Any student’s self-confidence can take a hit at the start of high school. Yet giving students even a brief opportunity to understand and reflect on their mindsets for learning can make them likelier to challenge themselves and improve, finds a new national study in the journal Nature.
The study, published Wednesday afternoon, represents the largest experimental evaluation of a mindset intervention to date, covering a nationally representative sample of nearly 12,500 9th graders in urban, suburban, and rural public high schools. It found that two sessions of a 25-minute online task at the start of freshman year could boost students’ grades and willingness to take advanced classes.
“The study was timed for 9th grade on purpose because we think it’s a transitional year for young people, a time when the standards are rising, but also when they’re losing their support networks of friends and teachers,” said David Yeager, an associate professor at the University of Texas at Austin who led the study. “So we thought that a mindset that could instill optimism at that key juncture might be a welcome change for young people and set them on a better path.”
Specifically, researchers found low-performing students who participated in the exercise developed a stronger “growth mindset”—the belief that skills are developed over time and through effort, rather than being innate and “fixed.” By the end of freshman year, low-performing students who had participated had higher grade point averages, both in core academic classes and specifically in math and science courses, which prior research has suggested may be more likely to trigger a fixed mindset.
A nationally representative sample of 76 public high schools participated in the project. Researchers randomly assigned incoming 9th graders to participate in one of two 25-minute online interventions. For one of them, a control group of half of the students learned about and reflected on functions of the brain, without focusing on beliefs about intelligence.
The second intervention, given to the other half of the students, addressed beliefs associated with a fixed mindset: that having to try hard or ask for help or failing means a student lacks the ability to succeed; and that it is better to choose tasks that students know they can achieve rather than challenging themselves. Students see quotes from other students about how they apply a growth mindset during challenging activities. They are told about the mindset study, and asked to help by writing to explain the concept to another student and give advice about how it might apply in high school. (See a video of the mindset intervention below.)
“We had students who were historically underperforming, off grade-level, and chronically embroiled in discipline consequences putting in their absolute best effort to give advice about growth mindset to the students coming along behind them,” said Deanne Lowe, a curriculum facilitator at Ragsdale High School in Jamestown, N.C., one of the schools that participated in the study. She said students at her school were particularly engaged when trying to help other students.
“It blew me away every time I saw it and convinced me that the design of the growth mindset modules hit a nerve and stimulated heartfelt responses from teenagers,” she said.
Challenges in Measuring Impact
The concept of growth mindset has gained traction among educators in the last decade, as more schools have experimented with ways to get students to think differently about their own abilities and learning. But the effects of individual programs to encourage growth mindset have been mixed, and some researchers have voiced doubt that relatively short interventions can give a practical benefit to a wide array of students.
In a series of research meta-analyses in 2018, Brooke Macnamara, an associate professor in cognitive psychology at Case Western University, and colleagues found that the average effect size for growth mindset interventions tends to be small and focused mainly on low-performing or low-income students.
While Yeager’s intervention is free to schools, “there are always opportunity costs,” Macnamara said. “What you don’t want is time spent on a growth mindset intervention that doesn’t benefit most students or produces very small effects, and give up the opportunity to, say, learn the new math technique or a new topic in science.”
Yeager and his colleagues found the growth mindset intervention was associated with .10 of a point improvement on a four-point GPA scale. Macnamara suggested that changing a student’s GPA from 2.0 to 2.1 is “not really changing a whole lot. ... Something that actually changes [students’] GPA in a practical way—that college admissions can notice the difference—I think would be important.”
Although relatively small, the mindset intervention’s benefits could be “pretty meaningful if you’re talking about a scalable, low-cost intervention,” argued Mayme Hostetter, the president of the Relay Graduate School of Education in New York, who was not involved in the study but does incorporate mindset instruction for the preservice teachers in her program. “The effect size is the kind of thing you’re seeing from far less scalable, far more costly interventions that school districts and states paid for year after year. So, from a bang for your buck perspective, this seems incredibly potent.”
For example, Yeager and his colleagues noted that for students starting 9th grade with a 2.0 GPA, that degree of improvement would reduce the number of students who ended the year off-track for high school graduation by 5.3 percentage points.
Still, Yeager said trying to make the intervention itself longer or adding more reminder sessions probably “won’t add much value. Shorter is probably better if you are talking about the belief change.”
Peer Support Is Critical
Moreover, while high-performing students who received the mindset instruction saw no boost to their grades, both low- and high-performing students were more likely to enroll in advanced or honors math courses in 10th grade if they had participated in the growth mindset sessions.
“I suspect that higher-performing kids are somewhat buffered from the GPA effects of the intervention because they already have a relatively high GPA—you might have some kind of ceiling effect,” Hostetter said.
“But I do think that one of the higher-achieving student profiles is the kid who wants to get higher grades but doesn’t necessarily want to enroll in harder classes, for fear of not being able to achieve those higher grades,” Hostetter said. “I think that one of the things that the growth mindset intervention likely does for those students, is to plant the seed that it’s not so much about the grades as it is about the challenge—and engaging in challenge-seeking behavior in an academic setting is a positive thing to do.”
Other students may be particularly important to planting those seeds. Students in both the control and mindset groups filled out surveys on their beliefs about intelligence, but also performed a test which gauged their willingness to seek out challenging tasks. Yeager and his team used these to measure the student norms around growth mindset in each school. They found schools where student norms supported growth mindsets had stronger effects from the online intervention than schools with more fixed-mindset students.
“Ninth grade is a time when the adolescent concern for appearing dumber than their classmates is heightened,” Yeager said. “In an unsupportive school, the treatments fade out. It’s like planting a seed in untilled soil; it can’t grow. ... No individual treatment can compensate fully for peer climate.”
Study Group to Learning Network
The experiment is part of the National Study of Learning Mindsets, an interdisciplinary project spanning more than a dozen universities and research groups nationwide. Carol Dweck, the Stanford University professor who won the international Yidan Prize for Education Research for pioneering the field of mindset research in motivation, donated her entire $4 million prize money to mindset research, including $1.4 million to the National Study of Learning Mindsets. The project is paying that forward: making the online intervention materials free to schools; opening its dataset to other researchers for additional studies; and connecting the schools in the study into an ongoing professional development network.
Robert Armenta, the principal of Globe High School in Globe, Ariz., said participating in the study, and later the school network, helped trigger more college motivation among his highly diverse students, of whom more than 60 percent were nonwhite and 68 percent were at risk of not graduating when the project started four years ago.
“The study has been a great resource,” Armenta said. “I was trying to figure out how we could raise college and career awareness with our Native American kids,” who make up a third of students.
“I think the whole process was ... just an instructional tool and the way we create a whole culture here,” he said. He noted that when students began to express interest in growth mindsets, the school added 35 minutes to each day for students to seek tutoring help, or to participate in leadership and enrichment opportunities that they otherwise could not access after school.
Ragsdale High likewise decided to continue using the intervention after the study, expanding it to all incoming 9th graders. “If we know we have a resource that students respond to so strongly that has such positive benefits, it’s irresponsible not to utilize it for our incoming students,” Lowe said.
Teachers at Ragsdale have also started to change grading practices, Lowe said, “a move towards students having the opportunity to show increased proficiency in assignments by multiple submissions rather than a one-off quiz- essay-type situation where the grade initially assigned is set in stone.”
Yeager said he hopes to expand his work to study how teacher mindset beliefs and practices can support students’ academic mindsets.
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A version of this article appeared in the August 21, 2019 edition of Education Week as National Study Finds That Lessons on ‘Growth Mindset’ Boost Grades