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When Educational Interventions Find Synergy

New research shows how changing students’ views on stress and learning pays off.

Key points

  • The synergistic mindsets intervention, a combination of growth mindsets and stress reframing, changes how students react to negative events.
  • Students who experienced this intervention showed lower threat response to stress and higher challenge response (e.g. improved cardiac output).
  • Students who experienced this intervention also reported less negative self-regard, less anxiety, and performed better in school.
Annie Spratt/Unsplash
Source: Annie Spratt/Unsplash

Over the past five years, I’ve written about a slew of psychosocial interventions that higher education practitioners can implement to improve student success and reduce equity gaps. But a common question I hear is this: What happens when you combine these interventions? Do they enhance one another’s impact, or do they confuse, muddle, and otherwise get in each other’s way? A recent paper led by Dr. David Yeager, Associate Professor of Psychology at the University of Texas-Austin, demonstrates that the synergy between a growth mindset intervention and reframing stress as a challenge can have a profound impact on how students handle difficult, everyday situations.

The Synergistic Mindsets Intervention (SMI)

Across six studies, youths and college students experienced the SMI, which integrated information on the enhancing benefits of stress into a traditional growth mindset intervention. Students were taught that stressful events can be controllable, helpful, and are a necessary precursor to learning and accomplishment. Students also learned how physiological stress responses, like elevated heart rate and sweating, signal that the body is preparing to overcome a challenge and should not necessarily be dampened or avoided. It should be noted that these lessons were framed around everyday stressors, like a difficult math exam, and were not meant to be applied to more serious instances of abuse or trauma.

These messages were conveyed to students via scientific research as well as stories from older students about using these synergistic mindsets to overcome barriers to their success. Students then “self-persuaded” themselves to adopt these mindsets through expressive writing about their own stressful experiences, and by giving advice about the enhancing effects of stress to someone else going through something similar.

Physiological Effects of Synergistic Mindsets

Students who experienced the SMI consistently showed more positive, challenge-focused physiological responses to the Trier Social Stress Test, one of the crueler inventions of social psychology in the past 30 years. In this test, students deliver an impromptu speech about their personal strengths and weaknesses to their peers, who are actually confederates trained to give nothing but nonverbal signs of boredom and disapproval. Once the speech is over, students then count backwards from 996 by 7’s, having to start over whenever they mess up. This test is so effective, you’re probably stressed just from reading about it.

Across two studies with over 350 undergraduates, the SMI reduced students’ total peripheral response—a key indicator of a threat reaction to stress—throughout the Trier Test, but especially during the speech. These students also showed improved cardiac output, an indicator of a challenge response to stress. Importantly, neither a growth mindset nor a stress reframing intervention had this impact when administered separately.

But does the SMI reduce stress outside of a contrived situation? Another study recruited adolescents attending a rigorous, urban public charter school, of whom >95% identified as Black or Latinx, and 99% came from lower-income families. Across five days of tracking, students who underwent the SMI around two weeks prior had reduced levels of salivary cortisol, an indicator of less chronic activation of threat responses to daily stressors.

Mental Effects of Synergistic Mindsets

We know students today experience more mental health challenges than ever before. Could the SMI help? The urban charter school students mentioned above also reported their levels of stress and self-regard twice daily for five days. Overall, students who completed the SMI showed lower negative self-regard, an effect that was over twice as strong on days when they experienced higher stress. In other words, when these students experienced negative events they were less likely to beat themselves up over it.

A similar effect was observed among college students who experienced the SMI in January 2020, before anyone knew how the COVID-19 pandemic would impact higher education. In April 2020, after the college had shut down and many students were in lockdown, those who didn’t already endorse these synergistic mindsets showed lower generalized anxiety if they had undergone the SMI three months before.

Academic Effects of Synergistic Mindsets

Clearly, we all want students who are less stressed and better equipped to handle the daily challenges that come their way. But do these changes in their physiological and mental responses to stress translate to classroom success? Going back to the urban charter school students, those who completed the SMI were 14 percentage points more likely to pass their courses in spring 2020, when school abruptly shifted from in-person to online. This difference was largely driven by improved pass rates in science and math courses (63% for the SMI group vs. 47% for the control group). Thus, the SMI appears to benefit students even in the face of unexpected and unprecedented stressful events like a pandemic.

Caveats and Conclusions

This new approach to changing students’ mindsets to channel their stress into resilient, productive behaviors is exciting. However, a few caveats must be mentioned:

  1. It’s not necessarily true that combining any two nudging interventions will produce synergistic effects. A 2016 study (also by Dr. Yeager and colleagues) that married a growth mindset intervention with a social belonging intervention failed to improve student outcomes relative to either intervention in isolation. The reason the SMI may have worked so well is because the lessons about stress, growth, and learning complement one another.
  2. Recent research on growth mindsets shows that these interventions fail when students’ teachers and peers don’t support them. Synergistic mindsets, therefore, likely won’t help a student when their learning environment loudly conveys that talent is innate and stress is bad. More research is needed to determine where and when the SMI works best—or simply doesn’t work at all.
  3. We need further research on how the SMI impacts underrepresented students. Many students experience daily stressors that are unique to them because of their race, ethnicity, sexuality, gender identity, religion, or otherwise. In such cases, the idea that stress is enhancing may be damaging when the resolution to that stressor is not as straightforward as studying for a test or rehearsing a speech.

As research continues on synergistic mindsets, consider combining messages around growth mindsets and stress reframing in your classroom or advising. Together, these mindsets may enhance students’ ability to interpret stressful events as challenges, learn from those experiences, and excel in their studies.


Yeager, D. S., Bryan, C. J., Gross, J. J., Murray, J. S., Cobb, D. K…Jamieson, J. P. (2022). A synergistic mindsets intervention protects adolescents from stress. Nature, 607, 512-520.

Yeager, D. S., Carroll, J. M., Buontempo, J., Cimpian, A., Woody, S….Dweck, C. S. (2022). Teacher mindsets help explain where a growth-mindset intervention does and doesn’t work. Psychological Science, 33(1), 18-32.

Yeager, D. S., Hanselman, P., Walton, G. M., Murray, J. S., Crosnoe, R….Dweck, C. S. (2019). A national experiment reveals where a growth mindset improves achievement. Nature, 573, 364-369.

Yeager, D. S., Walton, G. M., Brady, S. T., Akcinar, E. N., Paunesku, D….Dweck, C. S. (2016). Teaching a lay theory before college narrows achievement gaps at scale. PNAS, 113(24), E3341-E3348.

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