Toward a New Measure of Intelligence

Robert Sternberg has spent his career finding other ways to gauge how smart people are. At Tufts, he's putting research into practice

Robert Sternberg botched his childhood IQ tests and earned a C in introductory psychology. But his inauspicious debut hardly reflects his intellectual prowess. His distinguished career includes 30 years as a professor at Yale, a stint as president of the American Psychological Assn. in 2003, and, as of 2005, the role of dean of the School of Arts and Sciences at Tufts University—where he has been given the chance to reinvent the definition of "intelligence." Or at least, how university admissions boards define it.

Standardized tests are seen by many as the standard of admissions criteria. Yet Sternberg's decades of research suggest that Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) scores don't fully reflect intelligence. And with the support of President Lawrence Bacow and Dean of Undergraduate Admissions Lee Coffin, Sternberg is spearheading reforms to the school's admissions process based on his scientific research.

This fall, in hopes of gaining a more complete understanding of future students, Tufts is expanding an experiment begun in 2005 and known as the "Rainbow Project." The pilot program consists of an optional application supplement designed to evaluate creative and practical aptitude, life skills that go beyond what the SAT can measure.


  Sternberg defines intelligence as mental activity devoted to "purposive adaptation to, selection, and shaping of real-world environments relevant to one's life." It is no wonder, then, that he believes the university should think about education "in terms of skills that matter."

His research indicates that when applicants' creative and practical intelligence are quantified and considered together, there is a substantial increase in the admissions committee's ability to predict academic success in the first year of college.

He also thinks that the modifications in the Tufts rating system will have the effect of admitting more students who reflect the institution's values of civic engagement. Given the research correlating test scores with socioeconomic status, the reforms should also help admit a more diverse class.


  Tufts' bold experiment is both trendy and groundbreaking—trendy in that it echoes the shift in business culture toward the creativity expressed in Daniel Pink's A Whole New Mind, and groundbreaking in that it inserts that thinking into the college admissions process once defined by the SATs.

Ultimately, it is a prescient attempt to address the labor needs of the U.S. economy, which can no longer compete against the Chinas and Indias by producing goods better, faster, and more cheaply. Companies will have to become more creative in their approach to innovation. To prepare, today's students will have to be fast, adaptive problem-solvers able to think beyond rote learning.

Liberal-arts students face the challenge of translating knowledge into marketable skills. Sheila Curran, executive director of Duke University Career Services and co-author of Smart Moves for Liberal Arts Grads encourages her students to tap into what today's workplace is looking for, namely "creativity, adaptability, and career resilience."

David Greenberg, senior vice-president of human resources for L'Oréal USA, puts the same message another way: "Leaders must have a vision for the business that goes beyond simple execution."


  Cue Robert Sternberg and his Rainbow Project. Of the several extra exercises students can choose to complete, one asks students to use an 8.5- by 11-inch sheet of paper to illustrate an ad for a movie, design a house, make an object better, or illustrate an ad for an object. In another, students are asked to write a story from the prompt "The end of MTV."

The exercise will be made available to more than 15,000 applicants this fall. Last year 40% chose to write an optional essay on top of the common application Tufts requires. Sternberg predicts that number will increase.

At Yale, as the IBM Professor of Psychology and Education and the director of the Center for the Psychology of Abilities, Competencies, and Expertise (which moves to Tufts this summer), Sternberg developed several intelligence theories. He has devoted research to leadership, love and hate, and styles of thinking.


  But perhaps his most famous contribution to cognitive psychology is the "triarchic" theory of intelligence, which contends that to be successful the individual must optimize and balance his or her creative, practical, and analytical abilities.

Peter Salovey, the Dean of Yale College and a longtime colleague of Sternberg's, recalls a time when people threw stones at the notion that intelligence was comprised of more than analytical variables. But Sternberg seems to be making progress. A consortium of 15 schools participated in his preliminary research on measuring creative and practical intelligence. Although those institutions may not have imminent reform agendas, they'll all be watching for the results of Tuft's experiment this year.