School & District Management

Studies Offer Practical Ways to Bring ‘Growth Mindset’ Research to Schools

By Holly Kurtz — April 06, 2014 3 min read
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For the past decade, researchers have accumulated a growing pile of evidence on the effectiveness of “growth mindset” interventions that teach students that intelligence is like a muscle that strengthens with effort rather than an eye color that you inherit at birth.

During a packed session Saturday at the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association, a Stanford University researcher presented meeting-goers with new research on a method of scaling mindset findings in a way that is both effective at increasing achievement and practical for schools.

“Most of the published mindset work poses a significant challenge to scaling,” said Carissa Romero, who, months after earning her PhD, is helping to direct Stanford’s Project for Education Research That Scales, which grew out of a graduate school project she started with her classmate Dave Paunesku.

For example, in the past, researchers often delivered or helped deliver mindset interventions then provided heavy support along the way.

But the Stanford program delivers the entire intervention to high school students online. Teachers spend about 15 minutes on the phone learning about the intervention. Students then attend two 45-minute sessions in the computer lab. During the lab time, students who receive the intervention are asked, among other things, to write about how “you can grow your intelligence with practice and better strategies.”

A randomized, placebo-controlled trial of 1,584 students at 13 high schools found that course failure occurred 8 percent less often for members of the treatment group that received the growth mindset intervention than for their control-group peers. (The control group were asked to write about something unrelated to the growth mindset idea.) In total, treatment group students passed 94 more additional courses than students in the control group.

With the assistance of such funders as the Raikes Foundation and the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation (both of which help support some topic-specific coverage in Education Week), the Center is currently running multiple studies that permit schools to receive the interventions for free. Like the intervention, the study recruitment also takes place online, permitting the researchers to study far-flung schools.

The Center study was one of three studies presented in a session on increasing students’ academic motivation using social-psychological interventions.

Xiaodong Lin, an associate professor at Teachers College at Columbia University, presented the results of a randomized, controlled study of 204 New York City students. The study found that reading and reflecting upon stories of famous scientists facing intellectual or life struggles helped students increase their growth mindset and also to perform better academically.

MacArthur Foundation Fellow Angela Duckworth of the University of Pennsylvania, who was charged with summing up the results of the studies for those who attended the session, quipped that she had written a note to herself to show her students her last three rejection letters from academic journals to help motivate them by sharing her own struggles.

The final study, presented by Stanford assistant psychology professor Gregory Walton, entailed multiple randomized, controlled studies of more than 2,000 students. The studies examined the effects of interventions designed to motivate students to complete the dull but tedious practice that is sometimes necessary when learning math or science. The conclusions suggested that students were more likely to persist at such tasks and even to end up with better learning outcomes if they first reflected on ways in which fulfilling educational goals could help them help others. The effects were significantly bigger for low-performing students.

Duckworth noted that all three studies had a common theme.

“They ... get at pluralistic ignorance,” she said. “Everyone thinks that everyone feels like they belong. Everyone thinks that you can’t change your intelligence. They are beliefs that self-reinforce in the absence of some type of exogenous [external] intervention.”

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Inside School Research blog.