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Promoting Growth Mindsets

The Breakdown

Decades of research has shown that promoting a belief that one’s intelligence can be further developed through intentional actions is associated with improved academic outcomes (Dweck & Leggett, 1988; Paunesku, et al., 2015).  This self-belief is popularly known as a Growth Mindset.  Studies have demonstrated this effect across grade levels, including in higher education.  And while a certain percentage of students (and people generally) have a Growth Mindset already, surveys have also shown that many students have more of a Fixed Mindset, which means they believe that intelligence is more of a trait or talent, and that therefore, it may not be amendable to change, regardless of effort.   The potential harm of a Fixed Mindset is that it tends to diminish effort and persistence in the face of academic challenges, which is not surprising.  Why should someone work harder in the face of failure or difficulty if they believe that such effort won’t make a difference?

And while there are many socio-emotional and psycho-social variables that are associated with academic outcomes, what makes Growth Mindset promotion particularly compelling is that research makes it clear that it can be increased in a durable way and with an investment of time and energy often lower than other pedagogical and curricular interventions (Yeager, et al., 2016; ).  Furthermore, Growth Mindset interventions appear to close equity gaps in student performance due to their differential impacts on under-represented, low income, and first-generation students (Lacosse, et al., 2020).

Two Mindsets Explained

Fixed Mind-set

Intelligence is static. Leads to a desire to look smart and therefore a tendency to...

  • avoid challenges
  • give up easily
  • see effort as fruitless or worse
  • ignore useful negative feedback
  • feel threatened by the success of others

As a result, they may plateau early and achieve less than their full potential.

Growth Mind-set

Intelligence can be developed.  Leads to a desire to learn and therefore to a tendency to...

  • embrace challenges
  • persist in the face of setbacks
  • see effort as the path to mastery 
  • learn from criticism
  • find lessons and inspiration in the success of others

As a result they reach even higher.

Supporting Literature

Dweck, C. S. & Leggett, E. L. (1988). A social-cognitive approach to motivation and personality. Psychological Review, 95 (2), 256-273.

LaCosse, J., Canning, E. A., Bowman, N. A., Murphy, M. C., & Logel, C. (2020). A social-belonging intervention improves STEM outcomes for students who speak English as a second language. Science advances, 6(40), eabb6543. 

Paunesku, D., Walton, G.M., Romero, C.L., Smith, E.N., Yeager, D.S., & Dweck, C.S. (2015). Mindset Interventions are a Scalable Treatment for Academic Underachievement. Psychological Science.

Wentzel, Arnold (2019). Teaching Complex Ideas: How to Translate Your Expertise into Great Instruction. New York: Routledge. p. 159. ISBN 9781138482364.