Nudges for Equity: Growth Mindsets

Part 1: Cultivating growth mindsets can profoundly impact students of color.

Posted Feb 17, 2021

heylagostechie/Unsplash
Source: heylagostechie/Unsplash

Education, then, beyond all other devices of human origin, is the great equalizer of the conditions of men, the balance wheel of the social machinery.” —Horace Mann, 1848

Sexist language aside, Mann’s point was clear: no matter who you are or where you come from, education can put you on an even playing field with anyone else. While higher education holds sacrosanct its role as an engine of socioeconomic mobility and equality, it often falls well short of this ideal. With the privileged having a leg up in academic preparation, college coaching, standardized testing, and admissions, Dr. Anthony Carnevale, Director of the Center on Education and the Workforce at Georgetown University, has argued, “higher education essentially preserves the intergenerational racial and class inequality in America now.” This inequality, which was already compounding at heretofore unseen rates, has only been exacerbated by the economic and health impacts of COVID-19.

Over the past four decades, social psychologists have developed a number of interventions that reduce inequities by modifying students’ beliefs and mindsets. While we need structural reforms that disentangle higher education from our national history of white supremacy and class division, I believe these micro-level interventions are an important piece of creating macro-level solutions. Over the next several months, I will share research on these interventions and guidance on how to apply them in practice. I begin here with growth mindsets, and later in this series will cover interdependent motives, threat reframing, social belonging, and values affirmation. While I’ve touched on all of these topics in the past, I will reexamine them through an equity lens, focusing on how we can use these interventions specifically to support students of color.

Growth Mindsets Among Students of Color

Growth mindsets may be the most influential theory in education in the past 20 years. In short, students who believe that skills and intelligence can improve with intentional practice, instead of relying on inborn talent (i.e. a fixed mindset), do better in school. More specifically, they tend to seek challenges, perceive setbacks as opportunities rather than threats, and worry more about learning than image. Students with growth mindsets even display less aggression and better mental health.

While a growth mindset is important to the success of any student, it can be especially impactful for a student of color. These students often navigate campuses steeped in White, middle-class norms, in which they encounter micro-aggressions that signal that they’re less capable of college-level academics than their peers. Whether attributed to intelligence or upbringing, a stereotype, by its very nature, implies an immutable flaw—and a fixed mindset.

Setbacks, therefore, take on a whole new meaning for students of color. When these students question their belongingness in college, they’re primed to recognize and internalize outcomes (e.g., a poor grade) that reinforce those doubts—an example of confirmation bias or self-verification. On top of that, students of color worry whether their performance reflects poorly on their peers, because nobody wants to be the example that reinforces the veracity of the stereotype.

Together, these factors pull students of color toward a fixed mindset to education, despite the fact that they tend to hold stronger growth mindsets than their White, more privileged peers. Students of color often avoid challenges, for fear that reaching too high and failing will reinforce stereotypes. They feel threatened by poor performance, leading them to change majors, colleges, or even drop out altogether. And, finally, they become focused on deflecting stereotypes by "looking smart" (e.g., not asking questions or seeking help), rather than learning. These are some reasons why growth mindset interventions have reduced equity gaps by improving performance among students of color.

Growth Mindset Interventions

While numerous growth mindset interventions have increased equity in secondary education, I will focus on evidence regarding college students. This first study from 2002 used a roundabout way to teach students about growth mindsets. Stanford undergraduates wrote supportive letters to at-risk middle school students from impoverished backgrounds. In preparation, some students were told about modern scientific views of intelligence as malleable and were asked to encourage their young pen pal to work hard to improve their grades. Techniques like this are common in social psychology, as they allow students to convince themselves of the importance of growth mindsets, rather than didactically giving them information that they may more eagerly scrutinize and reject.

The researchers found that writing these letters changed college students’ beliefs on the malleability of intelligence, which in turn led to better first-year grades. Especially important was that Black students benefitted more so than White students. Whereas White students earned a B+ average across conditions, Black students showed a significant increase from a B average to a B+ average. Interestingly, the letters didn’t convince Black students about growth mindsets any more so than White students; if anything, White students showed a more drastic change in their beliefs. Instead, we see that similar growth mindsets had a stronger impact on Black students.

A recent study updated this approach using an online module. As part of summer orientation, incoming Michigan State University students read an article about brain plasticity and answered several open-ended, self-reflective questions on times when they did or did not exhibit a growth mindset. Finally, they were asked to write advice for future students using information gleaned from the article. This online intervention produced significantly higher first-year grades for Latino students (B- average vs B average), but not for White students.

Surprisingly, the above intervention also failed to impact Black students. This finding echoes a recent study of incoming students taking gateway math or psychology courses at another public, state university. Using a similar protocol, these researchers found no impact of the growth mindset intervention on students of color, first-generation students, or Pell-eligible students. These results may suggest that a monolithic growth mindset intervention is too broad and that we need protocols adapted to specific students’ campus experiences (for example, see my discussion on culturally-adapted mindfulness interventions).

Another explanation is that structural and psychological barriers faced by Black students at highly competitive institutions like Stanford may be less prevalent at public universities like Michigan State. A third possibility is that time, not location, makes the difference: Barriers to success for students of color may have shifted in the past two decades such that strengthening growth mindsets is no longer sufficient to observe significant change. Finally, today’s students may have already been heavily exposed to growth mindsets, meaning these latest interventions are redundant. No matter the explanation, research on growth mindsets is still evolving to meet the needs of today’s underrepresented college students.

Implications for Practice

While the utility of growth mindset interventions is up for debate, some valuable lessons do emerge from this research. First, there’s no evidence that growth mindsets harm anyone, and there certainly are many studies in which conditions were right to meaningfully change students’ trajectories. While no one intervention should be viewed as a magic bullet, growth mindsets should be leveraged synergistically with other interventions and programs on campus to improve outcomes among students of color.

Second, these studies speak to the value of framing interventions as anything but. Students can react poorly to being told what to do or how to think, and any suggestion that they need help could undermine their confidence or induce anger—especially if that help is based on their social identity. Instead, opportunities for self-reflection or helping others may be a wiser approach. Encouraging students to write about these topics can trigger self-persuasion, as well as prove therapeutic for students dealing with anxiety. And advice-giving can empower the advice-giver to change their own beliefs and behaviors.

Finally, growth mindsets, along with the other interventions I’ll discuss in this series, speak to how we can help students at an individual level. Although we must continue to strive for a world devoid of racism and classism, we’ll never cure society of unfairness, disappointment, and rejection. That’s why it’s so important to implement strategies that protect students’ self-identities and help to build their capacity to endure struggle and come out stronger, regardless of the origin of their challenges.

To learn more about how nudges can increase equity in higher education, register now for my free upcoming webinar, Reducing Equity Gaps with Behaviorally Informed Text Messages (Wednesday, February 24, 1:00 pm EST). 

References

Aronson, J., Fried, C. B., & Good, C. (2002). Reducing the effects of stereotype threat on African American college students by shaping theories of intelligence. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 38, 113-125.

Brez, C. Hampton, E. M., Behrendt, L., Brown, L., & Powers, J. (2020). Failure to replicate: Testing a growth mindset intervention for college student success. Basic and Applied Social Psychology, 42(6), 460-468.

Broda, M., Yun, J., Schneider, B., Yeager, D. S., Walton, G. M., & Diemer, M. (2018). Reducing inequality in academic success for incoming college students: A randomized trial of growth mindset and belonging interventions. Journal of Research on Educational Effectiveness, 11(3), 317-338.

Hwang, N., Reyes, M., & Eccles, J. S. (2016). Who holds a fixed mindset and whom does it harm in mathematics? Youth & Society, 51(2), 247-267.