Are Students Benefiting From the Growth Mindset Model?

Results from two meta-analyses reveal shortcomings with the growth mindset theory as applied in schools.

Sadie Cathcart
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A recent report of meta-analyses published in Psychological Science reviews outcomes associated with growth mindset approaches in schools throughout the US. The study was conducted by researchers Victoria F. Sisk, Jingze Sun, Jennifer Butler, and Brooke Macnamara of Case Western Reserve University, and Alexander P. Burgoyne out of the Department of Psychology at Michigan State University. The first of two meta-analyses look at relationships between student mindset and academic performance, while the second explored the impact of growth mindset-oriented interventions on academic achievement.

Overall, weak effects across both analyses indicate that mindset alone fails to facilitate significant shifts in student academic performance and in-school success. While mindsets, also referred to as implicit theories, may influence educational trajectories, there are likely other factors that are better at predicting student success, such as school and classroom characteristics.

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Mindsets, operationally defined by Sisk and colleagues as “beliefs about the nature of human attributes,” have the potential to inform a person’s self-efficacy, style of interacting with others, effort, and potential for achievement. Past research has identified better quality-of-life outcomes associated with the belief that intelligence is a malleable construct (a growth mindset) than the idea that it is inflexible or unchanging (a fixed mindset).

These studies suggest that those more inclined to believe that they have the potential to change and learn are more likely to succeed in doing so. Carol Dweck, the creator of the mindset theory, has conducted research linking mindset to weight-loss, international acclaim, success in educational contexts, and achievement in a variety of other domains.

However, despite some research supporting the benefits of a growth mindset, programs developed to foster a growth mindset in students are often misguided or poorly implemented. The researchers set out to assess the extent to which 1) mindset influences academic achievement, and 2) programs designed to promote growth mindset implemented in schools influence academic performance. Sisk and colleagues systematically gathered reports examining these variables and then ran meta-analyses to establish effect sizes and possible moderating factors.

The first search resulted in a set of 129 studies with 162 independent samples, 273 effect sizes, and 365,915 students. The average correlation between the presence of a growth mindset and academic achievement (according to multiple indicators) was weak, and effects weren’t found to be a function of academic risk status or socioeconomic status.

The second search resulted in the identification of 29 studies with 38 independent samples, 43 effect sizes, and 57,155 students. Analyses indicated that mindset interventions intended to improve academic achievement neglected to produce significant outcomes for adolescents, and for students experiencing transition. However, interventions were found to have slightly larger effects among students at higher risk for academic failure, and for economically disadvantaged students.

“Part of the reshaping effort has been to make funding mindset research a ‘national education priority’ because mindsets have ‘profound effects’ on school achievement,” the authors write. “Our meta-analyses do not support this claim. Effect sizes were inconsistent across studies, but most analyses yielded small (or null) effects. Overall, the first meta-analysis demonstrated only a very weak relationship between mindsets and academic achievement. Similarly, the second meta-analysis demonstrated only a very small overall effect of mindset interventions on academic achievement.”

Mindset interventions have gained traction in recent years because they’re intuitive and marketable. The idea that confidence facilitates success is accessible and, as a result, it is incorporated into many programs designed to support students. Unfortunately, programs advertised to promote a growth mindset in students are often poorly developed, ineffective, or lack empirical support.

The notion that a growth mindset is enough to inspire success in students is also problematic, in that it disregards powerful circumstantial features of students’ in-school experiences, such as nutrition, poverty, instructional quality, psychosocial stress, external pressures, abuse, etc. Although future research may serve to disentangle the components of certain growth mindset programs that are effective and help to eliminate pieces that are not, perhaps the abundant resources devoted to growth mindset program development and research would be more appropriately applied to other efforts to improve in-school instructional quality and social-emotional supports.

 

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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(4), 549-571. (Link)

12 COMMENTS

  1. This is an important study, surely. However, mindset researchers have never claimed that mindset was the cure-all to inspiring success. In fact, Yeager and Walton (2011) explicitly say that mindset interventions only work if the basic resources for education are in place. These interventions are not supposed to be magic. They are supposed to be “nudges” that nudge kids in the right direction in terms engaging more effort.

    • This is “an important study”? I have my doubts. You know how much money must be going into all sorts of ridiculous research everyday of the week, and here we have another one.

      If the problem is social, you’re not going to be getting very far by treating it as personal. I think this mindset theory is kind of weak on the face of it, okay, and so here you’ve done a study that says just that. Now why don’t we do a study to see how effective common sense can be at solving a problem? Uh, I think I’ve got it…because we don’t need a study to prove what we know already.

  2. “Past research has identified better quality-of-life outcomes associated with the belief that intelligence is a malleable construct (a growth mindset) than the idea that it is inflexible or unchanging (a fixed mindset). These studies suggest that those more inclined to believe that they have the potential to change and learn are more likely to succeed in doing so.”

    Other than “mental health professionals,” who fraudulently claim people have broken brains that are incurable, I’ve never met anyone who didn’t know that people can increase their intelligence with continued research, reading, and study. That is common sense to most people.

    Thus this, likely obvious to most, theory seems to have originated to contradict the stupidity of the DSM “lifelong, incurable, genetic” brain disorder lies, is that correct? Is it really necessary for the America public to fund psychological research to point out what is blatantly obvious to all, except those deluded into believing in psychiatric DSM “lifelong, incurable brain disease” theology?

    The DSM was debunked over five years ago, we should just get rid of the DSM. Then even the “mental health professionals” can believe in the common sense that it’s good for all people to be perpetual learners, without funding research into made up psychological theories.

    • The_cat, I agree. My first thought was – oh, they have to tie it to academic performance, otherwise it will go the way of art, music and drama…(out the door).

      Lord knows, art, music and drama have an effect on academic performance – and mindset – but it’s not the mindset they really care about.

      Thanks for the link to John Dewey.

  3. Cultural capital, “Field”, Habitus, Doxa, Social Illusion, Reflexivity, Social capital, Symbolic capital, Symbolic violence, Practice theory…

    To deepen these concepts, in particular concerning academic success, see Pierre Bourdieu and Jean-Claude Passeron:

    Les héritiers: les étudiants et la culture (1964), Eng. The Inheritors: French Students and Their Relations to Culture, University of Chicago Press 1979.

    Here, the statistical evidence is robust, and is regularly replicated on many samples in many countries and at many times.

  4. It is common sense, I guess. Unless you were raised in a family like mine where the opposite was taught. One message was that what we were good at, we’d remain good at and vice versa. Another was that making mistakes was shameful and intolerable.

    Ironically, I happened to be good at school learning and got exceptional grades and eventually an advanced degree. However, I’d hardly say this has translated to success in my life, having been on disability and unable to support myself (most likely due to psychiatric drugging, I now realize) for many years.

    There seems to be a commonality between this concept (growth vs. fixed mindset) and the current “mental health” system. The medical model says: “You can’t change. You are stuck with this disorder for life. The best you can hope for is to find the right drug cocktail.” (fixed mindset) The alternative, often post-system, model says: “Maybe I can change. Maybe there are things I can change in my life that will make a difference and lead to true healing.” (growth mindset)

    Recently, I’ve taken the growth mindset more to heart, and it’s made a huge difference in my life. It feels great to persevere and gradually get better at something that I wasn’t very good at initially. So far, it hasn’t translated into being able to support myself (my ultimate goal) but the confidence and hope that has been generated along the way has made it worthwhile.

    And so, I am really glad to see this concept mentioned at MIA, despite the less than stellar research results.

    • Hey msmonique – I actually have a problem with the “growth” mindset – “growth” – of economy & consumerism – bigger, more faster (better grades) – it’s semantics, but I think it’s important.

      In my own recovery I’ve learned to call that flexibility, “resilience,” or even flexibility. That seems a more accurate description – because, in my recovery it wasn’t always ***more*** (growth) that was better, but sometimes it was actually ***less*** that was better.

      Quality rather than quantity – and “growth” implies an increase in quantity.

      • JanCarol –

        I appreciate your comment, but I’ll be honest – the semantics don’t bother me in this case.

        I’m not too fond of the focus on consumerism or economic growth either. I tend to cringe when I hear the latter being used as a determinant in how well we are doing as a country. Personal growth seems different to me – more about quality than quantity – but I do agree that “letting go” can be a part of it, so the term is contradictory in that respect.

        I’d like to add to my previous comment that I don’t think it’s the grades in themselves that matter, but good grades as related to a higher goal/purpose in life. And of course, goals don’t necessarily have to be related to higher grades. So, if “they” feel they must study something (and I agree with Frank’s comment that this could just be more “ridiculous research,” so maybe not), then in my opinion “they” are asking the wrong question.

    • Exactly what I was thinking, Steve– *Exactly* what I was thinking!!! I mean, who is imparting those messages to kids about their intelligence? Primarily teachers! Stick a kid with a teacher who thinks they are not that bright and can’t really improve, and they will pick up that message. If they are resiliently rebellious anti-authoritarians, they will think “Fuck those teachers! They don’t know me!,” but if they aren’t built to rebel, they will likely believe that as their truth and make it a self-fulfilling prophecy.

      • Actually, LavenderSage, the teachers will call in the school social workers to make up odd lies to the parents of the non-anti-authoritarian children who surprise the social workers by getting 100% on their state standardized tests, in the hopes of drugging up America’s brightest children.

        I was forced to send my children to private high school, due to this satanic desire to drug up the smartest American children, by the school social workers. Because the schools are “not equipped” to educated the brightest children, as was eventually confessed to me.

        Obviously, both the social workers and the teachers have been brainwashed with this illogical, DSM based, “fixed mindset” theology. Which apparently claims you can’t increase your knowledge and intelligence with hard work, research, reading, and further education. The “fixed mindset” theology, just like the DSM theology, is a scientifically invalid, and downright stupid theology.

        But, of course, the “mental health professionals” also believe recovery from child abuse is impossible, despite this being untrue. And this insane “fixed mindset” theology has resulted in the number one actual function of today’s “mental health profession” being that of turning child abuse victims into the “mentally ill” with the psychiatric drugs en mass, according to their own medical literature. And thanks to the “mental health professionals” inability to bill insurance companies to actually help child abuse victims, billing problem, which was endemically built into the DSM.

        https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/your-child-does-not-have-bipolar-disorder/201402/dsm-5-and-child-neglect-and-abuse-1