavior into four basic styles: Dominance, Influencing, Steadiness, and Compliance. Students’ DISC scores indicate their natural responses to everyday circumstances; for example, someone with a high D score (“Dominance”) tends to be direct, forceful, and bold, whereas a high S score (“Steadiness”) indicates a calm, patient temperament. Indigo has discovered no significant differences in DISC scores when it comes to students’ race or income. However, significant disparity appears between Honors students and their peers in standard course sections.

As the following chart displays, standard students are more likely to display Influencing behaviors (enthusiasm and optimism), whereas Honors students score a full standard deviation higher in Compliance, indicating a tendency to follow established procedures.

The fact that Honors students tend to be rule-followers will not necessarily startle educators; however, these results could indicate a need for strategic shifts in the structure of Honors sections. For instance, since high Influencers (a large portion of non-honors students) tend to be sociable and people-oriented, integrating discussion-based classes into Honors sections could create an environment inclusive of a broader range of behavioral styles.

Because behavioral styles do not correlate with intelligence levels, it is entirely possible that many intelligent students are kept out of Honors sections merely because their learning styles do not match up with current class structures. By making an effort to appeal to all behavioral types, educators could reach out to talented students often overlooked.

Future Business Leaders Prepped for Success

Future Business Leaders Prepped for Success

January 27th 2015, Written by Jahla Seppanen

“What do you want to be when you grow up?”

Hundreds of high school students gathered in Denver this week for the Future Business Leaders of America (FBLA) Colorado Leadership Conference, hoping to answer this very question. Sheri Smith of the Indigo Education Company, among others, spoke with students about the skills they need to achieve their dreams.

“General manager for a sports team,” Andres Vizurraga of Littleton High School said, when asked to state his career plan.

“Owner of my own photography business,” said classmate Julia Arellano-Votaw.

Together with their fellow future business leaders, Andres and Julia formed a sea of teenagers all appearing as if they had worked in business for a decade: suits, ties, dresses, blazers, eye-contact, confidence, and – most of all – a plan.

This is the genius of FBLA, a non-profit education organization dedicated to preparing students for the business world. In an effort tobring business and education together in a positive working relationship through innovative leadership and career development programs, the FBLA cultivates vital skills not taught in traditional classrooms. At the Colorado Leadership Conference, students learned the importance of Resiliency, Self-Management, Teamwork, Personal Accountability, Negotiation, and Futuristic Thinking, among others. These non-academic skills, which are measured by Indigo Education’s Assessment technology, will directly and positively impact student success during the transition from classroom to career.

During the conference, CEO of the Indigo Education Company Sheri Smith spoke with FBLA students about career paths and values development. Smith is a believer in the power of non-academic strengths; she has tailored her company’s Assessment tool to measure skills gaps that may hinder students’ capacity for success after graduation. Indigo is currently partnering with schools across the nation, creating innovative ways to incorporate these underdeveloped job-skills into pre-existing curricula. Indigo, along with FBLA, believes that teaching non-academic skills will accelerate student success in and beyond the classroom.

Both Andres and Julia attest to the positive impact FBLA’s business training has had on their future career plans, as well as their self-awareness and confidence. “I didn’t know there was a proper way to interview,” Julia said.

FBLA is among the top 10 organizations listed by the U.S. Department of Education, and it services over a quarter million students around the country. Participation in job-skills education equips individuals like Andres and Julia with confidence and preparedness they would not have gained from a traditional classroom.

We all answer the age-old question, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” FBLA students, however, face a new and perhaps more important question: “Are you prepared for the job?”


Competency-Based Degree Programs on the Rise

Competency-Based Degree

March 14th 2015, Written by Anya Kamenetz

Indigo is excited to see competency-based learning incorporated into the college curriculum and credit structure. After all, we go to school to get a degree to get a job. It only makes sense to include job-skills and non-academic competencies into the learning journey, or as Anya Kamenetz puts it, “credits in exchange for direct demonstrations of learning.”

January 26, 2015

Competency-based education is in vogue — even though most people have never heard of it, and those who have can’t always agree on what it is.

A report out today from the American Enterprise Institute says a growing number of colleges and universities are offering, or soon will offer, credits in exchange for direct demonstrations of learning. That’s a big shift from credit hours — the currency of higher education for more than a century — which require students to spend an allotted amount of time with instructors.

A “competency” might be a score on a standardized exam or a portfolio of work. These are types of credit familiar to most people: think AP exams. But they are being applied to core requirements, not just used for skipping electives or introductory courses.

And in a newer, even more experimental trend, institutions such as Western Governors University are offering entire degree programs that allow students to move at their own pace, completing assignments and assessments as they master the material.

The major argument in favor of competency-based programs is that they will offer nontraditional students a more direct, more affordable path to a degree. This argument is especially made on behalf of older students who can earn college credits based on prior workplace or life experience. The AEI report, by Robert Kelchen, found that 9 out of 10 competency-based students are older than 25.

The business and instructional models of competency-based degree programs are diverse.

Some, like StraighterLine and Capella University, are for-profits; others, like Southern New Hampshire University’s College for America Program, are nonprofits, still others, like University of Maryland University College or Rio Salado College, are part of public university or community college systems.

And the numbers are large. Most programs don’t report their competency-based enrollment, but there are nine colleges that are entirely competency-based; these nine colleges alone enroll more than 140,000 undergraduates and 57,000 graduate students.

Continue reading here…

5 Predictions for Education in 2015

5 Predictions for Education in 2015

January 26th 2015, Written by Michael Horn

What changes can we hope to see in education in 2015? One of Indigo’s top goals ranked #1 on the Forbes list, and we are certain it will create better academic and career opportunities for students across the world! 

It’s the new year and with it, hopes for new developments in education. Here are a few scattered predictions from around the world of education about what we might see.

1. Competency-based learning gains steam

Fueled by interest from hundreds of higher education institutions and the Department of Education, competency-based learning will gain steam. Coupled with online learning, as my colleague Michelle Weisehas written, it will constitute a disruptive force in higher education unlike any we’ve seen.

2. The rise of the LRM

The LRM—learning relationship management software—akin to a Customer Relationship Management (CRM) system for sales—will rise as a new category to make online and blended learning, competency-based learning, and theunbundling of the university far more fruitful and productive for learners, educational institutions, and employers. The trend will grow fast in higher education this year, followed by corporate learning and then K–12 education in future years. The early leader is Fidelis Education (where, full disclosure, I’m on the board), and Motivis Learning, a spin-off from College for America, Southern New Hampshire’s online, competency-based institution, won’t be far behind.

Continue reading here…

Higher Education: Mastery, Modularization, and the Workforce Revolution

Higher Education: Mastery, Modularization, and the Workforce Revolution

March 14th 2015, Written by Michelle R. Weise and Clayton M. Christensen

Developing job skills is just as important as learning grammar and science. In fact, it might be more important as a direct influence on post-grad success. This mini-book on the climate of job skills in higher education is the first step to getting informed about the discussion.

Download the full mini-book By Michelle R. Weise and Clayton M. Christensen

July 2014

The economic urgency around higher education is undeniable: the price of tuition has soared; student loan debt now exceeds $1 trillion and is greater than credit card debt; the dollars available from government sources for colleges are expected to shrink in the years to come; and the costs for traditional institutions to stay competitive continue to rise.

At the same time, more education does not necessarily lead to better outcomes. Employers are demanding more academic credentials for every kind of job yet are at the same time increasingly vocal about their dissatisfaction with the variance in quality of degree holders. The signaling effect of a college degree appears to be an imprecise encapsulation of one’s skills for the knowledge economy of the times. McKinsey analysts estimate that the number of skillsets needed in the workforce has increased rapidly from 178 in September 2009 to 924 in June 2012.

Students themselves are demanding more direct connections with employers: 87.9 percent of college freshmen cited getting a better job as a vital reason for pursuing a college degree in the 2012 University of California Los Angeles’ Higher Education Research Institute’s “American Freshman Survey”—approximately 17 percentage points higher than in the same survey question in 2006; a survey of the U.S. public by Gallup and the Lumina Foundation confirmed similarly high numbers. “Learning and work are becoming inseparable,” argued the authors of a report from the Institute for Public Policy Research, “indeed one could argue that this is precisely what it means to have a knowledge economy or a learning society. It follows that if work is becoming learning, then learning needs to become work—and universities need to become alive to the possibilities.”

Even the demographics of students seeking postsecondary education are shifting. The National Center for Education Statistics projects that by 2020, 42 percent of all college students will be 25 years of age or older. More working adults are becoming responsible for actively honing and developing new skills for the new technologies and jobs emerging on a day-to-day basis.

Despite these trends, few universities or colleges see the need to adapt to the surge in demand of skillsets in the workforce. 

Continue reading at: http://www.christenseninstitute.org/publications/hire/#sthash.zgghSF5x.dpuf


Related Article: Who Gets to Graduate?

Related Article: Who Gets to Graduate?

January 21st 2015, Written by Paul Tough

Indigo loves this article because we can see how stratified higher education has become. We believe each student brings unique skills and experiences to the table and it is crucial for universities to recognize and teach to these.

For as long as she could remember, Vanessa Brewer had her mind set on going to college. The image of herself as a college student appealed to her — independent, intelligent, a young woman full of potential — but it was more than that; it was a chance to rewrite the ending to a family story that went off track 18 years earlier, when Vanessa’s mother, then a high-achieving high-school senior in a small town in Arkansas, became pregnant with Vanessa.

Vanessa’s mom did better than most teenage mothers. She married her high-school boyfriend, and when Vanessa was 9, they moved to Mesquite, a working-class suburb of Dallas, where she worked for a mortgage company. Vanessa’s parents divorced when she was 12, and money was always tight, but they raised her and her younger brother to believe they could accomplish anything. Like her mother, Vanessa shone in school, and as she grew up, her parents and her grandparents would often tell her that she would be the one to reach the prize that had slipped away from her mother: a four-year college degree.

There were plenty of decent colleges in and around Dallas that Vanessa could have chosen, but she made up her mind back in middle school that she wanted to attend the University of Texas at Austin, the most prestigious public university in the state. By the time she was in high school, she had it all planned out: She would make her way through the nursing program at U.T., then get a master’s in anesthesiology, then move back to Dallas, get a good job at a hospital, then help out her parents and start her own family. In her head, she saw it like a checklist, and in March 2013, when she received her acceptance letter from U.T., it felt as if she were checking off the first item.

Five months later, Vanessa’s parents dropped her off at her dorm in Austin. She was nervous, a little intimidated by the size of the place, but she was also confident that she was finally where she was meant to be. People had warned her that U.T. was hard. “But I thought: Oh, I got this far,” Vanessa told me. “I’m smart. I’ll be fine.”

And then, a month into the school year, Vanessa stumbled. She failed her first test in statistics, a prerequisite for admission to the nursing program. She was surprised at how bad it felt. Failure was not an experience she was used to. At Mesquite High, she never had to study for math tests; she aced them all without really trying. (Her senior-year G.P.A. was 3.50, placing her 39th out of 559 students in her graduating class. She got a 22 on the ACT, the equivalent of about a 1,030 on the SAT — not stellar, but above average.)

‘I just started questioning everything: Am I supposed to be here? Am I good enough?’

Vanessa called home, looking for reassurance. Her mother had always been so supportive, but now she sounded doubtful about whether Vanessa was really qualified to succeed at an elite school like the University of Texas. “Maybe you just weren’t meant to be there,” she said. “Maybe we should have sent you to a junior college first.”

“I died inside when she said that,” Vanessa told me. “I didn’t want to leave. But it felt like that was maybe the reality of the situation. You know, moms are usually right. I just started questioning everything: Am I supposed to be here? Am I good enough?”

There are thousands of students like Vanessa at the University of Texas, and millions like her throughout the country — high-achieving students from low-income families who want desperately to earn a four-year degree but who run into trouble along the way. Many are derailed before they ever set foot on a campus, tripped up by complicated financial-aid forms or held back by the powerful tug of family obligations. Some don’t know how to choose the right college, so they drift into a mediocre school that produces more dropouts than graduates. Many are overwhelmed by expenses or take on too many loans. And some do what Vanessa was on the verge of doing: They get to a good college and encounter what should be a minor obstacle, and they freak out. They don’t want to ask for help, or they don’t know how. Things spiral, and before they know it, they’re back at home, resentful, demoralized and in debt.

When you look at the national statistics on college graduation rates, there are two big trends that stand out right away. The first is that there are a whole lot of students who make it to college — who show up on campus and enroll in classes — but never get their degrees. More than 40 percent of American students who start at four-year colleges haven’t earned a degree after six years. If you include community-college students in the tabulation, the dropout rate is more than half, worse than any other country except Hungary.

The second trend is that whether a student graduates or not seems to depend today almost entirely on just one factor — how much money his or her parents make. To put it in blunt terms: Rich kids graduate; poor and working-class kids don’t. Or to put it more statistically: About a quarter of college freshmen born into the bottom half of the income distribution will manage to collect a bachelor’s degree by age 24, while almost 90 percent of freshmen born into families in the top income quartile will go on to finish their degree.

When you read about those gaps, you might assume that they mostly have to do with ability. Rich kids do better on the SAT, so of course they do better in college. But ability turns out to be a relatively minor factor behind this divide. If you compare college students with the same standardized-test scores who come from different family backgrounds, you find that their educational outcomes reflect their parents’ income, not their test scores. Take students like Vanessa, who do moderately well on standardized tests — scoring between 1,000 and 1,200 out of 1,600 on the SAT. If those students come from families in the top-income quartile, they have a 2 in 3 chance of graduating with a four-year degree. If they come from families in the bottom quartile, they have just a 1 in 6 chance of making it to graduation.

The good news for Vanessa is that she had improved her odds by enrolling in a highly selective college. Many low-income students “undermatch,” meaning that they don’t attend — or even apply to — the most selective college that would accept them. It may seem counterintuitive, but the more selective the college you choose, the higher your likelihood of graduating. But even among the highly educated students of U.T., parental income and education play a huge role in determining who will graduate on time. An internal U.T. report published in 2012 showed that only 39 percent of first-generation students (meaning students whose parents weren’t college graduates) graduated in four years, compared with 60 percent whose parents both graduated from college. So Vanessa was caught in something of a paradox. According to her academic record, she had all the ability she needed to succeed at an elite college; according to the demographic statistics, she was at serious risk of failing.

But why? What was standing in her way? This year, for the first time, the University of Texas is trying in a serious way to answer that question. The school’s administrators are addressing head-on the problems faced by students like Vanessa. U.T.’s efforts are based on a novel and controversial premise: If you want to help low-income students succeed, it’s not enough to deal with their academic and financial obstacles. You also need to address their doubts and misconceptions and fears. To solve the problem of college completion, you first need to get inside the mind of a college student.

The person at the University of Texas who has been given the responsibility for helping these students succeed is a 56-year-old chemistry professor named David Laude. He is, by all accounts, a very good college professor — he illustrates the Second Law of Thermodynamics with quotations from Trent Reznor and Leonard Cohen and occasionally calls students to the front of the class to ignite balloons filled with hydrogen into giant fireballs. But he was a lousy college student. As a freshman at the University of the South, in Sewanee, Tenn., Laude felt bewildered and out of place, the son of a working-class, Italian-American family from Modesto, Calif., trying to find his way at a college steeped in Southern tradition, where students joined secret societies and wore academic gowns to class. “It was a massive culture shock,” Laude told me. “I was completely at a loss on how to fit in socially. And I was tremendously bad at studying. Everything was just overwhelming.” He spent most of his freshman year on the brink of dropping out.

But he didn’t drop out. He figured out college, then he figured out chemistry, then he got really good at both, until he wound up, 20 years later, a tenured professor at U.T. teaching Chemistry 301, the same introductory course in which he got a C as a freshman in Sewanee. Perhaps because of his own precarious college experience, Laude paid special attention as a professor to how students were doing in his class. And year after year, he noticed something curious: The distribution of grades in his Chemistry 301 section didn’t follow the nice sweeping bell curve you might expect. Instead, they fell into what he calls a “bimodal distribution.” In each class of 500 students, there would be 400 or so who did quite well, clustered around the A and high-B range. They got it. Then there would be a second cluster of perhaps 100 students whose grades were way down at the bottom — D’s and F’s. They didn’t get it.

To many professors, this pattern simply represents the natural winnowing process that takes place in higher education. That attitude is especially common in the sciences, where demanding introductory classes have traditionally been seen as a way to weed out weak students. But Laude felt differently. He acknowledged that some of his failing students just weren’t cut out for chemistry, but he suspected that many of them were — that they were smart but confused and a little scared, much as he had been.

To get a better sense of who these struggling students were, Laude started pulling records from the provost’s office. It wasn’t hard to discern a pattern. The students who were failing were mostly from low-income families. Many of them fit into certain ethnic, racial and geographic profiles: They were white kids from rural West Texas, say, or Latinos from the Rio Grande Valley or African-Americans from Dallas or Houston. And almost all of them had low SAT scores — low for U.T., at least — often below 1,000 on a 1,600-point scale.

The default strategy at U.T. for dealing with failing students was to funnel them into remedial programs — precalculus instead of calculus; chemistry for English majors instead of chemistry for science majors. “This, to me, was just the worst thing you could possibly imagine doing,” Laude said. “It was saying, ‘Hey, you don’t even belong.’ And when you looked at the data to see what happened to the kids who were put into precalculus or into nonmajors chemistry, they never stayed in the college. And no wonder. They were outsiders from the beginning.”

In 1999, at the beginning of the fall semester, Laude combed through the records of every student in his freshman chemistry class and identified about 50 who possessed at least two of the “adversity indicators” common among students who failed the course in the past: low SATs, low family income, less-educated parents. He invited them all to apply to a new program, which he would later give the august-sounding name the Texas Interdisciplinary Plan, or TIP. Students in TIP were placed in their own, smaller section of Chemistry 301, taught by Laude. But rather than dumb down the curriculum for them, Laude insisted that they master exactly the same challenging material as the students in his larger section. In fact, he scheduled his two sections back to back. “I taught my 500-student chemistry class, and then I walked upstairs and I taught this 50-student chemistry class,” Laude explained. “Identical material, identical lectures, identical tests — but a 200-point difference in average SAT scores between the two sections.”

Laude was hopeful that the small classes would make a difference, but he recognized that small classes alone wouldn’t overcome that 200-point SAT gap. “We weren’t naïve enough to think they were just going to show up and start getting A’s, unless we overwhelmed them with the kind of support that would make it possible for them to be successful,” he said. So he supplemented his lectures with a variety of strategies: He offered TIP students two hours each week of extra instruction; he assigned them advisers who kept in close contact with them and intervened if the students ran into trouble or fell behind; he found upperclassmen to work with the TIP students one on one, as peer mentors. And he did everything he could, both in his lectures and outside the classroom, to convey to the TIP students a new sense of identity: They weren’t subpar students who needed help; they were part of a community of high-achieving scholars.

Even Laude was surprised by how effectively TIP worked. “When I started giving them the tests, they got the same grades as the larger section,” he said. “And when the course was over, this group of students who were 200 points lower on the SAT had exactly the same grades as the students in the larger section.” The impact went beyond Chemistry 301. This cohort of students who, statistically, were on track to fail returned for their sophomore year at rates above average for the university as a whole, and three years later they had graduation rates that were also above the U.T. average.

Two years ago, Laude was promoted to his current position — senior vice provost for enrollment and graduation management. His official mission now is to improve U.T.’s four-year graduation rate, which is currently languishing at around 52 percent, to 70 percent — closer to the rates at U.T.’s state-university peers in Ann Arbor, Chapel Hill and Charlottesville, Va. — and to achieve this leap by 2017. The best way to do that, Laude decided, was to take the principles and practices that he introduced 15 years earlier with TIP and bring them to the whole Austin campus.

One complicating factor for administrators at the University of Texas — and, indeed, one reason the school makes for such an interesting case study — is that U.T. has a unique admissions policy, one that is the legacy of many years of legal and legislative battles over affirmative action. After U.T.’s use of race in admissions was ruled unconstitutional by the Fifth Circuit in 1996, the Texas Legislature came up with an alternative strategy to maintain a diverse campus: the Top 10 percent law, which stipulated that students who ranked in the top tenth of their graduating classes in any high school in Texas would be automatically admitted to the campus of their choice in the U.T. system. (As U.T. Austin has grown more popular over the last decade, the criterion for automatic admission has tightened; Texas high-school seniors now have to be in the top 7 percent of their class to earn admission. Automatic admits — Vanessa Brewer among them — make up about three-quarters of each freshman class.)

At high schools in the wealthier suburbs of Dallas, the top 7 percent of students look a lot like the students anywhere who go on to attend elite colleges. They are mostly well off and mostly white, and most of them rack up high SAT scores. What sets U.T. apart from other selective colleges is that the school also admits the top 7 percent of students from high schools in Brownsville and the Third Ward of Houston, who fit a very different demographic and have, on average, much lower SAT scores.

The good news about these kids, from U.T.’s point of view, is that they are very good students regardless of their test scores. Even if their high schools weren’t as well funded or as academically demanding as schools in other parts of the state, they managed to figure out how to learn, how to study and how to overcome adversity. Laude’s experience teaching Chemistry 301 convinced him that they could succeed and even excel at the University of Texas. But when he looked at the campuswide data, it was clear that these were the students who weren’t succeeding.

“There are always going to be both affluent kids and kids who have need who come into this college,” Laude said. “And it will always be the case that the kids who have need are going to have been denied a lot of the academic preparation and opportunities for identity formation that the affluent kids have been given. The question is, can we do something for those students in their first year in college that can accelerate them and get them up to the place where they can be competitive with the affluent, advantaged students?”

Before he could figure out how to help those disadvantaged students, though, Laude first had to find out exactly who they were. This was relatively simple to determine in a single chemistry class, but with more than 7,000 students arriving on campus each year, finding the most vulnerable would be a challenge. Laude turned to a newly formed data team in the provost’s office called Institutional Research. Like every big university, U.T. had long had an in-house group of researchers who compiled statistics and issued government-mandated reports, but with Institutional Research, the school had created a data unit for the Nate Silver era, young statisticians and programmers who focused on predictive analytics, sifting through decades’ worth of student data and looking for patterns that could guide the administration’s decision-making on everything from faculty career paths to financial aid.

Laude wanted something that would help him predict, for any given incoming freshman, how likely he or she would be to graduate in four years. The Institutional Research team analyzed the performance of tens of thousands of recent U.T. students, and from that analysis they produced a tool they called the Dashboard — an algorithm, in spreadsheet form, that would consider 14 variables, from an incoming student’s family income to his SAT score to his class rank to his parents’ educational background, and then immediately spit out a probability, to the second decimal place, of how likely he was to graduate in four years.

In the spring of 2013, Laude and his staff sat down with the Dashboard to analyze the 7,200 high-school seniors who had just been admitted to the class of 2017. When they ran the students’ data, the Dashboard indicated that 1,200 of them — including Vanessa Brewer — had less than a 40 percent chance of graduation on time. Those were the kids Laude decided to target. He assigned them each to one or more newly created or expanded interventions. The heart of the project is a portfolio of “student success programs,” each one tailored, to a certain extent, for a different college at U.T. — natural sciences, liberal arts, engineering — but all of them following the basic TIP model Laude dreamed up 15 years ago: small classes, peer mentoring, extra tutoring help, engaged faculty advisers and community-building exercises.

‘There’s got to be a part of them that is afraid,’ Laude said, ‘a part of them that wonders if they can make it. My bet is that the vast majority of them will make it. And they will, because nobody will give them the chance to simply give up.’

Laude’s most intensive and innovative intervention, though, is the University Leadership Network, a new scholarship program that aims to develop not academic skills but leadership skills. In order to be selected for U.L.N., incoming freshmen must not only fall below the 40-percent cutoff on the Dashboard; they must also have what the financial-aid office calls unmet financial need. In practice, this means that students in U.L.N. are almost all from families with incomes below the national median. (When you enter a family income at that level into the Dashboard, the predicted on-time graduation rate falls even further; for U.L.N. students, Laude estimates, it is more like 20 percent than 40 percent.) The 500 freshmen in U.L.N. perform community service, take part in discussion groups and attend weekly lectures on topics like time management and team building. The lectures have a grown-up, formal feel; students are required to wear business attire. In later years, U.L.N. students will serve in internships on campus and move into leadership positions as mentors or residence-hall advisers or student government officials. In exchange for all this, they receive a $5,000 scholarship every year, paid in monthly increments.

Perhaps the most striking fact about the success programs is that the selection criteria are never disclosed to students. “From a numbers perspective, the students in these programs are all in the bottom quartile,” Laude explained. “But here’s the key — none of them know that they’re in the bottom quartile.” The first rule of the Dashboard, in other words, is that you never talk about the Dashboard. Laude says he assumes that most U.L.N. students understand on some level that they were chosen in part because of their financial need, but he says it is important for the university to play down that fact when dealing directly with students. It is an extension of the basic psychological strategy that he has used ever since that first TIP program: Select the students who are least likely to do well, but in all your communications with them, convey the idea that you have selected them for this special program not because you fear they will fail, but because you are confident they can succeed.

Which, from Laude’s perspective, has the virtue of being true. I sat with him in his office one morning in late January, not long after students had arrived back on campus for the spring semester. The university was closed for the day because of a freak ice storm, and he and I were more or less alone in the administration building, a huge clock tower in the center of campus. We were talking about his experience in Sewanee, specifically a low moment almost exactly 38 years earlier when he arrived back on campus for spring semester of his freshman year, plagued with doubt, longing to give up and go home. “Everybody has moments like that,” Laude said. “There are probably 50 or 60 kids in the U.L.N. who are on academic probation right now. They’re coming back, and we’ve got all these great support networks set up for them. But still, there’s got to be a part of them that is afraid, a part of them that wonders if they can make it. My bet is that the vast majority of them will make it. And they will, because nobody will give them the chance to simply give up.”

Though Laude is a chemist by training, he spends much of his time thinking like a psychologist, pondering what kind of messages or environmental cues might affect the decisions that the students in his programs make. He’s the first to admit that he is an amateur psychologist at best. But he has found an ally and a kindred spirit in a psychological researcher at U.T. named David Yeager, a 32-year-old assistant professor who is emerging as one of the world’s leading experts on the psychology of education. In his research, Yeager is trying to answer the question that Laude wrestles with every day: How, precisely, do you motivate students to take the steps they need to take in order to succeed?

Before he arrived at U.T. in the winter of 2012, Yeager worked as a graduate student in the psychology department at Stanford, during an era when that department had become a hotbed of new thinking on the psychology of education. Leading researchers like Carol Dweck, Claude Steele and Hazel Markus were using experimental methods to delve into the experience of students from early childhood all the way through college. To the extent that the Stanford researchers shared a unifying vision, it was the belief that students were often blocked from living up to their potential by the presence of certain fears and anxieties and doubts about their ability. These feelings were especially virulent at moments of educational transition — like the freshman year of high school or the freshman year of college. And they seemed to be particularly debilitating among members of groups that felt themselves to be under some special threat or scrutiny: women in engineering programs, first-generation college students, African-Americans in the Ivy League.

The negative thoughts took different forms in each individual, of course, but they mostly gathered around two ideas. One set of thoughts was aboutbelonging. Students in transition often experienced profound doubts about whether they really belonged — or could ever belong — in their new institution. The other was connected to ability. Many students believed in what Carol Dweck had named an entity theory of intelligence — that intelligence was a fixed quality that was impossible to improve through practice or study. And so when they experienced cues that might suggest that they weren’t smart or academically able — a bad grade on a test, for instance — they would often interpret those as a sign that they could never succeed. Doubts about belonging and doubts about ability often fed on each other, and together they created a sense of helplessness. That helplessness dissuaded students from taking any steps to change things. Why study if I can’t get smarter? Why go out and meet new friends if no one will want to talk to me anyway? Before long, the nagging doubts became self-fulfilling prophecies.

When Yeager arrived at Stanford in 2006, many of the researchers there had begun to move beyond trying to understand this phenomenon to trying to counteract it. In a series of experiments, they found that certain targeted messages, delivered to students in the right way at the right time, seemed to overcome the doubts about belonging and ability that were undermining the students’ academic potential.

Yeager began working with a professor of social psychology named Greg Walton, who had identified principles that seemed to govern which messages, and which methods of delivering those messages, were most persuasive to students. For instance, messages worked better if they appealed to social norms; when college students are informed that most students don’t take part in binge drinking, they’re less likely to binge-drink themselves. Messages were also more effective if they were delivered in a way that allowed the recipients a sense of autonomy. If you march all the high-school juniors into the auditorium and force them to watch a play about tolerance and inclusion, they’re less likely to take the message to heart than if they feel as if they are independently seeking it out. And positive messages are more effectively absorbed when they are experienced through what Walton called “self-persuasion”: if students watch a video or read an essay with a particular message and then write their own essay or make their own video to persuade future students, they internalize the message more deeply.

In one experiment after another, Yeager and Walton’s methods produced remarkable results. At an elite Northeastern college, Walton, along with another Stanford researcher named Geoffrey Cohen, conducted an experiment in which first-year students read brief essays by upperclassmen recalling their own experiences as freshmen. The upperclassmen conveyed in their own words a simple message about belonging: “When I got here, I thought I was the only one who felt left out. But then I found out that everyone feels that way at first, and everyone gets over it. I got over it, too.” After reading the essays, the students in the experiment then wrote their own essays and made videos for future students, echoing the same message. The whole intervention took no more than an hour. It had no apparent effect on the white students who took part in the experiment. But it had a transformative effect on the college careers of the African-American students in the study: Compared with a control group, the experiment tripled the percentage of black students who earned G.P.A.s in the top quarter of their class, and it cut in half the black-white achievement gap in G.P.A. It even had an impact on the students’ health — the black students who received the belonging message had significantly fewer doctor visits three years after the intervention.

Next, Yeager did an experiment with 600 students just entering ninth grade at three high schools in Northern California. The intervention was 25 minutes long; students sat at a terminal in the school computer lab and read scientific articles and testimonials from older students with another simple message: People change. If someone is being mean to you or excluding you, the essays explained, it was most likely a temporary thing; it wasn’t because of any permanent trait in him or you. Yeager chose ninth grade because it is well known as a particularly bad time for the onset of depression — generally, depression rates double over the transition to high school. Indeed, among the control group in Yeager’s experiment, symptoms of depression rose by 39 percent during that school year. Among the group who had received the message that people change, though, there was no significant increase in depressive symptoms. The intervention didn’t cure anyone’s depression, in other words, but it did stop the appearance of depressive symptoms during a traditionally depressive period. And it did so in just 25 minutes of treatment.

After the depression study, Yeager, Walton and two other researchers did an experiment with community-college students who were enrolled in remedial or “developmental” math classes. Education advocates have identified remedial math in community college as a particularly devastating obstacle to the college hopes of many students, especially low-income students, who disproportionately attend community college. The statistics are daunting: About two-thirds of all community-college students are placed into one or more remedial math classes, and unless they pass those classes, they can’t graduate. More than two-thirds of them don’t pass; instead, they often drop out of college altogether.

Clearly, part of the developmental-math crisis has to do with the fact that many students aren’t receiving a good-enough math education in middle or high school and are graduating from high school underprepared for college math. But Yeager and Walton and a growing number of other researchers believe that another significant part of the problem is psychological. They echo David Laude’s intuition from the early days of TIP: When you send college students the message that they’re not smart enough to be in college — and it’s hard not to get that message when you’re placed into a remedial math class as soon as you arrive on campus — those students internalize that idea about themselves.

In the experiment, 288 community-college students enrolled in developmental math were randomly assigned, at the beginning of the semester, to read one of two articles. The control group read a generic article about the brain. The treatment group read an article that laid out the scientific evidence against the entity theory of intelligence. “When people learn and practice new ways of doing algebra or statistics,” the article explained, “it can grow their brains — even if they haven’t done well in math in the past.” After reading the article, the students wrote a mentoring letter to future students explaining its key points. The whole exercise took 30 minutes, and there was no follow-up of any kind. But at the end of the semester, 20 percent of the students in the control group had dropped out of developmental math, compared with just 9 percent of the treatment group. In other words, a half-hour online intervention, done at almost no cost, had apparently cut the community-college math dropout rate by more than half.

Soon after Yeager arrived at the University of Texas, in the winter of 2012, he got an email from a vice provost at the university named Gretchen Ritter, who had heard about his work and wanted to learn more. At Ritter’s invitation, Yeager gave a series of presentations to various groups of administrators at the university; each time, he mentioned that he and Walton were beginning to test whether interventions that addressed students’ anxieties about ability and belonging could improve the transition to college, especially for first-generation students. Ritter asked Yeager if the approach might work in Austin. Could he create an intervention not for just a few hundred students, but for every incoming U.T. freshman? In theory, yes, Yeager told her. But at that scale, it would need to be done online. And if he did it, he said, he would want to do it as a randomized controlled experiment, so he and Walton could collect valuable new data on what worked. In April 2012, Ritter asked Yeager to test his intervention on the more than 8,000 teenagers who made up the newly admitted U.T. class of 2016. It would be one of the largest randomized experiments ever undertaken by social or developmental psychologists. And it would need to be ready to go in three weeks.

Yeager was already feeling overwhelmed. He and his wife had just moved to Austin. Three weeks earlier, they had their second child. He was swamped with lingering commitments from Stanford and scrambling to stay on top of the classes he was teaching for the first time. But he was painfully aware of the statistics on the graduation gaps at U.T., and he had enough faith in the interventions that he and Walton were developing to think that a well-orchestrated large-scale version could make a difference. “I went home to Margot, my wife,” he told me, “and I said: ‘O.K., I know I’m already overworked. I know I’m already never at home. But bear with me for three more weeks. Because this has the potential to be one of the most important things I ever do.’ ”

Yeager immediately began holding focus groups and one-on-one discussions with current U.T. students, trying to get a clearer understanding of which messages would work best at U.T. It’s an important point to remember about these interventions, and one Yeager often emphasizes: Even though the basic messages about belonging and ability recur from one intervention to the next, he and Walton believe that the language of the message needs to be targeted to the particular audience for each intervention. The anxieties that a high-achieving African-American freshman at an Ivy League college might experience are distinct from the anxieties experienced by a community-college student who was just placed into remedial math.

‘We don’t prevent you from experiencing those bad things,’ Yeager explained. ‘Instead, we try to change the meaning of them, so that they don’t mean to you that things are never going to get better.’

Yeager and Ritter decided that the best way to deliver the chosen messages to the incoming students was to make them a part of the online pre-orientation that every freshman was required to complete before arriving on campus. That May, rising freshmen began receiving the usual welcome-to-U.T. emails from the registrar’s office, inviting them to log on to U.T.’s website and complete a series of forms and tasks. Wedged in between the information about the meningococcal vaccine requirements and the video about the U.T. honor code was a link to Yeager’s interactive presentation about the “U.T. Mindset.”

Students were randomly sorted into four categories. A “belonging” treatment group read messages from current students explaining that they felt alone and excluded when they arrived on campus, but then realized that everyone felt that way and eventually began to feel at home. A “mind-set” treatment group read an article about the malleability of the brain and how practice makes it grow new connections, and then read messages from current students stating that when they arrived at U.T., they worried about not being smart enough, but then learned that when they studied they grew smarter. A combination treatment group received a hybrid of the belonging and mind-set presentations. And finally, a control group read fairly banal reflections from current students stating that they were surprised by Austin’s culture and weather when they first arrived, but eventually they got used to them. Students in each group were asked, after clicking through a series of a dozen or so web pages, to write their own reflections on what they’d read in order to help future students. The whole intervention took between 25 and 45 minutes for students to complete, and more than 90 percent of the incoming class completed it.

Going in, Yeager thought of the 2012 experiment as a pilot — simply a way to test out the mechanics of a large-scale intervention. He didn’t have much confidence that it would produce significant results, so he was surprised when, at the end of the fall semester, he looked at the data regarding which students had successfully completed at least 12 credits. First-semester credit-completion has always been an early indicator of the gaps that appear later for U.T. students. Every year, only 81 or 82 percent of “disadvantaged” freshmen — meaning, in this study, those who are black, Latino or first-generation — complete those 12 credits by Christmas, compared with about 90 percent of more advantaged students.

In January 2013, when Yeager analyzed the first-semester data, he saw the advantaged students’ results were exactly the same as they were every year. No matter which message they saw in the pre-orientation presentation, 90 percent of that group was on track. Similarly, the disadvantaged students in the control group, who saw the bland message about adjusting to Austin’s culture and weather, did the same as disadvantaged students usually did: 82 percent were on track. But the disadvantaged students who had experienced the belonging and mind-set messages did significantly better: 86 percent of them had completed 12 credits or more by Christmas. They had cut the gap between themselves and the advantaged students in half.

A rise of four percentage points might not seem like much of a revolution. And Yeager and Walton are certainly not declaring victory yet. But if the effect of the intervention persists over the next three years (as it did in the elite-college study), it could mean hundreds of first-generation students graduating from U.T. in 2016 who otherwise wouldn’t have graduated on time, if ever. It would go a long way toward helping David Laude meet his goals. And all from a one-time intervention that took 45 minutes to complete. The U.T. administration was encouraged; beginning this month, the “U.T. Mindset” intervention will be part of the pre-orientation for all 7,200 members of the incoming class of 2018.

When Yeager and Walton present their work to fellow researchers, the first reaction they often hear is that their results can’t possibly be true. Early on, they each had a scientific paper or grants rejected not because there were flaws in their data or their methodology, but simply because people didn’t believe that such powerful effects could come from such minimal interventions. Yeager admits that their data can seem unbelievable — they contradict many of our essential assumptions about how the human mind works. But he can articulate an entirely plausible explanation for what’s happening when students hear or read these messages, whether they’re at U.T. or in community college or in ninth grade.

Our first instinct, when we read about these experiments, is that what the interventions must be doing is changing students’ minds — replacing one deeply held belief with another. And it is hard to imagine that reading words on a computer screen for 25 minutes could possibly do that. People just aren’t that easy to persuade. But Yeager believes that the interventions are not in fact changing students’ minds — they are simply keeping them from overinterpreting discouraging events that might happen in the future. “We don’t prevent you from experiencing those bad things,” Yeager explains. “Instead, we try to change the meaning of them, so that they don’t mean to you that things are never going to get better.”

Every college freshman — rich or poor, white or minority, first-generation or legacy — experiences academic setbacks and awkward moments when they feel they don’t belong. But white students and wealthy students and students with college-graduate parents tend not to take those moments too seriously or too personally. Sure, they still feel bad when they fail a test or get in a fight with a roommate or are turned down for a date. But in general, they don’t interpret those setbacks as a sign that they don’t belong in college or that they’re not going to succeed there.

It is only students facing the particular fears and anxieties and experiences of exclusion that come with being a minority — whether by race or by class — who are susceptible to this problem. Those students often misinterpret temporary setbacks as a permanent indication that they can’t succeed or don’t belong at U.T. For those students, the intervention can work as a kind of inoculation. And when, six months or two years later, the germs of self-doubt try to infect them, the lingering effect of the intervention allows them to shrug off those doubts exactly the way the advantaged students do.

When I spoke with Vanessa Brewer in January, she was deep in the grip of those doubts. She had made it through the fall with a perfectly decent 3.0 G.P.A., and she even pulled out a B-plus in statistics, but she looked back on it as a very difficult stretch. “I felt like no one really believed in me,” she said. Her mother was the only person she really confided in, but even those conversations sometimes made her feel more aware of the lack of a support system around her. “She told me I sounded different,” Vanessa said. “She was like: ‘Are you O.K.? Are you taking care of yourself?’ I’m normally a pretty happy person, but I guess when I called her, it was more monotone, uninterested.”

When Vanessa thought about the semester ahead of her, she felt stressed out, and she told me that her anxiety about whether she belonged at U.T. was with her every time she stepped into a classroom. “Everybody else seems like they have it in the bag,” she said. “They look intimidating, even when they’re just sitting in class — even the way they’re taking notes. They seem so confident. I sometimes feel like I am the only one who is lost, you know?”

But as the spring semester progressed, things started to look up for Vanessa. She was taking the dreaded Chemistry 301, and while she found it a real challenge, she was also determined not to fall behind. She was enrolled in U.L.N. and in Discovery Scholars, another of the programs David Laude oversaw, and her advisers arranged for her to get free help at the campus tutoring center. She spent six or more hours there each week, going over chemistry problems, and by March she was getting A’s and B’s on every test.

Gradually, Vanessa started to feel a greater sense of belonging. She told me about a day in February when she was hanging out in the Discovery Scholars office and suddenly had an impulse to “do a little networking.” She went up to the young woman working at the front desk, an African-American undergrad like Vanessa, and asked her on a whim if she knew any students in the nursing program. As it happened, the woman’s two best friends were in nursing, and they had just helped start an African-American nursing association at U.T.

Vanessa got their numbers and started texting with them, and they invited her to one of their meetings. They were juniors, a couple of years older than Vanessa, and they took her under their wing. “I like having someone to look up to,” Vanessa told me. “I felt like I was alone, but then I found people who said, you know, ‘I cried just like you.’ And it helped.”

The messages about belonging and ability that Vanessa was hearing from her mentors and tutors weren’t the only things getting her through Chemistry 301, of course. But they were important in lots of subtle but meaningful ways, helping to steer her toward some seemingly small decisions that made a big difference in her prospects at U.T. Like walking into the tutoring center and asking for help. Or working up the nerve to ask a stranger if she knew any friendly nursing students.

I spoke to dozens of freshmen during the months I spent reporting in Austin, most of them, like Vanessa, enrolled in U.L.N. or another of Laude’s programs. And while each student’s story was different, it was remarkable how often the narratives of their freshman years followed the same arc: arriving on campus feeling confident because of their success in high school, then being laid low by an early failure. One student told me he fell into a depression and couldn’t sleep. Another said she lost weight and broke out in a rash. But then, sometimes after weeks or months of feeling lost and unhappy, most of them found their way back to a deeper kind of confidence. Often the support necessary for that recovery came from a U.L.N. adviser or a TIP mentor; sometimes it came from a family member or a church community or a roommate. But one way or another, almost all of the students I spoke to were able to turn things around, often pulling themselves back from some very low places.

“What I like about these interventions is that the kids themselves make all the tough choices,” Yeager told me. “They deserve all the credit. We as interveners don’t. And that’s the best way to intervene. Ultimately a person has within themselves some kind of capital, some kind of asset, like knowledge or confidence. And if we can help bring that out, they then carry that asset with them to the next difficulty in life.”

My conversations with the U.L.N. students left me feeling optimistic about their chances. But they also served as a reminder of how easy it is for things to tip the other way — for those early doubts to metastasize into crippling anxieties. What Laude and Yeager are helping to demonstrate is that with the right support, both academic and psychological, these students can actually graduate at high rates from an elite university like the University of Texas. Which is exactly why the giant educational experiment now taking place there has meaning well beyond the Austin campus.

It matters, in all sorts of ways, whether students like Vanessa and her fellow U.L.N. members are able to graduate from a four-year college. The data show that today, more than ever, the most powerful instrument of economic mobility for low-income Americans is a four-year college degree. If a child is born into a family in the lowest economic quintile (meaning a family that earns $28,000 or less), and she doesn’t get a college degree, she has only a 14 percent chance of winding up in one of the top two quintiles, and she has a 45 percent chance of never making it out of that bottom bracket. But if she does earn a four-year degree, her prospects change completely. Suddenly, there is a 40 percent chance that she’ll make it into one of the top two quintiles — and just a 16 percent chance that she’ll remain stuck at the bottom.

Beyond the economic opportunities for the students themselves, there is the broader cost of letting so many promising students drop out, of losing so much valuable human capital. For almost all of the 20th century, the United States did a better job of producing college graduates than any other country. But over the past 20 years, we have fallen from the top of those international lists; the United States now ranks 12th in the world in the percentage of young people who have earned a college degree. During the same period, a second trend emerged: American higher education became more stratified; most well-off students now do very well in college, and most middle- and low-income students struggle to complete a degree. These two trends are clearly intertwined. And it is hard to imagine that the nation can regain its global competitiveness, or improve its level of economic mobility, without reversing them.

To do so will take some sustained work, on a national level, on a number of fronts. But a big part of the solution lies at colleges like the University of Texas at Austin, selective but not superelite, that are able to perform, on a large scale, what used to be a central mission — arguably the central mission — of American universities: to take large numbers of highly motivated working-class teenagers and give them the tools they need to become successful professionals. The U.T. experiment reminds us that that process isn’t easy; it never has been. But it also reminds us that it is possible.


See the full article here: http://www.nytimes.com/2014/05/18/magazine/who-gets-to-graduate.html

Related Article: Should Schools Teach Personally?

Related Article: Should Schools Teach Personally?

January 14th 2015, Written by Anna North

We love this article because it’s a balanced and powerful way to describe why Indigo is so important to schools and students.  

Self-control, curiosity, “grit” — these qualities may seem more personal than academic, but at some schools, they’re now part of the regular curriculum. Some researchers say personality could be even more important than intelligence when it comes to students’ success in school. But critics worry that the increasing focus on qualities like grit will distract policy makers from problems with schools.


In a 2014 paper, the Australian psychology professor Arthur E. Poropat cites research showing that both conscientiousness (which he defines as a tendency to be “diligent, dutiful and hardworking”) and openness (characterized by qualities like creativity and curiosity) are more highly correlated with student performance than intelligence is. And, he notes, ratings of students’ personalities by outside observers — teachers, for instance — are even more strongly linked with academic success than the way students rate themselves. The strength of the personality-performance link is good news, he writes, because “personality has been demonstrated to change over time to a far greater extent than intelligence.”

A number of researchers have been successful in improving students’ conscientiousness, Dr. Poropat said in an interview. One team, he said, found that when elementary-school students get training in “effortful control,” a trait similar to conscientiousness, “it not only improves the students’ performance at that point in their education, but also has follow-on effects a number of years afterward.” Another study found that a 16-week problem-solving training program could increase retirees’ levels of openness.

“We probably need to start rethinking our emphasis on intelligence,” he said. “This isn’t to say that we should throw intelligence out,” he cautioned, “but we need to pull back on thinking that this is the only game in town.”

Some already have. “Grit” — which the psychology professor Angela Duckworth of the University of Pennsylvania and her co-authors define in a 2007 paper as “perseverance and passion for long-term goals,” and which they see as overlapping in some ways with conscientiousness — has become part of the curriculum at a number of schools.

Mandy Benedix, who teaches a class on grit at Rogers Middle School in Pearland, Tex., said: “We know that these noncognitive traits can be taught. We also know that it is necessary for success. You look at anybody who has had long-term sustainable success, and every one of them exhibited at some point this grit, this tenacity to keep going.”

One result of the class, which includes lessons on people, like Malala Yousafzai, who have overcome significant challenges: Students “are now willing to do the hard thing instead of always running to what was easy.” Ms. Benedix also coordinates a districtwide grit initiative — since it began, she says, the number of high schoolers taking advanced-placement classes has increased significantly.

The KIPP network of charter schools emphasizes grit along with six other “character strengths,” including self-control and curiosity. Leyla Bravo-Willey, the assistant principal at KIPP Infinity Middle School in Harlem, said, “We talk a lot about them as being skills or strengths, not necessarily traits, because it’s not innate.”

“If a child happens to be very gritty but has trouble participating in class,” she added, “we still want them to develop that part of themselves.”

The focus on character, however, has encountered criticism. The education writer and speaker Alfie Kohn, for instance, argues that grit isn’t always helpful. In a Washington Post essay adapted from his new book, “The Myth of the Spoiled Child: Challenging the Conventional Wisdom About Children and Parenting,” he writes that dogged persistence isn’t the best approach to every situation: “Even if you don’t crash and burn by staying the course, you may not fare nearly as well as if you had stopped, reassessed and tried something else.”

And, he said in an interview, an emphasis on children’s personalities could take attention away from problems with their schools. “Social psychologists for decades have identified a tendency to overestimate how important personality characteristics, motivation, individual values and the like tend to be relative to the importance of the structural characteristics of a situation,” he said. “We tend to think people just need to try harder, or have a better attitude,” but “this tends to miss the boat. What really matters is various aspects of the system itself.”

Truly improving education in America will require “asking about the environment in which kids are placed, what kids are being asked to learn, how they’re being taught, what voice they have, if any, in the experience,” he said. “Every time we focus on personality variables, we are distracted again from addressing the systemic questions that matter.”

And in an essay at The New Republic, Jeffrey Aaron Snyder, an educational studies professor at Carleton College, contends that as currently espoused by KIPP, “character-based education is untethered from any conception of morality.” And, he says in an interview, he questions the value of looking at character traits outside a larger moral framework: “What’s the importance of teaching grit if you’re not teaching it in the context of civic education, the public good, social responsibility?” Teaching it without such context “becomes kind of a looking-out-for-number-one-type approach to education.”

As an example of a better way, he points to a school he came across in his research whose students started a community garden during World War I (gardening is also part of the curriculum at some schools today). Planting, growing and distributing food taught many of the same traits that character-education programshope to instill, he said, “but it’s all richly integrated into a task that has genuine purpose and that makes the students think beyond themselves.”

Ms. Bravo-Willey disputes the notion that character education at KIPP is hyperindividualistic. KIPP Infinity, she said, has students get together in groups to help one another with their academic goals, like getting to class on time or making the honor roll. “They work together to do that, because that sense of community is so critical.”

Though academic success is an important goal for KIPP, she said, it’s not the only thing: “We want to make kids that are great citizens for the world.”

And some say understanding personality can help teachers tailor instruction to fit students, or help students choose fields that match their preferences. Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic, a professor of business psychology at University College London who has studied the relationship between personality and learning, is less interested in changing people’s personalities than in helping students find the right path for them. Rather than making everyone gritty in all circumstances, he said, “I think it will probably be more about helping people find what their interests are.”

“If you have no interest in classical music or no interest in starting your business,” he said, “I doubt that you will be very gritty or display a lot of passion and perseverance there.” But personality assessment could help people find areas where they might be more likely to persevere — it could “teach people what they’re naturally like, so they can make better choices.” And rather than changing their personalities completely, people might simply learn behaviors to help them better deal with their existing traits. For instance, he said, “if I know that I’m generally an introverted person and I don’t enjoy social events, I can teach myself four or five simple strategies to relate to other people.”

“I shouldn’t really aspire to be something completely different,” he said, “because that’s a very, very hard and counterproductive task.” And, he added, “We wouldn’t want to live in a world where everybody has the same personality.”

Ms. Benedix believes understanding students’ personalities could help her meet their needs. If she knows a child is introverted, for instance, she might not expect him or her to demonstrate knowledge by speaking up frequently in class. “Anytime you’re teaching any kid,” she said, “the more I know about their personality and how they learn best, the better I’m going to be able to reach them and deliver that.”

And Dr. Poropat said a knowledge of students’ personality traits “provides teachers with more guidance on what they should be doing in the classroom.” People with high levels of openness may learn differently from those in whom the trait is less prominent, he noted. “You can train the students who are low on openness to become more open and curious and so on, but also the teacher can adapt their way of learning to suit the students.”

“A good teacher makes a huge difference,” he said. “It’s not just what the student brings.”

See the full article here: http://op-talk.blogs.nytimes.com/2015/01/10/should-schools-teach-personality/?_r=0 

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