Do you believe that how hard you work to learn something is more important than how smart you are? Do you think that intelligence is not set in stone, but that you can make yourself much smarter? If so, congratulations! You have a growth mindset.
Proposed by Stanford psychologist Carol S. Dweck, mindset theory states that there are two perspectives people can have on their abilities. Either they have a growth mindset–where they believe their intelligence and their abilities are malleable–or they have a fixed mindset. People with a fixed mindset believe that their abilities are either impossible to change or highly resistant to change.
According to the theory, people with a growth mindset are more resilient in the face of adversity, persist longer in tasks, and learn more in educational programs. People with a fixed mindset deny themselves of these benefits.
I first learned about mindsets as an undergraduate psychology student in the 2000s and in my educational psychology graduate program. Mindset theory is hugely popular in education. One recent study found that 88% of K-12 teachers in the United States believed that having a growth mindset was an important factor for student achievement (Education Week Research Center, 2016, p. 15), and 97% believe that all students can and should have a growth mindset (p. 19).
But, like many popular findings from psychology, mindset theory is not faring well in the replication crisis. Scientific American published a great article in August about the debate around mindset theory.
As part of the preparation for my upcoming book, In the Know: Debunking 35 Myths About Human Intelligence, I carefully studied the high-quality studies on mindset interventions. What I found was conflicting. [Update: In the Know has now been released.]
Evidence That Mindset Theory is Bunk
On the one side are the studies that serious call into question mindset theory and the effectiveness of its interventions. Li and Bates (2019) have a failed replication of Mueller and Dweck’s (1998) landmark study on how praise impacts student effort. Glerum et al. (in press) tried the same technique on older students in vocational students and found zero effect. Two British studies in which students were taught growth mindset should no impact on grades or other outcomes (Foliano, Rolfe, Buzzeo, Runge, & Wilkinson, 2019; Rienzo, Rolfe, & Wilkinson, 2015).
The meta-analysis from Sisk et al. (2018) is pretty damning. They found that the average effect size for mindset interventions was only d = .08. (In layman’s terms, this would move the average child from the 50th to the 53rd percentile, which is extremely trivial.) Sisk et al. (2018) also found that the average correlation between growth mindset and academic performance is a tiny r = .10. This matches Bahník and Vranka’s (2017) finding that the correlation between growth mindset and academic aptitude is r = -.03.
But Maybe Teaching a Growth Mindset is Beneficial
On the other hand, there are three randomized control studies that suggest that growth mindset can have a positive impact on student achievement. Paunesku et al. (2015) found that teaching a growth mindset raised the grad point averages of at-risk students by 0.15 points. (No overall impact for all students is reported.) Yeager et al. (2016) found that at-risk students’ GPAs improved d = .10, but students with GPAs above the median had improvements of only d = .03. This has been replicated by Yeager et al. (2019), which showed an impact of d = .11 for at-risk students’ GPAs, but only d = .03 for the general student body.
These studies all show that growth mindset interventions can have an impact on student GPAs–provided that the students are at-risk. The impacts are modest, though. Still, these are methodologically mature studies, especially the Yeager et al. (2019) study, which was pre-registered. They cannot be easily dismissed.
Reconciling the Contradiction
For a few months, I puzzled over the contradictory literature. The studies are almost evenly balanced in terms of quality and their results.
Then I discovered the one characteristic that the studies that support mindset theory share and that all the studies that contradict the theory lack: Carol Dweck. Dweck is a coauthor on all three studies that show that teaching a growth mindset can improve students’ school performance. She is also not a coauthor on all of the studies that cast serious doubt on mindset theory.
So, there you go! Growth mindsets can improve academic performance–if you have Carol Dweck in charge of your intervention. She’s the vital ingredient that makes a growth mindset effective.
Bahník, Š., & Vranka, M. A. (2017). Growth mindset is not associated with scholastic aptitude in a large sample of university applicants. Personality and Individual Differences, 117, 139-143. doi:10.1016/j.paid.2017.05.046
Education Week Research Center. (2016). Mindset in the classroom: A national study of K-12 teachers. Bethesda, MD: Author. Retrieved from https://www.edweek.org/media/ewrc_mindsetintheclassroom_sept2016.pdf
Foliano, F., Rolfe, H., Buzzeo, J., Runge, J., & Wilkinson, D. (2019). Changing mindsets: Effectiveness trial. Evaluation report. Retrieved from https://educationendowmentfoundation.org.uk/public/files/Projects/Evaluation_Reports/Changing_Mindsets.pdf
Glerum, J., Loyens, S. M. M., Wijnia, L., & Rikers, R. M. J. P. (in press). The effects of praise for effort versus praise for intelligence on vocational education students. Educational Psychology. doi:10.1080/01443410.2019.1625306
Li, Y., & Bates, T. C. (2019). You can’t change your basic ability, but you work at things, and that’s how we get hard things done: Testing the role of growth mindset on response to setbacks, educational attainment, and cognitive ability. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 148, 1640-1655. doi:10.1037/xge0000669
Mueller, C. M., & Dweck, C. S. (1998). Praise for intelligence can undermine children’s motivation and performance. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 75, 33-52. doi:10.1037/0022-35188.8.131.52
Paunesku, D., Walton, G. M., Romero, C., Smith, E. N., Yeager, D. S., & Dweck, C. S. (2015). Mind-set interventions are a scalable treatment for academic underachievement. Psychological Science, 26, 784-793. doi:10.1177/0956797615571017
Rienzo, C., Rolfe, H., & Wilkinson, D. (2015). Changing mindsets: Evaluation report and executive summary. Retrieved from https://eric.ed.gov/?id=ED581132
Sisk, V. F., Burgoyne, A. P., Sun, J., Butler, J. L., & Macnamara, B. N. (2018). To what extent and under which circumstances are growth mind-sets important to academic achievement? Two meta-analyses. Psychological Science, 29, 549-571. doi:10.1177/0956797617739704
Yeager, D. S., Hanselman, P., Walton, G. M., Murray, J. S., Crosnoe, R., Muller, C., . . . Dweck, C. S. (2019). A national experiment reveals where a growth mindset improves achievement. Nature, 573, 364-369. doi:10.1038/s41586-019-1466-y
Yeager, D. S., Romero, C., Paunesku, D., Hulleman, C. S., Schneider, B., Hinojosa, C., . . . Dweck, C. S. (2016). Using design thinking to improve psychological interventions: The case of the growth mindset during the transition to high school. Journal of Educational Psychology, 108, 374-391. doi:10.1037/edu0000098