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#14 The One About ... Mindset and Purpose

The one about mindset and purpose: Studies every teacher needs to know

4 min read
  • Becoming evidence-informed
  • Motivation, Resilience & Growth Mindset
  • The science of learning

Why this study

A recent study by researchers from Stamford University and the University of Texas explored the impact of teaching students how to develop a growth mindset (i.e. the belief that they can get better) and a sense of purpose (i.e. why they should care about what they’re doing). They explored what impact these interventions had, if they were scalable, and for which type of student they were most beneficial.

This study was based on 1,594 students from 13 different high schools. Students were either assigned to a control group, a group getting just a growth mindset intervention, a group getting a sense of purpose intervention, or a group getting both a growth mindset and a sense of purpose intervention. These interventions were designed to be brief and delivered online.

The growth mindset intervention involved a single 45 minute online session. It included information about how the brain develops, and how students had potential to become more intelligent through study and practice. It also had them summarise the key findings in a letter to another student.

The sense of purpose intervention had students explain how doing well at school could help them achieve meaningful goals, which included ‘making a positive impact in the world’ or ‘to make their family proud’.

The one about mindset and purpose: Studies every teacher needs to know

The main findings

#1 Students who had a growth mindset intervention had an increase in their grades.

#2 Students who had a sense of purpose intervention had an increase in their grades.

#3 Students who had growth mindset & sense of purpose interventions were more likely to complete their courses in English, Maths and Science.

#4 The above findings were most pronounced for students who had been identified as struggling or at risk of dropping out of school.

#5 Both growth mindset and sense of purpose interventions were found to be scalable, meaning they could be delivered online to large groups of students.

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Related research

Creating a sense of purpose to help improve student performance has been applied to a range of settings.

One study taught students a new foreign language and divided them into different conditions. Some were not given any reason for the task; others were told they should try hard because it is what’s expected of them; others were told there would be a test at the end of the term; finally, the last group were told the purpose behind it was it would help their future career.

The result? The last group, who had the explanation as to why learning this new language would be useful to them, put in much more effort and were more engaged in the lesson.

Likewise, the majority of studies that look into the relationship between growth mindset and gradesfinds a positive one. This has been found to be true for students from a range of age, genders and nationalities. Some of these studies are worth noting, as their sample size is over 100,000 students. Other benefits that have been associated with a growth mindset include coping better with transitions, persisting for longer, self-regulation, well-being, grit, and pro-social behaviours. Strategies to help develop a growth mindset include emphasising processes over natural ability, using multiple teaching methods, and using subtle and stealthy interventions.

Classroom implications

This study has clear implications for the classroom as it shows that both growth mindset and sense of purpose can be developed quickly and simply. A sense of purpose can be fostered by encouraging students to reflect on how working hard and learning in school can help them to accomplish their future goals. This seems to be especially true if these goals involve other people or making the world better. A good starting point would be to have students complete the sentence: ‘doing well at school will help me achieve my goals because…’

The classroom is also a good place to help develop a growth mindset. Having high expectations that every student can achieve along with helping them develop a range of strategies that they can call upon following a setback will help. Finally, helping them understand that mistakes can be a useful learning curve and to measure their success against their own high standards, instead of comparing themselves to others, will encourage a growth mindset culture.

This study is from our book, “The Science of Learning: 99 studies that every teacher needs to know”.

Reference: Paunesku et al, 2015, Psychological Science

About the editor

Bradley Busch

Bradley Busch

Bradley Busch is a Chartered Psychologist and a leading expert on illuminating Cognitive Science research in education. As Director at InnerDrive, his work focuses on translating complex psychological research in a way that is accessible and helpful. He has delivered thousands of workshops for educators and students, helping improve how they think, learn and perform. Bradley is also a prolific writer: he co-authored four books including Teaching & Learning Illuminated and The Science of Learning, as well as regularly featuring in publications such as The Guardian and The Telegraph.

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