“I think I can. I think I can. I think I can,” says the Little Blue Engine to herself as she hauls a train full of toys up a mountain. In Watty Piper’s classic children’s book, all it takes is a dose of self-encouragement to give the engine the strength to overcome a seemingly impossible task.
Sound too good to be true? Perhaps not, a new study suggests. Researchers found that a simple, five-minute exercise can help boost math performance, especially for students who have poor confidence in their math ability. When students silently spoke words of encouragement to themselves that were focused on effort—saying phrases such as “I will do my very best!”—their math scores improved.
In the study, 212 Dutch schoolchildren in grades 4 to 6 took half of a standardized math test. After taking the half-test, they were split into three groups: The first group silently said to themselves words of encouragement focused on effort. The second group did a similar activity, but the words were focused on ability, favoring phrases such as “I’m very good at this.” The third group didn’t engage in self-talk at all. Afterward, the students took the second half of the math test.
Students who had participated in self-talk focused on effort improved their math performance on the test, while those who engaged in self-talk focused on ability, or no self-talk at all, experienced no improvement.
“When children with low self-confidence work on mathematics problems, they often worry about failure,” Sander Thomaes, the lead researcher of the study, told Edutopia. “They experience challenges and struggles—for example, a difficult problem to solve—as cues of low ability, triggering disengagement from the task and worsening performance. Effort self-talk may counter this process.”
So why doesn’t self-talk focused on ability work? Saying “I am the best” can feel like a hollow claim when students don’t feel confident about their own abilities—they’re likely to dismiss the message entirely, explained Thomaes. But telling yourself “I will try my hardest” is an achievable goal, shifting attention away from a perceived lack of ability toward something within a student’s control: effort.
Self-Talk and the Emotional Terrain of Learning
In the 1920s, Russian psychologist Lev Vygotsky observed that when faced with a challenging task, young children often engage in self-talk, reminding themselves to focus harder or talking themselves through a series of complicated steps. As children get older, the self-regulation strategies are generally no longer vocalized, but an emerging body of research suggests that lightweight, metacognitive exercises that ask older students to reflect on their fears, anxieties, or challenges are still highly beneficial—providing teachers with a cheap, reasonably simple intervention that can be used in a variety of school situations and across all grade levels.
A 2019 study, for example, was designed to help ease the transition into middle school by reminding students that the anxiety they felt was both natural and common. New students read stories from peers who had already graduated to the next grades; the essays confided the private fears and doubts the students harbored, and how building positive relationships with friends and teachers helped them cope.
The new students then completed two 15-minute writing exercises that asked them to reflect on their own anxieties about the upcoming school year, particularly around test-taking, and to consider reasons why they might do well even if they worried about the tests. The exercise had a surprisingly powerful effect: Compared with their peers, students who learned about the commonality of their fears and then wrote about them were 34 percent less likely to be disciplined for misbehavior, 12 percent more likely to attend school, and 18 percent less likely to receive a failing grade.
And in a study published last year, students participated in a 10-minute exercise immediately before a test in which they were encouraged to see stress as “a beneficial and energizing force.” They learned that small amounts of stress can help sharpen focus and aid memory by increasing oxygen flow into the brain. Students were then asked to write responses to two questions: “How do people sometimes feel in important situations?” and “How can the way a person feels in important situations help them do well in those situations?” The writing exercise helped the students manage the “worried thoughts about the possibility of failure” that often accompany a test, reducing the number of students failing out of the course by half—with low-income students seeing the biggest benefits.
Taken as a whole, the research suggests that academic performance not only relies on content preparation—you have to know fractions to succeed on some math tests—but also is significantly impacted by emotional and psychological preparation. Helping your students identify and circumvent the psychological barriers that hinder progress is part of teaching them how to navigate the emotional terrain of learning.
These powerful techniques appear to work even when students reflect altruistically. A 2019 study coauthored by Angela Duckworth, known for her research on grit and perseverance, asked nearly 2,000 high school students to give motivational advice to an anonymous younger student—on how to stop procrastinating or study better, for example—and then write a brief, encouraging letter to help the student do better in school. Despite the fact that the advice was given to someone else, the students earned higher grades in their own courses.
The takeaway: Be mindful of anxiety-provoking situations—from high-stakes tests to major in-school transitions—that can derail a student’s ability to focus. Try brief metacognitive discussions or simple writing exercises to help students overcome hurdles, recognize the commonality of their fears, and prepare emotionally and psychologically for looming challenges.