PROOF POINTS: Does growth mindset matter? The debate heats up
In the last 15 years, millions of dollars have been invested in training students to have a “growth mindset,” the belief that anyone’s intelligence can improve through hard work. But now the merit of one of the most popular ideas in education has been thrown into confusion with the publication of two conflicting studies in the same highly respected journal.
Each study is a meta-analysis, which means they are supposed to sweep up all the best research on a topic and use statistics to tell us where the preponderance of the evidence lies. How could two such studies come out within just three weeks of each other in Psychological Bulletin and arrive at opposite conclusions? Which one is right?
That question is currently the hottest topic in educational psychology. Scholars have been debating the conflicting claims by email and on Twitter. Some penned formal commentaries on the debate. At least one commentary on the commentaries is in the works. (This is what happens when a scholarly controversy grows red hot.)
The theory of growth mindset was developed by Stanford University psychologist Carol Dweck over decades, and it exploded onto the education scene with her 2006 best-selling book, “Mindset: The New Psychology of Success.” In it, Dweck explained that students who believe their brains can change will be more motivated in their studies, take on greater challenges, persist through frustrations and ultimately thrive in school.
The optimistic philosophy had an intuitive appeal. Teachers ramped up their praise of student effort and tacked up motivational posters: “Don’t give up until you are PROUD” and “Every mistake you make is PROGRESS.” The concept spawned an industry of mindset consultants who explained neuroplasticity to educators and parents. Today, growth mindset is so accepted in education that it is infused into social-emotional lessons and even math books.
But scholars have wondered how much boosting your mindset really helps students.
One team of seven researchers led by Jeni Burnette, a psychologist at North Carolina State University, found that the results were wildly different for students across 53 studies published between 2002 and 2020. Sometimes students benefited a lot from a short online lesson about mindset and their grades rose. Often they didn’t. In a few cases, student performance and well-being deteriorated after a mindset intervention.
In their final analysis, Burnette and her colleagues concluded that growth mindset interventions are helpful for some but not all students. Low-achieving and disadvantaged students were most likely to benefit. High-achievers typically did not get a boost.
“Despite the large variation in effectiveness,” the researchers wrote, “we found positive effects on academic outcomes, mental health, and social functioning, especially when interventions are delivered to people expected to benefit the most.” Their paper, “A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis of Growth Mindset Interventions: For Whom, How, and Why Might Such Interventions Work?,” published online Oct. 13, 2022 in Psychological Bulletin, a journal of the American Psychological Association.
Then 21 days later, on Nov. 3, the same journal published a rival meta-analysis that concluded growth mindset interventions generally weren’t effective at all. Case Western Reserve University psychologist Brooke Macnamara and her co-author criticized the majority of the 63 studies they found for being poorly designed or conducted by researchers who are advocates for growth mindset and have financial incentives to report positive outcomes.
“We conclude that apparent effects of growth mindset interventions on academic achievement are likely attributable to inadequate study design, reporting flaws, and bias,” they wrote in their paper, entitled, “Do Growth Mindset Interventions Impact Students’ Academic Achievement? A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis With Recommendations for Best Practices.”
Northwestern University statistician Elizabeth Tipton weighed in on Nov. 7, declaring in an online commentary that the more flattering meta-analysis was the correct one: growth mindsets work for low-achievers.
“I’m a statistician and I really don’t care if growth mindset works or not,” she said. “But I do care about meta-analysis.”
Tipton argues that results for different groups of students shouldn’t be “smooshed” together. To understand Tipton’s logic, it’s helpful to imagine growth mindset as a garden pesticide. One formula may help tomato plants thrive, but not lettuce or cucumbers. And it may have destroyed basil plants altogether.
“When you look across many people’s gardens, it doesn’t look like it works on average,” said Tipton. “But if you looked within everybody’s gardens and looked only at tomatoes, you would realize that it actually did work.”
To prove her point, Tipton recrunched all the data in the studies Macnamara had chosen using the methodology in the first Burnette meta-analysis and replicated the positive findings for low-income and low-achieving students. “You get remarkably similar results,” she said.
Indeed, Macnamara herself found this same dichotomy between low and high achievers back in her first meta-analysis of growth mindset published in 2018. In that earlier study, she had a skeptical conclusion, that mindsets were unlikely to produce large, consistent benefits for students. But her previous numbers were similar to those of Burnette and Tipton.
Macnamara told me she didn’t systematically review the quality of those older studies, as she has now, and there are now more than twice as many studies since she last looked in 2016. “More data typically allows for better estimates,” she said by email.
Macnamara said she is writing a formal response to Tipton’s commentary. “Their claims do not hold up to scrutiny and this will be borne out in our official reply,” she wrote to me. She declined an interview because she said she didn’t want to violate Psychological Bulletin’s rules, which prohibit authors from talking to the media prior to peer review and publication.
As I went down this reporting rabbit hole, I began to understand that this scholarly debate is about far more than methodology; it’s about whether you buy the theory of growth mindset itself.
There are legitimate questions about what exactly we mean by growth mindset and its link to academic performance, according to another commentary on the dueling meta-analyses by two educational psychologists at the University of Texas at Austin, Veronica Yan and Brendan Schuetze.
The biggest problem is that the word “intelligence” can mean different things to different people. Researchers who study intelligence tend to think of it as cognitive abilities, such as brain processing speed and memory, which are relatively stable over time. But lay people often think of intelligence as a mix of knowledge and skills, which we can readily gain, and “is the purpose of schooling,” Yan and Schuetze wrote.
This ambiguity matters because growth mindset is measured through surveys by asking students how much they agree with statements such as, “You have a certain amount of intelligence, and you can’t really do much to change it,” “Your intelligence is something about you that you can’t change very much,” and “You can learn new things, but you can’t really change your basic intelligence.”
Students who think of intelligence as a cognitive ability tend to produce lower growth mindset scores. But their mindset scores might have been much higher if they defined intelligence as the ability to learn new things and gain knowledge. So, growth mindset scores, which researchers use to prove their theories, may greatly depend on semantics and be unreliable.
The connection between mindset and academic achievement can be a tenuous one. Some studies have found that students can hold a “fixed mindset,” believing that intelligence is a fixed trait, but still feel that they can make up for a lack of innate intelligence by working hard. Perhaps a fixed mindset and strong academic achievement can go hand in hand, too.
Critics also question whether improvements in growth mindset are really driving the academic gains that are seen in studies. That’s because many experiments have found that students’ grades can improve after an intervention even when their mindsets haven’t changed.
The confounding issue is that mindset interventions rarely focus on mindset alone, but combine it with other helpful tips, such as encouraging students to work hard, set goals and use strategies when facing challenges. Maybe it’s all the other things that are included in a mindset intervention, but not growth mindset in and of itself, that are effective.
This is a tricky theoretical knot to unravel. Imagine that someone complimented your beauty and also suggested you get a haircut. Then a week later you are asked out on a date. Was it the praise or the haircut that gave you more confidence and made you more attractive?
Mindset proponents argue that changing mindsets alone won’t accomplish much by itself. The change in belief is only powerful if it is combined with productive ways to put a growth mindset into practice. Indeed, Dweck and other mindset researchers are now expanding their mindset interventions, not only to change students, but also to work with educators on changing how they teach, assign work and grade students. Mindset interventions are swelling into school reform.
I interviewed Dweck about the academic maelstrom over her work. She said that neither she nor any of the leading mindset researchers, as far as she knows, have a financial interest in growth mindset products. “None of us make money from any product,” Dweck said.
Dweck was a co-founder of Mindset Works, which sells mindset interventions and training programs to schools, but she said she divested “years ago” when she realized it was a conflict of interest. The company continues to tout that its products are based on Dweck’s research and charges $50 or less per student for short online video lessons, but teacher training can run $1,000 per hour. There are also cheaper alternatives. Schools can obtain mindset products and training from a foundation-funded nonprofit, PERTS, at no cost.
Dweck agrees that low-achieving students benefit far more than high achievers, who often see no academic boost in studies. But she says that’s because academic gains are usually measured by grades. “There’s a little bit of a ceiling effect,” she said. “If you’re getting As, you don’t have anywhere to go. And also, if you’re highly motivated already, you may not need a motivation booster.”
Still, Dweck recommends that schools give the intervention to all students and not restrict it to low-achievers. She says that kids of all achievement levels can benefit in ways that grades do not capture.
As evidence, Dweck cites the largest single study of growth mindset to date, published in 2019, in which more than 13,000 ninth graders across the nation were randomly assigned to receive a mindset boost. Though it primarily benefited low performers, even high-achieving students who watched short online lessons in ninth grade were more likely to take advanced math courses in 10th grade than high achievers who didn’t watch the videos.
In her own teaching practice, Dweck continues to give a mindset boost to Stanford University freshmen who take her fall seminar. “They got into a lot of top schools, but as they enter this new environment, they need a mindset booster,” said Dweck. “They’re struggling. They’re blaming themselves. They’re socially comparing themselves with others and judging themselves.”
If education were studied in business schools, growth mindset would make for an ideal case study of what happens when an academic concept spreads through pop culture and explodes like wildfire. Growth mindset seems simple, but it’s easy to misunderstand and misapply. Many of us, including academic scholars, have strong gut feelings on whether to accept or reject the theory. Researchers are still figuring out how best to incorporate the philosophy in schools. Classroom adoption has gotten ahead of the research and a healthy skepticism is warranted.
At the same time, there is a growing body of evidence that these short, online interventions might convince low-performing teens to believe in themselves and their ability to learn. A shift in mindset isn’t going to close the achievement gap; it’s no silver bullet. We still need to improve how schools teach. But small psychological boosts like this might help some students on the margin. And that makes this field of research worth watching.
This story about growth mindset was written by Jill Barshay and produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter.