There is a wealth of psychology research that can help teachers to improve how they work with students, but academic studies of this kind aren’t always easy to access or translate into the realities of classroom practice. This series seeks to redress that by taking a selection of studies and making sense of the important information for teachers, as we all seek to answer the question: how can we help our students do better at school? This time, we consider growth mindset.
Growth mindset – the idea that intelligence can be developed rather than it being set in stone – is arguably the most popular psychological theory in education at the moment. It was launched into mainstream consciousness after a seminal growth mindset study almost 20 years ago and has since spawned many assemblies and form tutor-time activities. But what were the findings of this influential study?
Writing in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology in 1998, Claudia Mueller and Carol Dweck from Columbia University, New York, explored the consequences of how different types of praise affected students. The research paper is actually a combination of six separate studies.
In each, students aged nine to 12 years old completed a problem-solving game. They were then told they’d got 80% of the questions right and were praised for either their natural intelligence or how hard they worked on the task. The researchers reported on how the students felt, thought and behaved in subsequent tasks.
What are the main findings?
- Children who were praised for their intelligence were more likely to choose future tasks that they thought would make them look smart. Children who had been praised for their effort tended to choose tasks that would help them learn new things.
- Children praised for their intelligence said they enjoyed the task less when compared to the children who had been praised for their effort.
- Children praised for their intelligence were less likely to persist on tasks than the children who had been praised for their effort.
- Children who had been praised for their intelligence performed worse in future tasks. The children who had been praised for their effort performed better in future tasks.
- The majority (86%) of children praised for their intelligence asked for information about how their peers did on the same task. Only 23% of children who had been praised for effort asked for this type of feedback – most of them asked for feedback about how they could do better.
- A significant proportion (38%) of children praised for their ability lied about the number of problems they solved in the task. Only 13% of the children praised for effort did the same.
In the intervening years, the impact of growth mindset has been studied by many different researchers around the world. The overwhelming majority of these have found that having a growth mindset is associated with getting better grades. Some of these studies included a very large sample size, of more than 100,000 students. However, two recent studies paint a slightly more cloudy picture.
In England, researchers found that improvements in English and maths [pdf] attributed to growth mindset interventions (on average, students made two months’ additional progress) could have been down to chance. The other study, involving 222 students in China, found no relationship between student mindset and their academic performance.
But beyond improved attainment, research suggests having a growth mindset has other advantages, including coping better with transition, higher self-regulation, grit and pro-social behaviours. There is also evidence suggesting mental health benefits – those with a growth mindset have been found to be less aggressive, with higher self-esteem and fewer symptoms associated with depression and anxiety.
What does this mean for the classroom?
This study highlights the complexities and importance of how we deliver feedback. The problem with praise such as “you’re so clever” or “you must be so talented” is that it doesn’t tell students what they need to do next time.
By praising their effort and the strategies they used, we give students a template of behaviour to follow. As the authors of the study noted: “Children exposed to this intelligence feedback were likely to respond negatively when they faced achievement setbacks … children given effort feedback, who valued learning over performance, were less likely to fall apart when they experienced an isolated low performance.” Studies like this must therefore make us consider the merit of calling certain students “gifted and talented”.
It’s also worth being aware of the ways in which the idea of growth mindset is sometimes misunderstood. In the rush to embrace it as a method, the message has sometimes been diluted to “growth mindset is all about effort” or morphed into “anyone can do anything” – neither of which is accurate or helpful. Having a growth mindset is about the belief that someone can learn and improve. To help shape students’ behaviours and mindsets, teachers should look to develop a consistent culture of high expectations and quality feedback.
• Bradley Busch is a registered psychologist, director at InnerDrive and author of Release Your Inner Drive. Follow @Inner_Drive on Twitter, and get advice on improving memory and a visual summary of this research on his website.
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