How does the mind work—and especially, how does it learn? Teachers’ instructional decisions are based on a mix of theories learned in teacher education, trial and error, craft knowledge, and gut instinct. Such knowledge often serves us well, but is there anything sturdier to rely on?
Cognitive science is an interdisciplinary field of researchers from psychology, neuroscience, linguistics, philosophy, computer science, and anthropology who seek to understand the mind. In this regular American Educator column, we consider findings from this field that are strong and clear enough to merit classroom application.
Question: Growth mindset has become a wildly popular theory in the last 15 years, due not only to a book that has sold more than 2 million copies1 and a TED Talk that’s been viewed more than 14 million times2 but also to countless professional development sessions, Pinterest boards, and blog posts. It’s no wonder that in a 2016 survey of American teachers, just 4 percent said they were “completely unfamiliar” with mindset theory.3
Is there any substance behind the hype?
Answer: In this article, I’ll review research suggesting that there’s good evidence for the psychological validity of the theory and that the theory can be used to help students. But the theory is highly focused, and its target is broad. While mindset theory addresses one aspect of student motivation (which is affected by many other things), student success is determined not just by motivation, but by other factors as well. Hence, even if we develop an intervention that increases growth mindset, we should expect that these other factors—the school or classroom context, for example—will influence both the size of that increase and the impact it has on students’ learning. In short, increasing children’s growth mindsets may be beneficial, but it’s not a silver bullet solution to motivation, and the challenge of changing mindsets should not be underestimated.
From the 1910s until about 1960, American psychologists did not include mental life in their theories; they focused on behavior that could be observed because that was deemed to guarantee objectivity and rigor.4 To the extent that researchers considered motivation, they thought of it as a response to rewards and punishments in the classroom, or as an internal “drive” that a student either had or didn’t have. But theoretical developments and data gathered in the 1950s made it increasingly obvious that some aspects of people’s behavior were difficult to explain without including their thoughts.5
Mindset theory grew out of this perspective. In the early 1970s, psychology professor Carol Dweck suggested that your persistence on a task is not determined solely by your success or failure, but by how you interpret setbacks,6 which in turn is shaped by your beliefs about intelligence.7 If you believe intelligence is fixed—you’re born with an amount of smarts that can’t really be changed—then how well you do on intellectual tasks shows how much you have of that fixed quality. But that’s not true if you believe intelligence can be developed. If you can get smarter by working harder or using new strategies, poor performance on a task doesn’t mean you’re less intelligent; it just means you haven’t learned that particular content or skill yet.
The theory suggests that your belief about intelligence predicts not only how you interpret setbacks, but also the types of tasks you’re likely to select. If you think intelligence is fixed and task performance reveals your intelligence, then you’re motivated to select easy tasks so that you’ll look smart. But if you think intelligence can be developed and task performance reveals your level of mastery, then you’re more likely to select challenging tasks that allow you to learn something new. Thus, we might expect people with a growth mindset to show greater academic achievement than those with a fixed mindset because they more often take on challenging tasks, and because they are more likely to persist in those tasks when they fail.
In the 1980s and 1990s, Dweck and her collaborators conducted research to test these predictions, and the results were encouraging. In one study, researchers told children that it was important to succeed in a task.8 Some children were led to believe that they were not very good at the task, and they essentially stopped trying. They thought that their mistakes meant they couldn’t succeed. Other children were told that they were doing the task well; the researcher told these children that they must have had a lot of ability for the task. These children worked hard—they wanted to maintain their success—but they also passed up the opportunity to learn more. Given a choice between easy or more challenging versions of the task, they picked the easy version to be sure that they continued to succeed.
A third group of children was told that the main purpose of the task was to learn rather than to perform well. For them, it didn’t matter whether they thought their current level of skill was high or low. They persisted, and given a choice, they opted for more challenging versions of the task; they wanted to learn from their mistakes.
Other work from Dweck’s team explored why children might pick a goal—to learn or to perform well—when the experimenter hadn’t explicitly guided them toward one.9 In one experiment, fifth-graders worked a set of 10 problems and all were told they had done well. In addition, some were praised for their intelligence (“You must be smart at these problems”), whereas others were praised for their effort (“You must have tried hard on these problems”). Yet others were given no further feedback. The children were then given the chance to select problems that were described as easy (and which they’d probably get right), or problems they’d learn a lot from (even if they would not “look so smart”).
The results were striking: children praised for their intelligence chose easy problems—they wanted to succeed and worried about looking unintelligent. Children praised for their effort chose difficult tasks because they wanted to learn. And when given a choice between discovering how other children performed on the problems or learning new strategies for solving the problems, the children praised for their intelligence wanted to know how others performed. Children praised for effort, in contrast, wanted to learn new strategies.
What’s behind this effect? Dweck and her research team thought that different types of praise can carry different messages to children about intelligence. Being “smart at these problems” implies that “smart” is an intrinsic characteristic of the child—thus, working hard has little effect. Also implied is that because smart people just do well at things, the way to show that you’re smart is through success. “You must have worked hard at these problems,” in contrast, implies that success is due to what the child does, not what the child is—thus, children get smarter by working hard.
In other experiments, Dweck and her colleagues showed that the different types of praise did indeed change children’s view of intelligence, which was measured by their agreement with statements like, “You have a certain amount of intelligence and really can’t do much to change it.”
It seems obvious that if a growth mindset prompts you to select challenging work, to learn from your mistakes, and to persist in the face of difficulty, you’ll do better in school with a growth mindset than with a fixed mindset. That prediction was examined in a group of 373 New York City middle schoolers and was supported.10 The math grades of those with a growth mindset improved during seventh and eighth grades, whereas the grades of those with a fixed mindset stayed flat.
But that’s a correlation, of course, and we know that correlation is not causation; we need to change students from a fixed to a growth mindset to properly test the theory. This last piece of the puzzle seemed to fall into place neatly. In one experiment, college students participated in a pen pal program for struggling middle school students.11 Some were told to write to students about “what research is revealing about human intelligence.” In fact, this was the intervention aimed to prompt a growth mindset in the college students. And indeed, end-of-year grades were higher for students in whom a growth mindset had been prompted than in students who were not exposed to the intervention.
You probably know what happened next: in the late aughts, growth mindset exploded in popularity among educators. Today, searching “growth mindset” on Amazon yields over 2,000 hits, with products like workbooks for children, bulletin board displays, growth mindset journals, DVD training courses, motivational wall art, children’s books, and more. That popularity seems to have been matched in schools, as more than 90 percent of American teachers know about the theory.
But while the growth mindset juggernaut gathered momentum, researchers continued to test the predictions, and the data concerned them. Some researchers who sought to develop growth mindsets in students did observe the predicted outcomes,12 but others did not. One team of researchers sought to replicate the Dweck study described above, in which fifth-graders chose between performing well and learning more; although they used a large sample and tried to match the original method, they obtained mixed results.13 Other researchers did too.14 Large-scale growth mindset interventions in England15 and Argentina16 reported no effects, but an intervention in Peru17 did seem effective.
One might suggest that the theory is right, but some of the interventions were just not carried out properly. For example, in the Argentinian study, the researchers adapted a multisession intervention designed for American seventh-graders and administered it to Argentinian 12th-graders in a single session. There’s little information about the changes made, but the researchers reported that student attitudes were unaffected, so it’s no surprise that outcomes such as grades were also unaffected.
Still, you don’t need to induce a growth mindset to test whether people who already have a growth mindset (for whatever reason) have higher academic achievement, and that’s usually observed. True, one study showed no association between growth mindset and performance on a Czech college entrance exam in 5,653 students.18 But another study19 reported a positive relationship between a growth mindset and academic achievement in a nationally representative sample of US ninth-graders, as did a study that examined Chilean 10th-graders’ scores on national standardized assessments in language and math.20 And in another study of 221,840 fourth- through seventh-grade students in California, growth mindset predicted achievement gains after controlling for student background, previous achievement, and other social-emotional skills.21
Why does a growth mindset only appear beneficial in some studies? A possibility suggested by some researchers is that the theory is just wrong, and the studies that seem to support it are flukes22—but the expected correlational finding (increased achievement) has usually been observed, which indicates this is not the case.
A second possibility is that the theory is right, but changing growth mindset isn’t easy. Many researchers have not been careful to follow successful methods used by others and have instead created their own interventions based on their reading of the theory. Here’s an incomplete list of the methods researchers have used:
- Sending an informational pamphlet home with students23
- Sending a letter to parents24
- Developing an online intervention for students25
- Asking students to read about growth mindset and write a letter to someone else about it26
- Having students read articles about “brain science”27
- Having students read about Einstein (because of his reputation as a genius) or Edison (because of his reputation as a hard worker)28
Like these researchers, some teachers seem to not realize how much effort creating a growth mindset requires. Dweck, in a 2015 op-ed, expressed concern that attempts to bring a growth mindset to classrooms emphasized effort but excluded the other components of the theory.29 In short, students were praised so long as they tried. She pointed out that a growth mindset is a strategy for dealing with setbacks; it calls for gathering feedback about what went wrong, carefully considering that feedback, and developing new strategies for the failed task. Praising the effort of a child who just failed (without emphasizing feedback and strategies) may carry the perverse implicit message that the praise is offered as a consolation prize because the adult believes that child cannot succeed.
A third reason the effect of a growth mindset may seem to come and go is that lots of other factors influence student outcomes. Mindset and achievement may be related, but the effect might appear large, small, or absent depending on those other factors.
This interpretation is supported by the largest study to examine growth mindset and achievement, conducted by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development as part of the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) testing program.30 About 500,000 15-year-old students were asked how much they agreed with the statement “Your intelligence is something about you that you can’t change very much.” Those who agreed (and thus have a fixed mindset) scored, on average, 32 points lower on the reading portion of the PISA than those who disagreed (after statistically accounting for the socioeconomic profiles of students and schools). Holding a growth mindset was positively associated with students setting higher learning goals, students’ motivation to master tasks, and students perceiving value in going to school—and as growth mindset increased, fear of failure decreased.
But breaking the data down by country revealed enormous variability in these findings. In some countries, the effects were large, and in others, nonexistent. No wonder, then, that studies of a few hundred or even a few thousand children in one location or another sometimes show a strong relationship between growth mindset and academic achievement and other times do not. The size of this relationship must depend on other factors.
Refining the Intervention
The last five years has seen an attempt to address both problems: to develop a growth mindset intervention that is carefully constructed to maximize its effectiveness and to explore the effects of other factors that interact with growth mindset in the hopes of developing an intervention that is effective in many contexts.31
Researchers first set out to develop an intervention that stood the best chance of working consistently at scale—that is, one that could be administered to thousands of students in a school district or university. Many of the successful interventions had used trained instructors, but that method is prohibitively expensive at scale. An online intervention seemed the best way to reach many students.
The strategy to develop the online intervention was painstaking. Rather than simply creating what they hoped would be an effective intervention and then conducting their experiment, researchers used an iterative process. They started with an intervention that had been successful32 and then interviewed students to get feedback on what they found engaging or boring, clear or confusing, and so on.33 These interviews inspired changes to the existing intervention, whereupon researchers compared the new version with the old to see which had the greater effect on growth mindset. Researchers then interviewed students about their reactions to the new intervention, which was then further refined as necessary.
When researchers had an online version they thought was effective, they administered it to 7,335 students entering a public university. Not only did the intervention increase growth mindset, but by year’s end the dropout rate among socially and economically disadvantaged students was lower for those in the intervention group compared to the control group.34
The effectiveness of the intervention was replicated in a study involving nearly all the high schools in two counties in Norway, a total of 6,451 students.35 There, too, the intervention increased growth mindset, and it prompted students to enroll in more difficult math classes the following year.
The Role of Context
These data showed the value of continued refinement of an intervention, but they did not address questions about other factors that impact whether (or to what extent) developing a growth mindset is beneficial. That issue was tackled in a 2019 study that tested the effectiveness of the online intervention in a nationally representative sample of 12,490 ninth-graders attending 65 schools.36 The researchers adjusted the intervention to match the concerns (and reading levels) of ninth-graders; as before, they interviewed students and conducted small-scale studies to be sure that the new materials were effective in creating a growth mindset. They employed independent contractors to recruit the schools, administer the intervention, and collect the data to eliminate any possibility that the researchers would unwittingly influence the results.
As in previous studies, the intervention increased students’ growth mindset, and it increased the GPA of lower-achieving students by an average of 0.10 grade points (on a 4.0 scale) in core classes, a substantial increase in the context of educational interventions. The researchers sought to determine why the intervention had a larger or smaller impact at different schools—for instance, why the impact on grades was smaller at schools with high average achievement. They speculated that these schools typically enjoy such ample resources that the growth mindset intervention just couldn’t add much to grades. But students in those schools were more likely to take more advanced math classes the following year—an effect that was not as strong at the schools with lower average achievement.
The researchers also examined the effect of peers—specifically, the extent to which peers think it’s acceptable or a good idea to ask challenging questions in school. This was measured by having students construct a math worksheet from a selection of problems that they were told varied in difficulty. The growth mindset intervention had a bigger impact on individuals whose peers tended (on average) to pick difficult questions for the math worksheet. Why? Having a growth mindset means asking hard questions, so being surrounded by people who do the same makes it easier to act on a growth mindset. (Consider how hard it would be to maintain a growth mindset if your requests for more challenging work were met by your peers’ scorn.)
Another analysis of this dataset examined whether the teacher’s mindset had an impact on the relationship of growth mindset and math grades.37 The results showed that prompting a growth mindset in students did not affect their grades if their teacher had a fixed mindset. But if the teacher had a growth mindset, student math grades increased by an average of 0.11 grade points (on a 4.0 scale). It’s not hard to imagine teacher behaviors that could amplify or crush the effect of a student growth mindset. Teachers with a growth mindset might convey to students the attitude that mistakes are opportunities for learning, and they might use assignments that explicitly reward continual improvement. Teachers with a fixed mindset, in contrast, might convey harmful messages like “some of us are math people and others just aren’t.”
The study of Norwegian high school students examined another potential context effect of growth mindset.38 Some students had already selected their classes for the following year when they completed the online intervention, whereas others had not. Recall that a growth mindset is predicted to make students more likely to select challenging work. But if a student had already selected classes for the following year, then selecting more challenging work might require going through the bureaucratic hassle of changing their course registration. As predicted, the growth mindset intervention was more likely to prompt students to take more difficult math courses in schools where students had not yet picked classes for the following year. There was still an impact of the intervention if they had already registered for the next year’s classes, but the effect was smaller.
What Does This Mean for Educators?
Is it worth trying to promote a growth mindset in students? Yes. The effect may seem small, but it’s in the range of lots of education effects. We know there aren’t any silver bullets. We have to take many small steps with the expectation that each will make a small contribution to greater student success.
What’s more, we should not accept or reject steps solely based on the expected effect size. We also need to consider the cost to students and to educators, and that is where growth mindset is a real bargain. The web-based intervention that has been the most consistently successful requires little time from teachers and just two 25-minute sessions from students. (Dweck and her colleagues have created free materials for teachers and families; visit mindsetkit.org.)
There’s another way that growth mindset research can influence education. It is inevitable that students will have setbacks and that educators will talk with students about them. Research on growth mindset offers a useful set of principles to guide such conversations. It’s not enough to believe “all students can learn.” Teachers must act in ways that are consistent with that belief, especially when it comes to the behaviors they encourage and praise.
Growth mindset suggests three concrete steps for educators when a student suffers an academic setback:
- Encourage students to seek feedback about what went wrong.
- Encourage students to analyze these errors and use them as opportunities for learning.
- Encourage students to think of ways they might do things differently when they try again.
The context effects reviewed here also provide helpful guidance—or, more likely, a reminder for educators to engage in practices they already know to be beneficial. A growth mindset has a larger impact when peers think it is appropriate to engage in challenging work. It also has a bigger impact when the environment makes it easier to act on a growth mindset—for example, when it is easier to take on challenging coursework. And students’ growth mindsets may have no impact at all if their teachers have fixed mindsets.
Over the last decade, I’ve talked to many teachers who feel that they’ve been harangued on the subject of growth mindset, and they are tired of it. But students’ beliefs—and your beliefs—about intelligence do have an impact, and the question of how to deal with student failure comes up in every classroom. There’s good reason for you to put the research to work.
Daniel T. Willingham is a professor of cognitive psychology at the University of Virginia. He is the author of several books, including Outsmart Your Brain: Why Learning Is Hard and How You Can Make It Easy. Readers can pose questions to “Ask the Cognitive Scientist” by sending an email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Future columns will try to address readers’ questions.
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11. J. Aronson, C. Fried, and C. Good, “Reducing the Effects of Stereotype Threat on African American College Students by Shaping Theories of Intelligence,” Journal of Experimental Social Psychology 38, no. 2 (2002): 113–25.
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17. I. Outes-Leon, A. Sanchez, and R. Vakis, “The Power of Believing You Can Get Smarter: The Impact of a Growth-Mindset Intervention on Academic Achievement in Peru,” Policy Research Working Paper no. 9141, World Bank, February 2020.
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19. M. Destin et al., “Do Student Mindsets Differ by Socioeconomic Status and Explain Disparities in Academic Achievement in the United States?,” AERA Open 5, no. 3 (2019): 233285841985770.
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21. S. Claro and S. Loeb, “Students with Growth Mindset Learn More in School: Evidence from California’s CORE School Districts,” working paper, Policy Analysis for California Education, October 2019.
22. Li and Bates, “You Can’t Change Your Basic Ability”; and B. Macnamara and N. Rupani, “The Relationship Between Intelligence and Mindset,” Intelligence 64 (September 2017): 52–59.
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24. Bostwick and Becker-Blease, “Quick, Easy Mindset Intervention.”
25. C. Brez et al., “Failure to Replicate: Testing a Growth Mindset Intervention for College Student Success,” Basic and Applied Social Psychology 42, no. 6 (2020): 460–68; and J. Burnette et al., “A Growth Mind-Set Intervention Improves Interest but Not Academic Performance in the Field of Computer Science,” Social Psychological and Personality Science 11, no. 1 (2020): 107–16.
26. J. Aronson, C. Fried, and C. Good, “Reducing the Effects of Stereotype Threat on African American College Students by Shaping Theories of Intelligence,” Journal of Experimental Social Psychology 38, no. 2 (2002): 113–25; Ganimian, “Growth-Mindset Interventions at Scale”; and Outes-Leon, Sanchez, and Vakis, “The Power of Believing.”
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28. D. Hu et al., “Not All Scientists Are Equal: Role Aspirants Influence Role Modeling Outcomes in STEM,” Basic and Applied Social Psychology 42, no. 3 (2020): 192–208.
29. C. Dweck, “Carol Dweck Revisits the ‘Growth Mindset,’” Education Week, September 22, 2015.
30. Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, PISA 2018 Results (Volume III): What School Life Means for Students’ Lives (Paris: PISA, OECD Publishing, 2019).
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33. D. Yeager et al., “Using Design Thinking to Improve Psychological Interventions: The Case of the Growth Mindset During the Transition to High School,” Journal of Educational Psychology 108, no. 3 (2016): 374–91.
34. D. Yeager et al., “Teaching a Lay Theory Before College Narrows Achievement Gaps at Scale,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 113, no. 24 (June 2016).
35. M. Rege et al., “How Can We Inspire Nations of Learners? An Investigation of Growth Mindset and Challenge-Seeking in Two Countries,” American Psychologist 76, no. 5 (2021): 755–67.
36. D. Yeager, “A National Experiment Reveals Where a Growth Mindset Improves Achievement,” Nature 573, no. 7774 (2019): 364–69.
37. D. Yeager et al., “Teacher Mindsets Help Explain Where a Growth-Mindset Intervention Does and Doesn’t Work,” Psychological Science 33, no. 1 (2022): 18–32.
38. Rege et al., “How Can We Inspire?”
[Illustrations by James Yang]