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Proving or improving yourself: longitudinal effects of ability beliefs on neural feedback processing and school outcomes

Periodic Reporting for period 3 - BRAINBELIEFS (Proving or improving yourself: longitudinal effects of ability beliefs on neural feedback processing and school outcomes)

Reporting period: 2020-03-01 to 2021-08-31

What is the problem/issue being addressed?
Education is of vital importance for youth to become happy and successful members of society. Unfortunately, not everyone completes an education with equal success and joy. Notable differences among children and adolescents are their motivation and resilience. For example, some view feedback about mistakes as a learning opportunity, while it causes others to give up or to choose easier tasks to avoid failing again. Although these individual differences are well-known, it is far from straightforward to know how unmotivated and under-achieving students can be helped, especially during adolescence. The ultimate aim of this project is to enable youth to optimally develop their potential at school, to maximize their chances to become balanced and successful members of society.

Why is it important for society?
It is increasingly known that adolescents experience high amounts of stress and pressure in our current societies. The current project investigates the development of resilience to setbacks during adolescence which is tightly linked to mental wellbeing, e.g. related to stress and burnout. At the same time, low motivation and under-achievement are also problematic. Adolescence is known to be an important developmental phase for motivated behavior, which can be leveraged by fostering adaptive self-regulation skills. The results of this project will be important to understand how adolescents can develop healthy self-regulation skills and motivation, to cope with pressure and stress, and to transition into adults who make decisions that are positive for their own personal development and health, as well as for society, e.g. for a sustainable environment.

What are the overall objectives?
The more direct scientific objectives that will lead towards the aimed societal impacts are: 1) To understand why adolescents, even when they have similar learning potential, show such different behavior in challenging learning situations and 2) to understand how we can stimulate adolescents to be resilient learners, such as choosing for challenges to improve themselves, and staying motivated after setbacks at school.
In one project, we are running a longitudinal study to address the first objective. We have recruited 340 young adolescents, whom we follow for three years. We are now halfway through the follow-up measurements. These participants complete a yearly questionnaire, in which we ask about their beliefs and motivations related to school and learning. In addition, they perform two behavioral learning tasks at the computer, also yearly, at their own school. This enables us to measure ‘learning behavior’, e.g. whether they choose easy of more challenging math tasks. A group of 68 adolescents also signed up to participate in the brain imaging part of the study, in which we use functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) to investigate how their brains process effort, feedback and mistakes, and how this processing changes from age 12/13 to age 14/15. We are still in the middle of collecting and analyzing all these data, and it is too early to share the results.

To inform how we should frame and communicate about the results of this project, we have investigated how adolescent’s and their parents think about the ‘teenage brain’ and how these views influence their behavior. The main results of this study are 1) that parents and adolescents mostly associate ‘teenage brain’ with negative words (taking risks, impulsive, lazy) and 2) that adolescents’ behavior when completing experimental tasks (e.g. measuring risk-taking) corresponds to the way they viewed the ‘teenage brain’. This implies that when researchers communicate results about adolescent brain development, they should be aware that any negative associations may have a self-reinforcing effect. You can read more about this study here: https://bold.expert/the-teenage-brain-prone-to-risk-taking-or-creative/

In the second main project of this ERC, we have developed an intervention to stimulate motivation and resilience, through teaching adolescents that their brain is very dynamic (plastic) and can be influenced by e.g. effort, and about what it means to think and react from a ‘fixed’ vs a ‘growth’ mindset. Uniquely to this ‘Explore your brain’ intervention, the adolescents that participate also experience that they have influence on their own brain processes, through custom-made EEG-based neurofeedback games. We have completed a randomized control trial with almost 440 adolescents, who received the four lessons of this intervention or the control lessons in their own school. The first follow up measure will take place in early 2020, and the first results will become available after that.
Many of the measures we use have not yet been obtained longitudinally from the same adolescents as they develop, as we do in the current research. This will enable us to unravel individual differences in developing motivation and resilience, by analyzing which variables predict learning and motivation trajectories over time. Unique is also that we have data on the development of functional networks in the brain in these same individuals, e.g. how the brain processes feedback and mistakes. This will reveal whether certain behavioral and belief patterns shape functional brain development (and/or vice versa), which may consolidate certain patterns over time.

The ‘Explore your brain’ intervention we developed in our second project will provide results that go beyond the state of the art in two ways. 1) after the neurofeedback games, participants filled in a brief survey on how much influence over their brain processes they experienced. We can study how well this “subjective influence” relates to the “objective influence” we derive from the EEG data. In addition, we can study the predictors of both type of influence from the baseline questionnaire. This will increase our understanding of what makes children feel in control. 2) we have rich and longitudinal post-measurements. Rich because we do not only measure school grades but focus also strongly on wellbeing and motivation profiles, and longitudinal as we will conduct follow-up measures until 2 years after the intervention. This will provide unique insights into how specific, robust and long-lasting the effects of our intervention are.
Project 1, brain imaging study: adolescent receives insructions for the scanning session
Proejct 2, neurofeedback lesson of the "Explore your brain" intervention