Research Library

Search over three decades of research on mindsets, including Mindset Scholars Network briefs and working papers, and other publications from Network studies and initiatives.

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Students from higher–socioeconomic status (SES) backgrounds show a persistent advantage in academic outcomes over lower-SES students. It is possible that students’ beliefs about academic ability, or mindsets, play some role in contributing to these disparities. Data from a recent nationally representative sample of ninth-grade students in U.S. public schools provided evidence that higher SES was associated with fewer fixed beliefs about academic ability (a group difference of .22 standard deviations). Also, there was a negative association between a fixed mindset and grades that was similar regardless of a student’s SES. Finally, student mindsets were a significant but small factor in explaining the existing relationship between SES and achievement. Altogether, mindsets appear to be associated with socioeconomic circumstances and academic achievement; however, the vast majority of the existing socioeconomic achievement gap in the U.S. is likely driven by the root causes of inequality.

In recent years the field has improved the standards for replicators to follow to help ensure that a replication attempt, whether it succeeds or fails, will be informative. When these standards are not followed, false claims can result and opportunities to learn are missed, which could undermine the larger scientific enterprise and hinder the accumulation of knowledge. In the case addressed here-Li and Bates' (in press) attempt to replicate Mueller and Dweck's (1998) findings on the effects of ability versus effort praise on post-failure performance-the replicating authors did not follow best practices in the design or analysis of the study. Correcting even the simplest deviations from standard procedures yielded a clear replication of the original results. Li and Bates' data therefore provided one of the strongest possible types of evidence in support of Mueller and Dweck's (1998) findings: an independent replication by a researcher who is on record being skeptical of the phenomenon. The present paper highlights the wisdom of upholding the field's rigorous standards for replication research. It also highlights the importance of moving beyond yes/no thinking in replication studies and toward an approach that values collaboration, generalization, and the systematic identification of boundary conditions.

Psychologically “wise” interventions can cause lasting improvement in key aspects of people’s lives, but where will they work and where will they not? We consider the psychological affordance of the social context: Does the context in which the intervention is delivered afford the way of thinking offered by the intervention? If not, treatment effects are unlikely to persist. Change requires planting good seeds (a more adaptive perspective) in fertile soil in which that seed can grow (a context with appropriate affordances). We illustrate the role of psychological affordances in diverse problem spaces, including recent large-scale trials of growth-mindset and social-belonging interventions designed specifically to understand heterogeneity across contexts. We highlight how the study of psychological affordances can advance theory about social contexts and inform debates about replicability.

This article reports findings from the largest-ever randomized controlled trial of a growth mindset program in the United States in K-12 settings. The study combined a test for cause-and-effect (a randomized experiment) with a sample that enables claims about an entire population (a nationally representative probability sample). The study found that a short (less than one hour), online growth mindset intervention—which teaches that intellectual abilities can be developed—improved grades among lower-achieving students and increased enrollment in advanced mathematics courses among both higher- and lower-achieving students in a nationally representative sample of regular public high schools in the United States. Notably, the study identified school contexts that moderated the effects of the growth mindset intervention: the intervention had a stronger effect on grades when peer norms aligned with the messages of the intervention. In addition to its rigorous design, the study also featured independent data collection and processing, pre-registration of analyses, and corroboration of results by a blinded Bayesian analysis.

A growth mindset is the belief that human capacities are not fixed but can be developed over time, and mindset research examines the power of such beliefs to influence human behavior. This article offers two personal perspectives on mindset research across two eras. Given recent changes in the field, the authors represent different generations of researchers, each focusing on different issues and challenges, but both committed to “era-bridging” research. The first author traces mindset research from its systematic examination of how mindsets affect challenge seeking and resilience, through the ways in which mindsets influence the formation of judgments and stereotypes. The second author then describes how mindset research entered the era of field experiments and replication science, and how researchers worked to create reliable interventions to address underachievement—including a national experiment in the United States. The authors conclude that there is much more to learn but that the studies to date illustrate how an era-bridging program of research can continue to be generative and relevant to new generations of scholars.

Light-touch social psychological interventions have gained considerable attention for their potential to improve academic outcomes for underrepresented and/or disadvantaged students in postsecondary education. While findings from previous interventions have demonstrated positive effects for racial and ethnic minority and first-generation students in small samples, few interventions have been implemented at a larger scale with more heterogeneous student populations. To address this research gap, 7,686 students, representing more than 90% of incoming first-year students at a large Midwestern public university, were randomly assigned to an online growth mindset intervention, social belonging intervention, or a comparison group. Results suggest that after the fall semester, the growth mindset intervention significantly improved grade point averages for Latino/a students by about .40 points. This represents a 72% reduction in the GPA gap between White and Latino/a students. Further, this effect was replicated for both spring semester GPA and cumulative GPA. These findings indicate that light-touch interventions may be a minimally invasive approach to improving academic outcomes for underrepresented students. The findings also highlight the complexity of implementing customized belonging interventions in heterogeneous contexts.

Grades often decline during the high school transition, creating stress. The present research integrates the biopsychosocial model of challenge and threat with the implicit theories model to understand who shows maladaptive stress responses. A diary study measured declines in grades in the first few months of high school: salivary cortisol and daily stress appraisals. Students who reported a fixed mindset showed higher cortisol when grades were declining. Moreover, daily academic stressors showed a different lingering effect on the next day's cortisol for those with different implicit theories. Findings support a process model through which beliefs affect biological stress responses during difficult adolescent transitions.

Research by psychologists and economists demonstrates that many non-cognitive skills are malleable in both children and adolescents, but we have limited knowledge on what schools can do to foster these skills. In a field experiment, the research team investigates how schools can increase students’ perseverance in math by shaping students’ beliefs in their abilities to learn, a concept referred to by psychologists as “mindset.” Using protocols adapted from psychology, the team experimentally manipulates students’ beliefs in their ability to learn. Three weeks after the treatment, they find persistent treatment effects on students’ perseverance and academic performance in math. When investigating subsamples, they find that students, who prior to the experiment had less of a belief in their ability to learn, generate the treatment effect. The findings suggest that a low-cost intervention focused on students’ mindset can improve students’ engagement and performance.

Adolescents may especially need social and emotional help. They’re learning how to handle new demands in school and social life while dealing with new, intense emotions (both positive and negative), and they’re increasingly feeling that they should do so without adult guidance. Social and emotional learning (SEL) programs are one way to help them navigate these difficulties.In reviewing programs, the author finds that effective universal SEL can transform adolescents’ lives for the better. Less encouragingly, typical SEL programs—which directly teach skills and invite participants to rehearse those skills over the course of many classroom lessons—have a poor track record with middle adolescents (roughly age 14 to 17), even though they work well with children.

However, some programs stand out for their effectiveness with adolescents. Rather than teaching them skills, Yeager finds, effective programs for adolescents focus on mindsets and climate. Harnessing adolescents’ developmental motivations, such programs aim to make them feel respected by adults and peers and offer them the chance to gain status and admiration in the eyes of people whose opinions they value.

This paper provides a developmental science-based perspective on two related issues: Why traditional preventative school-based interventions work reasonably well for children, but less so for middle adolescents, and why some alternative intervention approaches show promise for middle adolescents. The authors propose the hypothesis that traditional interventions fail when they do not align with adolescents’ enhanced desire to feel respected and be accorded status; however, interventions that do align with this desire can motivate internalized, positive behavior change.

The paper reviews examples of promising interventions that directly harness the desire for status and respect, provide adolescents with more respectful treatment from adults, or lessen the negative influence of threats to status and respect. These examples are in the domains of unhealthy snacking, middle school discipline, and high school aggression. Discussion centers on implications for basic developmental science and for improvements to youth policy and practice.

Adolescents may especially need social and emotional help. They’re learning how to handle new demands in school and social life while dealing with new, intense emotions (both positive and negative), and they’re increasingly feeling that they should do so without adult guidance. Social and emotional learning (SEL) programs are one way to help them navigate these difficulties.In reviewing programs, the author finds that effective universal SEL can transform adolescents’ lives for the better. Less encouragingly, typical SEL programs—which directly teach skills and invite participants to rehearse those skills over the course of many classroom lessons—have a poor track record with middle adolescents (roughly age 14 to 17), even though they work well with children.

However, some programs stand out for their effectiveness with adolescents. Rather than teaching them skills, Yeager finds, effective programs for adolescents focus on mindsets and climate. Harnessing adolescents’ developmental motivations, such programs aim to make them feel respected by adults and peers and offer them the chance to gain status and admiration in the eyes of people whose opinions they value.

What can be done to reduce unhealthy eating among adolescents? The research team hypothesized that aligning healthy eating with important and widely shared adolescent values would produce the needed motivation. A double-blind, randomized, placebo-controlled experiment with eighth graders evaluated the impact of a treatment that framed healthy eating as consistent with the adolescent values of autonomy from adult control and the pursuit of social justice. Healthy eating was suggested as a way to take a stand against manipulative and unfair practices of the food industry, such as engineering junk food to make it addictive and marketing it to young children. Compared with traditional health education materials or to a non–food-related control, this treatment led eighth graders to see healthy eating as more autonomy-assertive and social justice oriented behavior and to forgo sugary snacks and drinks in favor of healthier options a day later in an unrelated context. Public health interventions for adolescents may be more effective when they harness the motivational power of that group’s existing strongly held values.

This research tested a social-developmental process model of trust discernment. From sixth to eighth grade, White and African American students were surveyed twice yearly. African American students were more aware of racial bias in school disciplinary decisions, and as this awareness grew it predicted a loss of trust in school, leading to a large trust gap in seventh grade. Loss of trust by spring of seventh grade predicted African Americans' subsequent discipline infractions and 4-year college enrollment. Causality was confirmed with a trust-restoring "wise feedback" treatment delivered in spring of seventh grade that improved African Americans' eighth-grade discipline and college outcomes. Correlational findings were replicated with Latino and White students.

This research integrated implicit theories of personality and the biopsychosocial model of challenge and threat, hypothesizing that adolescents would be more likely to conclude that they can meet the demands of an evaluative social situation when they were taught that people have the potential to change their socially relevant traits. Participants who received incremental interventions incremental-theory participants exhibited improved stress appraisals, more adaptive neuroendocrine and cardiovascular responses, and better performance outcomes. Students who received the intervention also had better grades over freshman year than those who did not. These findings offer new avenues for improving theories of adolescent stress and coping.

Previous experiments have shown that college students benefit when they understand that challenges in the transition to college are common and improvable and, thus, that early struggles need not portend a permanent lack of belonging or potential. Could such an approach—called a lay theory intervention—be effective before college matriculation? The lay theory interventions raised first-year full-time college enrollment among students from socially and economically disadvantaged backgrounds exiting a high-performing charter high school network or entering a public flagship university (experiments 1 and 2) and, at a selective private university, raised disadvantaged students’ cumulative first-year grade point average (experiment 3). These gains correspond to 31–40% reductions of the raw (unadjusted) institutional achievement gaps between students from disadvantaged and nondisadvantaged backgrounds at those institutions. Further, follow-up surveys suggest that the interventions improved disadvantaged students’ overall college experiences, promoting use of student support services and the development of friendship networks and mentor relationships.

There are many promising psychological interventions on the horizon, but there is no clear methodology for preparing them to be scaled up. Drawing on design thinking, the present research formalizes a methodology for redesigning and tailoring initial interventions. The researchers test the methodology using the case of fixed versus growth mindsets during the transition to high school. The current research provides a model for how to improve and scale interventions that begin to address pressing educational problems. It also provides insight into how to teach a growth mindset more effectively.

The authors review the theoretical basis of several prominent social-psychological interventions and emphasizes that they have lasting effects because they target students' subjective experiences in school, because they use persuasive yet stealthy methods for conveying psychological ideas, and because they tap into recursive processes present in educational environments. Understanding these interventions as powerful but context-dependent tools is essential when taking them to scale.

This paper was prepared for a White House meeting on academic mindsets in May 2013. The authors review recent research findings and put forth an R&D agenda focused on principles (understanding how to maximize the effects of mindset interventions); practices (expanding the toolkit of day-to-day practices that instill adaptive mindsets; and assessments (developing measures that allow for more rapid learning from practice).

Attempts to measure so-called "non-cognitive" factors for the purposes of educational policy and practice are relatively recent. The authors identify serious challenges to doing so. They discuss advantages and limitations of different measures, in particular: self-report questionnaires, teacher-report questionnaires, and performance tasks. The authors discuss how each measure’s imperfections can affect its suitability for program evaluation, accountability, individual diagnosis, and practice improvement. In addition to urging caution among policymakers and practitioners, they highlight medium-term innovations that may make these measures more suitable for educational purposes.

This article reviews research demonstrating that when adolescents believe that intellectual abilities and social attributes can be developed, they tend to show higher achievement across challenging school transitions, and reduced stress and aggression in response to bullying and exclusion. The authors suggest ideas for how educators can foster these mindsets that promote resilience in educational settings.

The first study revealed that students with more of a pro-social, self-transcendent purpose for learning persisted longer on a boring task and were less likely to drop out of college. A second study showed that a brief intervention promoting a self-transcendent purpose for learning improved high school GPA. Two other studies showed that promoting a self-transcendent purpose increased deeper learning behavior on tedious test review materials and sustained self-regulation over the course of an increasingly boring task. More self-oriented motives for learning—such as the desire to have an interesting or enjoyable career—did not, on their own, consistently produce these benefits.

By emphasizing their high standards and belief that a student is capable of meeting those standards alongside critical feedback on schoolwork, teachers convey to students that they will be neither treated nor judged in light of a negative stereotype. 71% of black students who received this type of "wise feedback" on an essay chose to revise their essays, compared with 17% in the control group. Among black students with low trust of their teachers, 82% revised their essay while none in the control group did. Another intervention that taught students to attribute critical feedback to their teachers' high standards and belief in their potential raised black students' grades and reduced the achievement gap.

The authors delivered brief growth mindset and sense of purpose interventions through online modules to 1,594 high school students. Among students at risk of dropping out of high school, both of the interventions raised students' semester GPAs in core academic courses and increased the rate at which students passed their courses.

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