Growth mindset – the belief that intelligence is changeable, rather than fixed – has been promoted in classrooms across the country for years. Increasingly, teachers are encouraged to praise children for their effort and grit in solving problems rather than their innate intelligence. The widely recognized importance of a growth mindset in students has even spurred some to emphasize the characteristic as a potential element of school quality, to be tracked alongside test scores.
Until now, the evidence in support of the growth mindset has relied on studies of high school and college-aged students, and has provided little insight to development of the characteristic in historically underserved students. A new study presented this month at the fall conference of the Association for Public Policy Analysis and Measurement tackles these issues, and provides some intriguing new evidence about the academic impact of growth mindset.
The study examines 125,000 students attending 4th through 7th grades in five urban California school districts. In order to examine the impact of growth mindset on students’ learning outcomes, the authors linked student test score data to a measure of growth mindset that reflects responses to the following questions:
Please indicate how true each of the following statements is for you:
(1) My intelligence is something that I can’t change very much;
(2) Challenging myself won’t make me any smarter;
(3) There are some things I am not capable of learning; and
(4) If I am not naturally smart in a subject, I will never do well in it.
For each of these questions, students choose: Not at All True, A Little True, Somewhat True, Mostly True, or Completely True.
Their findings are substantial: historically underserved students were less likely than their peers to hold a growth mindset, and students that did hold a growth mindset showed significantly more learning over the course of a school year than did students with a fixed mindset.
The authors find that what they call the “mindset gap” impacts a variety of historically underserved student subgroups. Students who are eligible for free- and reduced-price lunch, English Language Learners, and both Hispanic and African American students all show lower degrees of growth mindset across the 4th-7th grades than did their peers. Female students were more likely to maintain a high level of growth mindset than their male peers until the 7th grade, when the gap closes. The authors note that these gaps are larger across schools than within an individual school, possibly highlighting the power of the school environment to shape beliefs about learning among students.
The authors’ findings on the impact of growth mindset on academic achievement are particularly striking. Students who had a high level of growth mindset measured in one year, when compared to demographically and academically similar students, achieved higher test scores and showed greater learning when tested in the following year. Students in all subgroups – including students of all races and ethnicities, socioeconomic statuses, and genders – who held a growth mindset saw higher test scores in both mathematics and language arts (by 0.04 standard deviations and 0.07 standard deviations, respectively). These higher test scores reflect significant additional learning over the course of a school year. The average student who moves from a fixed mindset to a neutral mindset experiences learning growth reflective of approximately 19 school days of learning – about one additional calendar month in the classroom.
Evidence continues to build on the effectiveness of growth mindset. Teachers and administrators already know that developing this attitude can help build students’ learning, but now current research tells us just how significant that impact may be. It is particularly important for schools serving underserved populations – those students who may be less likely to hold a growth mindset – to cultivate these beliefs about learning in their students. With nearly one month of additional learning growth on the line, developing and promoting growth mindset may bring significant achievement gains for all students.