Student Well-Being

‘Growth Mindset’ Linked to Higher Test Scores, Student Well-Being in Global Study

By Sarah D. Sparks — April 09, 2021 4 min read
Conceptual image of growth mindset.

Most of the teenagers participating in the world’s largest math and science test believe that they can improve their own intelligence, and the strength of this “growth mindset” is linked not just to how well they do but to their own sense of well-being.

In 2018, the Program for International Student Assessment asked some 600,000 15-year-olds from 78 countries and economies whether they believed their own intelligence is something fixed and unchangeable; disagreeing with that has been shown in decades of prior research to predict higher academic achievement through a student’s willingness to persevere in difficult tasks and recover more quickly from failure, among other things.

Nearly 2 out of 3 students who participated in PISA across all countries demonstrated a growth mindset, according to the study released Thursday. Moreover, after controlling for students’ and schools’ socioeconomic differences, students with a strong growth mindset scored significantly higher on all subjects—31.5 points in reading, 27 points in science, and 23 points in math—compared with students who believed their intelligence was fixed. In the United States in particular, where about 70 percent of students demonstrated a growth mindset, it was associated with a 60-point higher score in reading.

Across 39 countries and economies, more girls showed a growth mindset than boys, and girls got a larger boost in academic performance from having a strong growth mindset.

30PISA growth chart web

The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, which administers PISA, found strong differences in mindset by nation, however. For example, while 75 percent or more of students in Estonia, Denmark, and Germany demonstrated a growth mindset, 26 other countries, including Mexico, Poland, and Hong Kong had fewer than half their students with a growth mindset.

“You look at the country, like Estonia, the number-one performer on PISA in the OECD area, and surprise, surprise, it is also the country that has the largest majority of students that hold the growth mindset,” said Andreas Schleicher, the director of education for the OECD, “and Indonesia, a country whose students struggle on PISA, and also [where] the majority of students believes that intelligence is something they cannot change.”

OECD found students in some East Asian countries and economies, such as Japan, Korea, and Chinese Taipei, saw a smaller academic benefit from having a growth mindset than the average for students in OECD countries. However, the researchers found that even within these countries and globally, students with a stronger growth mindset showed lower fear of failure, higher self-efficacy and motivation, and better well-being.

“To see this on a global level, it’s really illuminating and it adds another dimension to the story—not just achievement, but well-being,” said Carol Dweck a professor of psychology at Stanford University who coined the term “growth mindset.” “We didn’t know before [that] some of the strongest relations between growth mindset and well-being were found in places that had the weakest links between growth mindset and test scores.”

Teacher Supports Are Crucial

The report also identified teacher practices that contribute to students’ growth mindsets. Recent studies have found a teacher’s own mindset—whether he or she believes students’ intelligence and skills aren’t inherent and fixed—is a strong predictor of students’ engagement and academic performance, as well as the severity of race-linked achievement gaps between students.

In the PISA study, researchers asked students and teachers about three kinds of teaching practices—support, adaptive instruction, and feedback—and analyzed how teacher mindset and practices linked to students’ growth mindset and academic performance. For example, teachers who help students learn alternative strategies had students who were 3.5 percentage points more likely to have a growth mindset.

Teacher feedback was something of a double-edged sword. For moderately good readers, teacher feedback was associated with a stronger growth mindset—but it had no effect on the best readers, and more-struggling readers who got more teacher feedback were actually more likely to have a fixed and negative mindset about their reading ability.

Teacher support proved the most closely connected to both students’ mindsets and their performance. Students with supportive teachers—for example, those who show interest in every student learning and a willingness to provide extra help and explanation until a student understands—were 4 percentage points more likely to have a growth mindset than those without a supportive instructor.
In the United States, students with a growth mindset outperformed those with a fixed mindset by 48 points in reading when they had low teacher support, but by 72 points when they had supportive teachers.

Teachers in the United States also have worked to help students leverage a growth mindset to help build resilience to the ongoing challenges of the pandemic. The National Assessment of Educational Progress separately has gathered background data on students’ growth mindset since 2017.

“Maybe the most important thing we learned was teachers’ mindsets mattered,” Dweck said. “It was when the teachers themselves held more of a growth mindset that they created classroom cultures in which students’ new and improved growth mindset could take root and turn into enhanced achievement.”

“At the deepest level, it’s not really about putting a growth mindset into students’ heads and turning them loose,” Dweck said. “At the deepest level, it’s about creating classrooms in which a growth mindset for challenge and mastery can take root and thrive. It’s about creating culturally sensitive and inclusive classrooms that value all students learning equally, that put the emphasis on understanding and progress, and that support all students to learn from their setbacks and struggles.”