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Why Academic Tenacity Matters

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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For academic achievement, ability is not enough. What’s also needed are mindsets and strategies for overcoming obstacles, staying on task, and learning and growing over the long-term. According to Gregory Walton and colleagues, academic tenacity is not about being smart, but learning smart.

Academically tenacious students:

  1. Feel as though they belong in school, academically and socially.
  2. See the relevance of education for achieving their personal future goals.
  3. Value effort.
  4. Seek challenging tasks that will help them learn rather than stick with easy tasks that offer no opportunity for growth.
  5. View setbacks as an opportunity for learning rather than an indication of their low innate ability or worth.
  6. Have a number of self-regulation strategies at their disposal to remain motivated and avoid distractions over the short and long haul.
  7. Believe in their ability to learn and perform.
  8. Enter the classroom with the goal of mastering the material, not outcompeting other students.
  9. Have a sense of purpose, and feel that their learning will contribute value to the world beyond themselves.
  10. Have positive, supportive relationships with teachers and peers.

Tenacity Interventions

“A well-timed, well-targeted psychological intervention can improve students’ relationships, experiences, and performance at a critical stage and thus improve their trajectory through their school careers.” — David Yeager, Gregory Walton, and Geoffrey Cohen

The good news about academic tenacity is that it can be developed, and a number of interventions exist. While these interventions are not magic, it’s promising that such brief adjustments in the classroom can produce such long-lasting effects. As Walton and colleagues point out, psychological interventions can “trigger enduring changes in the way students perceive their ongoing school experience.” What’s more, these interventions can work in tandem with other reforms aimed more at curriculum and instruction. Indeed, academic tenacity interventions are most effective when they utilize the student’s abilities and the classroom resources for growth.

Here’s a list of some empirically valid interventions to increase academic tenacity:

  • Changing mindsets. Changing the mindsets children hold about the malleability of intelligence can change the way students react to setbacks and deal with challenges in the classroom. Students who were explicitly taught that the brain grows new connections and “gets smarter” when working on challenging tasks showed increased effort, perseverance, state-wide achievement test scores, and a change in attitude toward mastery. Mindset interventions also have been shown to eliminate the gender gap on math achievement test scores.
  • Increasing social belonging. Strengthening students’ sense that they belong in the learning environment can alleviate their fears about performance, especially among at-risk minority students. In one intervention, first-year college students were reassured from more senior students that, regardless of ethnicity, it is normal to worry about their social belonging in the beginning of college, but that over time they will feel at home. Students then wrote essays reflecting on what they heard from the older students, and how it relates to their own personal experiences. They were told that their essays would be shared with incoming freshman in subsequent years. While the essay-writing task didn’t have much effect on white students, African American students who wrote the essays earned better grades over the next 3 years, and the Black-White achievement gap was reduced by 52%. African american students who underwent the intervention also took greater advantage of opportunities for learning.


Gregory Walton & Geoffrey Cohen: A question of belonging: race, social fit, and achievement

Gregory Walton & Geoffrey Cohen: A brief social-belonging intervention improves academic and health outcomes among minority students

  • Increasing school identification. In one “values affirmation” intervention among 7th grade students in an ethnically diverse middle school, students were asked to come up with a list of personal values, and rank them in order of importance. Students then wrote for about 15 minutes why their top ranked value was important to them. Those who were part of this intervention showed increased grades during the course of the semester, and were assigned to less remedial classes and more advanced math classes. The effects were particular pronounced among African American students with a history of poor performance, who are often considered the hardest to reach. In another intervention among low-income Black and Hispanic 8th graders in an inner city school district, students took part in a ten-session workshop in which they were asked to imagine a future “possible self,” list the obstacles they might encounter to realizing that self, and strategies they would use to overcome the obstacles. Students in the workshop showed greater academic initiative, improved standardized test scores and school grades in 9th grade, had fewer absences and instances of misbehavior in the classroom, scored lower in depression, and were 60% less likely to repeat 8th grade. The effects remained over a 2-year follow-up, and were found to be directly caused by changes in the students’ view of their possible selves.


Geoffrey Cohen, Julio Garcia, Nancy Apfel, & Allison Master: Reducing the racial achievement gap: a social-psychological intervention

Geoffrey Cohen, Julio Garcia, Valeria Purdie-Vaughns, Nancy Apfel, & Patricia Brzustoski: Recursive processes in self-affirmation: intervening to close the minority achievement gap

Daphna Oyserman, Kathy Terry, and Deborah Bybee: A possible selves intervention to enhance school involvement.

Daphna Oyserman, Deborah Bybee, & Kathy Terry: Possible selves and academic outcomes: How and when possible selves impel action

Dominque Morisano, Jacob Hirsh, Jordan Peterson, Robert Pihl, & Bruce Shore: Setting, elaborating, and reflecting on personal goals improves academic performance

Angela Duckworth, Heidi Grant, Benjamin Loew, Gabriele Oettingen, & Peter Gollwitzer: Self-regulation strategies improve self-discipline in adolescents: Benefits of mental contrasting and implementation intentions

  • Increasing self-regulation. The Student Success Skills Program is an excellent example of a school counseling program that increases academic tenacity through the cultivation of goal-setting and self-management strategies. Grounded in humanistic theory, the K-12 program is “aimed at increasing the sense of agency and individual capacity of the student as a learner and a meaning-making entity within the school environment.” Each week, students (most of whom are struggling in reading or math) select a personal goal and write a plan to help them reach it. They announce their intention with a partner, and then the following week they update their partner with their progress, and if unsuccessful, they brainstorm adjustments to their strategy. Stories and activities are used each week to strengthen academy tenacity. For instance, to increase stress management, students are told to imagine, in stressful situations, a “safe place where [you] feel protected and in control . . . a caring, supportive, and encouraging place to learn.” The students then practice breathing deeply and imagining their safe space. These activities help nip the “downward spiral” of negative thoughts and anxious feelings that are common in school. In one study, children participating in the program (including academically at-risk minority students) scored higher on statewide math and reading tests than students in a control group. These test score gains remained two years after completion of the program.


Elizabeth Villares, Matthew Lemberger, Greg Brigman, and Linda Webb: Student success skills: An evidence-based school counseling program grounded in humanistic theory.

Greg Brigman & Linda Webb: Student success skills: Impacting achievement through large and small group work

Matthew Lemberger and Elysia Clemens: Connectedness and self-regulation as constructs of the student success skills program in inner-city african american elementary school students.


This is just a sampling of successful interventions designed to improve academic tenacity, but they illustrate the potential for change among students. Sometimes all it takes is sending the message that all students belong and are capable of great accomplishments with the proper mindset, effort, and strategies for success.

© 2014 Scott Barry Kaufman, All Rights Reserved.

For more on interventions to boost academic tenacity, as well ways to integrate these interventions with ongoing curricula, see: Academic Tenacity: Mindsets and Skills that Promote Long-Term Learning.

image credit: istockphoto

Scott Barry Kaufman About the Author: Scott Barry Kaufman is Scientific Director of The Imagination Institute in the Positive Psychology Center at the University of Pennsylvania. Follow on Twitter @sbkaufman.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. mike_midwest 12:00 am 04/15/2014

    That sounds great, but first they have to be smart enough to do the work. In ways I admire students who take calculus over and over, but really they need to find something else to do. Maybe another major, maybe a career that does not involve a four year degree. You have to be smart enough to know when to move on. I am guessing the author has never taught a college math class.

    See: Beyond College for All, Career Paths for the Forgotten Half, by James E. Rosenbaum.

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  2. 2. gs_chandy 4:32 pm 04/17/2014

    mike_midwest: Here’s a link to a Wikipedia article on Scott Barry Kaufman: Your guess that Kaufman hasn’t taught a college level math class is probably right. I, however, have had some (not a whole lot) of college level teaching experience, and can warrant that most of Dr Kaufman’s ideas are pretty sound.

    The only things that (IMHO) that Dr Kaufman might have emphasised more is that ‘mind is a complex system’ and that our conventional means to handle issues in complex systems do not work very well.


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  3. 3. gs_chandy 4:42 pm 04/17/2014

    Further my last, I do have a fair background in math (though I’ve been focusing on systems now for many years) – and I am entirely certain that the ‘teaching’ of math (in schools and colleges) does need to be significantly improved.

    This could happen if math teachers, mathematicians and ‘general educators’ were to get together effectively and develop an effective Action Plan to ensure that the ‘learning + teaching’ dyad is effectively handled in our educational systems.

    In regard to math education, we really need to ask ourselves the question why most students leave school fearing and/or loathing math. The education system should certainly leave them with the idea that math is fascinating, very useful indeed – AND that most school and college-level math is not at all beyond the grasp of any reasonably intelligent individual. In general, except for a few exceptional math teachers, this is not what happens at all.


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  4. 4. 14099218 10:46 am 04/21/2014

    If creating short and long term goals have such a great effect on children and their academic tenacity, shouldn’t the concept of creating goals be integrated into schools’ curriculum? If students are taught to set goals for themselves and have the opportunity do this within a supporting system, with teachers and peers close by for assistance, will this not create new generations of academic tenacious students who will know where they belong and where they want to be. If goal setting and stress management could be presented and taught as a subject at school, it will have such a wide spread influence on the upcoming generations and in the end the country as a whole.

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  5. 5. Nicole123 10:04 am 05/1/2014

    As a first year student I find it hard to always stay positive but i can definitely say that the factors named above does have a huge impact on not only my mind set but also my academic performance. The more positive and mind challenging my lectures(even maths) are the more I want to know and study. As I am only beginning to feel socially accepted I don’t know what the outcome of that might be.
    I moved from my home town closer to college and that, I feel personally, had a huge impact on my marks as I was in a new city on my own and I am only beginning to feel at home after 5 months here.

    Your article really gave me some insight, thank you.

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