New Study Casts Doubt On The Efficacy Of A Growth Mindset

If there has been one theory that has captivated the learning profession in recent years, it has probably been the work on mindsets by Stanford’s Carol Dweck.  She suggests that people fall into one of two kinds of mindset.

A fixed mindset is typified by a belief that we’re largely stuck with the abilities and talents we’re born with. People with this mindset believe intelligence is a relatively static entity, and they tend to therefore look for ways in which they can show off their intelligence.

By contrast, a growth mindset individual would tend to regard intelligence as something that has to be developed. It’s akin to thinking of our brain as a muscle, and as with every muscle, it becomes stronger the more it’s trained. This belief lends itself nicely to a desire for constant improvement.

The thinking is clear in that efforts to promote a growth mindset are more likely to promote learning.  A new study from Michigan State University and Case Western Reserve University suggests that things might not be so straightforward however.

Stagnating growth

“This research is important because millions of dollars have been spent on growth mindset interventions in schools,” the researchers say. “Our results show that the academic benefits of these interventions have been largely overstated. For example, there was little to no effect of mindset interventions on academic achievement for typical students, or for other groups who some have claimed benefit substantially from these interventions, including students facing situational challenges, such as transitioning to a new school.”

The researchers aggregate a few hundred previous studies into mindset and its affect on learning.  Most of the studies used the marks a student received at the end of their course, and between them included over 400,000 students.  The researchers conducted two main analyses of these studies, the first of which explored whether the mindset of the student was related to their academic achievement.

“In the first meta-analysis, which included a sample size of 365,915 participants, we found that the overall correlation between growth mindset and academic achievement is weak,” they explain. “Furthermore, this correlation was moderated by age. That is, the relationship between mindset and academic achievement was stronger for children and adolescents than for adults.”

The second analysis looked at the impact any growth mindset interventions had on academic achievement.

“In the second meta-analysis, which included a sample of 57,155 participants, we found that the overall effect of growth mindset interventions on academic achievement is small,” the authors explain. “Although our results do support claims that economically disadvantaged students or students at high risk of failing may benefit from growth mindset interventions, importantly, only a few studies contributed to those analyses, so they must be interpreted with caution.”

Evidence from the field

The mindset theory is undoubtedly attractive.  The idea that the way we view the world can make us more resilient in response to failure and more adaptive in life is a nice theory to believe in.  The theory of fixed mindsets also neatly explains why some people seem so resistant, even hostile, to change.

Alas, this study suggests that the theories may sound great, but they aren’t really backed up by much evidence to date.  Students don’t appear to be benefiting academically from going through growth mindset interventions.  Indeed, the authors believe that the only people benefiting are the companies selling growth mindset programs to parents and schools.

Indeed, they go further and suggest that studies that did seem to indicate improvements as a result of mindset interventions often followed poor research practices.  Instead, the students academic performance tended to rise when the growth mindset programs failed to change the mindset of the student.

“The evidence for growth mindset interventions improving academic achievement is not strong,” the authors conclude. “Future studies should focus on using the highest standard of research practices to test whether mindset interventions can consistently benefit any group of students and whether the benefit is substantial.”