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Testing Growth Mindsets in Real Classrooms

Having a growth mindset helps students when their teacher does too.

Key points

  • A growth mindset is the belief that a characteristic can change and develop.
  • A fixed mindset is the belief that a characteristic is a trait that does not change much.
  • Instilling a growth mindset in students helps math performance when the teacher also has a growth mindset.
 SDI Productions/iStock, licensed to Art Markman
Source: SDI Productions/iStock, licensed to Art Markman

Chances are, you have heard about the value of taking a growth mindset for a variety of learning situations. Research by Carol Dweck and her colleagues pioneered the idea that you can view things like intelligence or other personality characteristics as fixed (in which case you believe that they are hard or impossible to change) or as capable of growth (in which case you believe that effort can lead to changes).

Studies suggest that when people adopt a growth mindset about intelligence, they are likely to work harder at challenging tasks with the belief that the hard work will improve their ability. Adopting a fixed mindset can lead people to give up when work gets challenging, because they take it as a sign that they have reached the limits of their fixed ability.

Clearly, then, it would seem that adopting a growth mindset would be better for students in school where challenging topics can often be managed with effort and teacher support. But, how does this play out in the real world, where many more factors come into play than in laboratory studies where care is taken to avoid potential confounding factors? Indeed, some early studies showed mixed results on school performance for the influence of interventions designed to influence students’ mindsets.

Carol Dweck, my University of Texas colleague David Yeager, and a number of other prominent researchers have engaged in a series of studies aimed at assessing the impact of inducing a growth mindset with an eye toward understanding factors that influence the effectiveness of these interventions. An interesting paper describing a recent analysis of this work appeared in the January 2022 issue of the journal Psychological Science.

This paper analyzed data from a large-scale study of a national sample of ninth-grade students in the United States called the National Study of Learning Mindsets. It focused on math grades, because math is a topic that many students struggle with and where people may hold different beliefs about the ability to learn math concepts.

At the start of the year, students were randomly assigned to learn about a growth mindset or assigned to a control condition. The growth mindset intervention consisted of two 25-minute lessons about how the brain changes and adapts during learning to accommodate new information. The control condition also consisted of two 25-minute lessons about the brain, but these lessons did not mention anything about the growth and adaptation of the brain.

An interesting facet of this study is that because the learning intervention was randomly assigned, some students in each class were in each condition of the study. That is, some were more likely to adopt a growth mindset about school than others.

In addition to this intervention, the study asked teachers a number of questions including questions to assess whether they had a growth or a fixed mindset about learning. The researchers were most interested in whether the mindset of the teacher influenced how well the intervention worked.

Statistical analysis of students’ math grades suggested that the growth mindset intervention had the biggest impact on students when the teacher also had a growth mindset. In this case, students taught about a growth mindset for 50 minutes at the start of the school year had a math grade average about 0.11 points higher (on a 4-point grade scale) than students who got the control manipulation.

When students had a teacher with a fixed mindset about learning, though, the growth mindset intervention had no reliable influence on student performance. So, the teacher’s belief about learning mattered a lot.

A study like this cannot determine exactly why the teacher’s mindset matters, but you can imagine a variety of reasons why this might be the case. Teachers with a fixed mindset might provide feedback to students that reinforces a fixed mindset. They might explain a student’s poor performance by saying, “Math is hard, and you might not be good at it.” Similarly, they might explain a good student’s performance by saying, “Oh, you have a real aptitude for math.” While this feedback is positive, it reinforces the idea for students that some are good at math and some are not. More research would be required to determine exactly why the teacher’s mindset has such a big influence on the impact of the growth-mindset intervention.

Overall, though, it is fascinating that such a simple lesson about the growth and adaptation of the brain when new information is learned can have a profound impact on the performance of some students in a subject that has the potential to create academic problems. It is nice to see that a promising proposal like growth mindset is starting to receive rigorous testing in real-world environments. It can be difficult to translate ideas that start in the lab to interventions that work. Studies like this are an important part of the path to finding ways to use psychology to help students.

References

Yeager, D.S., Carroll, J.M., Buontempo, J., Cimpian, A., Woody, S., Crosnoe, R., Muller, C., Murray, J., Mhatre, P., Kersting, N., Hulleman, C., Kudym, M., Murphy, M., Duckworth, A.L., Walton, G.M., & Dweck, C.S. (2022). Teacher mindsets help explain where a growth-mindset intervention does and doesn't work. Psychological Science, 33(1), 18-32.

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