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Mindsets are students’ beliefs about learning and school that affect their motivation and resilience. Learning mindsets include:
- Growth Mindset: The belief that intelligence can be developed;
- Belonging: The belief that one is respected and valued by teachers and peers;
- Purpose & Relevance: The belief that one’s schoolwork is valuable because it is personally relevant and/or connected to a larger purpose.
Learning mindsets can be thought of as lenses through which students interpret their day-to-day experiences in school, particularly challenges and adversity. They influence whether or not students engage with challenges productively because they affect the way in which students understand the larger meaning of these challenges.
Mindsets are not fixed traits. Students learn them from society, their interactions with others, and their experiences in school. Students can adopt learning mindsets when they receive certain messages from the learning environment or through targeted exercises. Learning mindsets position students to take greater advantage of the learning resources that are present in their schools. But mindsets alone are not enough. Even when students adopt learning mindsets, their outcomes are shaped by the structural opportunities in their schools and communities.
Social-emotional learning, character, and learning mindsets all recognize that student success relies on more than just content knowledge. Learning mindsets refer specifically to students’ beliefs about school and learning. Mindsets shape how students interpret and respond to challenges, which is why they are considered “motivational beliefs.” When students hold learning mindsets, they may be more likely to exhibit certain skills and behaviors associated with social-emotional learning and character. For example, they may more successfully regulate their emotions and social interactions. They may also show greater resilience and persistence.
Grit and self-control are behaviors exhibited by many successful students. Learning mindsets are beliefs that sometimes give rise to those behaviors. Students who hold learning mindsets often demonstrate more grit and self-control. The reason that learning mindsets lead to more adaptive behaviors, like grit and self-control, is because they serve as a lens through which students interpret their experiences in school, particularly their experiences of adversity. Students with learning mindsets think about challenges in more positive ways, respond more productively to them, and therefore demonstrate higher academic achievement (see Figure).
Learning mindsets are beliefs about how to succeed in school, especially in the face of challenges. Learning mindsets involve embracing challenges to reach higher levels of performance. A student with these mindsets may struggle with frustration or setbacks, but persists because she expects to build competence in the long term and believes that what she learns matters.
Self-esteem is having confidence or satisfaction in oneself. Higher self-esteem is often an outcome of developing learning mindsets, but it is not an end in and of itself. Difficulties sometimes arise if educators try to promote self-esteem by praising students universally, even if it is not warranted, or by saying that grades don’t matter.
Learning mindsets are closely related to self-efficacy, but come before it. Self-efficacy is a belief that one can achieve a given task. Learning mindsets are general beliefs that set students up so that they can have self-efficacy in many different tasks and domains.
Improving Student Outcomes and Expanding Educational Opportunity
Learning mindsets have been shown to be beneficial at every level: from students struggling academically in middle school to undergraduates at highly selective universities. Mindsets primarily affect the way students respond to challenges. Students who routinely face challenges—whether low-performing students, or those at the most rigorous colleges and universities—tend to show a boost in their performance when they hold learning mindsets.
If individuals are not challenged—like a high-achieving student in an easy class—mindsets do not tend to affect performance. But even high-achieving students will inevitably face challenges, so it is critical that they, too, are prepared to respond to challenges with resilience.
Large quantities of data show that there are achievement gaps between groups. For instance, on average, students whose parents did not go to college and students from racial, ethnic, or gender groups that are negatively stereotyped in school experience lower achievement in terms of grades, test scores, and graduation rates. Learning mindsets can contribute to higher achievement for students who are members of these groups and therefore expand their educational opportunities.
This is because learning mindsets are most relevant when we ask students to engage with tasks necessary to stretch their abilities or improve their mastery. Students with lower levels of prior performance are more frequently asked to struggle at the frontiers of their current abilities in school, or to practice basic skills to catch up. Regardless of prior achievement, students from these groups may also experience persistent worries about negative stereotypes and whether they belong in learning environments in which their group is underrepresented.
When these students receive messages that they can get smarter through effort, when they feel safe and welcomed at school, and when they believe in the value of the work they’re being asked to do, they are more likely to persist at learning tasks, experience greater well-being, and achieve at higher levels. This can help close gaps in opportunity.
What this means is that it is crucial for schools to continue to provide resources and structures that afford all students high quality chances to learn. But in order to increase educational opportunity, it is also important to address students’ psychological experience of school so that students are more likely to benefit from those investments.
Implications For Education Practice
Brief online interventions have been shown to be effective in promoting a growth mindset and improving academic outcomes, but they barely scratch the surface when it comes to promoting a growth mindset in schools. Many common practices in schools convey messages to students about whether or not we believe they can grow their ability: from how we grade and give feedback to how we track and sort students.
A research synthesis by the Mindset Scholars Network provides design principles from four decades of research on mindsets and motivation that can inform the design of educational environments in K-12 and postsecondary education that nurture the natural curiosity and drive to learn with which people are born.
Additionally, the Mindset Scholars Network has sponsored 14 research projects that are exploring ways that learning environments shape students’ mindsets about learning and school. The initiative’s aim is to generate scientific evidence about ways educators at all levels can convey messages to students that they can grow their ability, that they belong and are valued at school, and that what they are doing in school is relevant to their lives, their communities, or a larger purpose beyond themselves.
Educators can cultivate learning mindsets by making school relevant to students’ lives and to goals that are bigger than themselves; by creating learning environments where all students feel they belong; and by showing students that they can get smarter.
The key, however, is to help students feel this way from their perspectives. It can backfire to simply tell students to have a growth mindset, or that their assignment ‘matters’. Instead, educators can foster learning mindsets through everyday interactions that help students see the learning context differently. For example, a teacher who wants to promote a growth mindset can celebrate mistakes and treat them as opportunities to learn.
See PERTS’ Mindset Kit for some research-based strategies.
It would be preferable for students to receive consistent messages that promote learning mindsets at home and school. However, research shows that it is possible for a student to develop a learning mindset in only one class—or even out of school—and have it spill over to all of their academic subjects. If educators are interested in helping parents learn about mindsets, the PERTS Mindset Kit is a helpful resource.
Even with the best of intentions, we can sometimes send messages to students that promote maladaptive mindsets about learning and school. For example, praising students for being smart can imply that smartness is an innate quality that can’t be changed. Additionally, simply telling students to have a growth mindset, to value school, and to believe they belong can backfire. Students told, not invited, to adopt a growth mindset may reject it, just as teenagers reject other adult commands to change their behavior.
Recent research also suggests that what students hear and observe from parents and teachers can matter more than what parents and teachers intended. If a parent’s or teacher’s actions convey maladaptive mindsets (e.g., reacting negatively to their own mistakes or those of others), students may pick up on them even if parents and teachers are simultaneously trying to communicate messages that support learning mindsets.
What parents and teachers do and say has a big impact on students’ mindsets about learning and school. Recent research suggests that an important way in which adults’ beliefs influence their students is by shaping adults’ interactions with them.
Students are observant; they constantly take away both spoken and unspoken messages from adults about their beliefs about learning. These messages then influence students’ mindsets. For example, when educators believe ability is fixed, they are more likely to lower their expectations for a student after seeing her struggle—even after just a single bad test grade. Students pick up on low expectations and this lowers their motivation.
Another example involves talking about mistakes. When parents or teachers show that they believe mistakes are learning opportunities, it can teach a growth mindset. But research has found that when parents believe mistakes should be covered up or avoided, it teaches a fixed mindset.
Implications for Education Policy
Education historians have documented a pattern in school reform that has been characterized as “oversold and underused” (see books by Larry Cuban; David Tyack & Larry Cuban; David Labaree; Anthony Bryk and colleagues). The Mindset Scholars Network hopes to carry out research so that mindsets are not over-claimed, and then communicate information to practitioners, policymakers, and the public on how to utilize mindsets to the greatest effect so they are not under-used.
Students develop learning mindsets from their interactions with adults and peers. Other aspects of schooling can convey certain mindsets implicitly, such as how students are assigned to courses, disciplined, placed in remedial coursework, graded, and assessed. As a result, numerous aspects of education policy could affect the mindsets students hold, from teacher training and retention policies to course-tracking and accountability.
Beyond implications for specific policies, mindset research adds new depth and nuance to education policy generally. Education policy often tries to change the structures that support student learning, or attempts to change the student by remediating personal qualities. A focus on mindsets entails changes to the psychological circumstance that students learn in, so that the students benefit more from available structures and resources. It does not place the reason for underperformance on the student, but on the messages students have received or continue to receive, as well as on the resources or structures in place to support their learning.
Mindsets arise from the messages students receive on a continual basis at home, in school,and from society. As such, mindsets are relevant to any conversation related to how parents and educators engage with students, how students are assessed, and how students are supported in struggling at the frontiers of their ability and building mastery.
As one example: how can discipline policies be reworked to reinforce, rather than undermine students’ trust and sense of belonging in school? Other particularly relevant priorities in K-12 education include achievement gaps; the 8th/9th grade transition; assessments and accountability; teacher training and professional development; and the implementation of the Common Core Standards. In higher education, mindsets are particularly relevant in discussions regarding the college transition, first generation students, developmental coursework, and college persistence, among others.
The latest growth mindset interventions tested in large-scale, double-blind randomized controlled trials can be delivered online and can take less than one hour to complete. A World Bank study of such an intervention was estimated to cost under one dollar per student. The Growth Mindset for 9th Graders online program that was tested in the National Study of Learning Mindsets is offered for free to all high schools across the United States.
Learning Mindset Programs & Measurement
No. Like any educational program, there will not be universal benefits for all students under all circumstances. The Mindset Scholars Network is conducting research to learn where these programs are most effective. It is also critical to understand how best to implement effective programs in those cases where research suggests they are warranted.
Other open questions include: Will mindset programs work for students with learning disabilities? At what age do they begin to be effective? Are there contexts where even a generally effective mindset program could limit a student’s achievement?
A 2018 meta-analysis by Sisk, Macnamara, and colleagues found an average effect of growth mindset interventions of 0.08, and an average effect of 0.19 for students at high risk of failing (e.g., students who previously failed courses). All of the studies incorporated in their meta-analysis included a control group and nearly all were conducted in secondary or postsecondary contexts. Many were brief, light-touch interventions that can be delivered online, which the World Bank estimated to cost less than $1 per student to administer in a previous large-scale study.
Sisk, Macnamara, and colleagues state that “a typical education intervention effect is 0.57,” but their assertion does not comport with decades of evidence from rigorous research conducted in real-world educational settings. Many of the studies in their review did not measure grades and standardized test scores, but rather looked at performance on a quiz given soon after students were taught something. By contrast, many of the growth mindset interventions in Sisk and colleagues’ meta-analysis examined effects on course grades and standardized test scores, sometimes several weeks or months after the intervention. Indeed, when looking at interventions with similar follow-up (in terms of duration and outcomes) in the literature review cited by Sisk et al., we see effects of a similar magnitude to those observed in the growth mindset intervention meta-analysis.
Intervention effects should always be interpreted through the lens of cost. In a recent article on the Sisk et al. meta-analysis in the Hechinger Report, the prominent educational economist Susan Dynarski said, “judging effect sizes depends on cost: ‘0.1 is big if the intervention [costs] little, small if very expensive.’” Light-touch growth mindset interventions like those tested in many recent growth mindset studies fall squarely in this low-cost category.
Learning mindsets allow students to take advantage of the educational resources at school. If there are no resources present, learning mindsets will not help students. However, even if the resources in their school are not of the highest quality, learning mindsets will enable students to take advantage of whatever opportunities are present. Learning mindsets also empower students to seek out their own learning opportunities, when they are intrinsically interested and feeling confident that they can learn and grow.
Researchers measure students’ mindsets using questionnaires, which ask students to report on their beliefs. Performance tasks are situations that have been carefully constructed to allow researchers to observe meaningful differences in certain behaviors linked to students’ mindsets; however, performance tasks cannot be used to measure mindsets directly because there can be many underlying reasons for a given behavior.
Because existing mindset measures were designed and validated for basic research, any other use beyond research must be considered carefully and cautiously. See this brief by the Mindset Scholars Network or this New York Times op-ed for more information on existing measures of learning mindsets and other noncognitive skills, and considerations regarding their use for various educational purposes, such as school accountability.
Many mindsets programs are still being tested, so they are not yet publicly available. However, research-based resources are offered by organizations like Mindset Works, PERTS, America Achieves, and Transforming Education. Links to these and other programs are available on the Additional Resources section of the Mindset Scholars Network’s website.
The Mindset Scholars Network is a group of leading social scientists dedicated to improving student outcomes and expanding educational opportunity by advancing our scientific understanding of students’ mindsets about learning and school. Its members collaborate on large-scale interdisciplinary research on mindsets, which currently include the National Study of Learning Mindsets and the College Transition Collaborative. The Network builds capacity for high quality mindset scholarship through a variety of scientific leadership initiatives. The Network also conducts outreach to key education stakeholders and serves as an authoritative resource for reliable, research-based information about learning mindsets for practitioners, policymakers, and the public.
There are multiple ways to get involved and support research on learning mindsets. You can educate your colleagues about mindsets by sharing information available on the Mindset Scholars Network’s website or those of other organizations listed on the site’s Additional Resources page. Educators can also get involved in mindset research projects. If you or your colleagues would like to find out more information about how to participate in mindset research projects, you can contact us or Character Lab, an organization that connects scientists and practitioners interested in collaborating on non-cognitive research. Individuals and organizations can provide financial support for the work of the Mindset Scholars Network and its researchers by contacting Lisa Quay, the Network’s Managing Director, at lquay[at]utexas.edu.
In addition to the information and resources on the Mindset Scholars Network’s website, we recommend the following journal articles that were written for broader audiences: an article on addressing achievement gaps with social psychological programs; an article on why mindset programs foster greater resiliency; and an article explaining that mindset programs are neither “magic”, nor quick fixes to complex problems, and potential challenges to scaling mindset programs.
Some relevant popular books are Tim Wilson’s Redirect: The Surprising New Science of Psychological Change; Claude Steele’s Whistling Vivaldi: How Stereotypes Affect Us and What We Can Do; Carol Dweck’s Mindset: The New Psychology of Success; and Paul Tough’s How Children Succeed.
There are a few tools designed specifically for educators and parents, including the PERTS Mindset Kit, America Achieves’ Raise the Bar tool, and Transforming Education’s Growth Mindset Toolkit. We also recommend videos of talks and interviews given by Network scholars, including Carol Dweck’s TEDx talk about growth mindset; a panel discussion about stereotype threat featuring Greg Walton, Geoff Cohen, and Claude Steele; a talk by Greg Walton about how to encourage a sense of belonging; and a talk by David Yeager and Angela Duckworth on the psychology of effort.
The Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching supports educators in carrying out their own R&D on effective mindset practices in their classrooms. For a good introduction to this type of “improvement research” in schools, see Learning to Improve: How America’s Schools Can Get Better at Getting Better.