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Growth Mindset: the good, the bad and the ugly

6 min read
  • Becoming evidence-informed
  • Motivation, Resilience & Growth Mindset

It’s been an interesting week on Twitter for all those interested in growth mindset. Two important studies were published. The first found that girls by the age of 6 report feeling ‘less talented’ than boys. The other, that mindset wasn’t linked to grades, which contradicted several earlier studies in this field.

This led to lots of interesting discussion (both for and against) about growth mindset on Twitter. Therefore, we thought it was a good time to consider: Growth Mindset – The Good, The Bad and The Ugly.

The Good

The good part about growth mindset is that it is based on a wealth of peer-reviewed research in psychology over the past twenty years. To highlight just a few, growth mindset has been associated with:

As well as that, there is evidence from schools emerging that Growth Mindset is associated with grit and prosocial behaviours. I think all teachers would agree that these are exactly the sort of behaviours and skills we would want to help our students develop.

The Bad

But does having a growth mindset improve student grades? It depends who you ask and what study you read. A recent study that looked at 433 students in China found that there was no association between growth mindset and grades.

Although not strictly focused on grades, two other studies are worth mentioning. This study published in 2017 found no relationship between how 5653 university students did in a university scholastic aptitute test (or how they did in a re-test of it later). Likewise, this study of 200 University students found no link between someones mindset and their level of education. Aptitude tests and level of education are clearly not the same as grades, though there is probably enough of overlap to merit these two studies being included in this section.

The findings from these three research papers contrast to a large scale study conducted by Carol Dweck (of over 160,000 students) which found that growth mindset predicts grades across every socio-economic level. Another study of 121,835 students found that students with lower grades reported more of a fixed mindset. These studies are fascinating and very important as they use a very large sample size (adding weight to their findings). A different study on 1,500 students found that combining a growth mindset and a sense of purpose intervention improved the likelihood of students completing Maths, English and Science courses.

This study on 312 female students in England found a positive association between Mindset and Academic Achievement, through a relationship of increase conscientiousness and academic effort, as did this study of 1005 students which found that growth mindset improved a sense of belonging which improved grades. Finally, this study of 115 students found that students with a growth mindset went on to achieve higher grades, as did this one of 373 students which tracked pupils for over 2 years, as did this study of 385 students (although the researchers did only follow their progress for 5 weeks).

Confused yet? You soon will be. The Sutton Trust commissioned a study that found that students who received a growth mindset intervention made, on average, two months additional progress in English and Maths, though these results weren’t statistically significant.

They have a new one currently in the pipeline, though having seen some of the materials being used in it, I would strongly doubt that it would lead to great improvements in grades. To give an example of this, the students will watch a series of videos about historical figures who were said to have a growth mindset. Translating this into grades will be difficult, especially as it doesn’t sound particularly subtle and stealthy as recommended here.

So to conclude, does having a growth mindset help students improve their grades? Yes. Maybe. Probably. Possibly. No. The truth is, we don’t know for sure. This certainly is an age of ‘alternative facts’. Given the amount of different studies and the large number of sample sizes that do show a link between mindset and grades, we would predict that having a growth mindset probably will lead to better grades. But it is no guarantee. Eight studies say yes. One says maybe. Three say no. I have no doubt that more studies will come out in the future that says it does, and some will come out and say they don’t (we’ll update this blog as and when new studies are released).

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The Ugly

It has been interesting to see how people have reacted over the past week or so since Buzzfeed published their article reporting (amongst other things) one of the studies about growth mindset not impacting on exam results. It wasn’t very balanced, had a clickbait headline and used quotation marks around the word ‘growth mindset’ and ‘revolution’ as a way to belittle the topic.

One of the psychiatrists cited in the Buzzfeed article, raises some concerns about this style and nature of the article (his response is definitely worth reading as he has some genuine worries). The New York Magazine, who had initially supported the article, published a retraction when it realised that it did not discuss some of the major findings on growth mindset that did not fit its narrative.

The ugliest part of this can be found on each end of the supporter/sceptic spectrum. Some growth mindset fans have not acknowledged the importance of the studies finding no relationship with growth mindset and achievement. This is poor science and not how advances in psychology occur. Likewise, those who were sceptical have used the Buzzfeed article to proclaim the death of growth mindset, and as such are probably throwing the baby out with the bath water.

Either side claiming growth mindset is 100% the answer to everything or 100% a waste of time are probably both guilty of the Dunning-Kruger Effect. This is when people are overly confident with about what they say (experts usually know that nothing is totally certain). I think Carol Dweck strikes a great balance here.

Final Thoughts

Scottish Poet Andrew Lang once remarked that ‘politicians use statistics in the same way that a drunk uses a lamp-post – for support rather than illumination’. We think teachers and coaches should avoid using each study in psychology the same way.

We think it’s great that schools are working hard and diligently to help students to develop a growth mindset. If they are doing so with the sole focus of improving grades, then they should also consider spending time on combining this with some of other areas (i.e. strategies that effectively ingrain knowledge into long term memory would be one). 

In our experience, most schools are helping students develop a growth mindset with the view of creating a culture of excellence. Helping developing resilient learners is at the forefront of their thinking. The area of growth mindset has had teachers debating how best to give feedback, what their reward systems are and some of the labels they give to students. Translating this into better grades has to remain the pinnacle objective. As we learn more about how best to help develop a growth mindset, schools will get there. But we are not 100% there yet.

For even more info take a look at our page How to Develop a Growth Mindset, where you’ll find links to blogs and research.