Can college students cultivate a growth mindset?

Despite evidence to suggest the popular – and cheap – pedagogical intervention can transform the learning of school pupils, early research into college-age students has yet to prove the same, finds Chris Parr
27th November 2020, 12:00am
Can College Students Cultivate A Growth Mindset?
Chris Parr


Can college students cultivate a growth mindset?

How important is it for students to believe that they are capable of learning growth? This question feels particularly pertinent for those who come to college having to resit GCSE exams, perhaps multiple times. If a student sees intelligence as fixed and believes they are not capable of achieving above a certain level, this can become a real stumbling block.

It's no surprise, then, that the concept of a "growth mindset" has had a huge take-up in colleges. The term was coined more than 20 years ago by Carol Dweck and Claudia Mueller (see box, below), who suggested that children with such a mindset - those who feel that intelligence is not set in stone, but can be developed - are more likely to rise to challenges than feel distressed and defeated if they are unable to do or understand something.

The transfer of this research to education has been a painful one. Despite huge enthusiasm for the concept, concrete results on whether it "works" for pupils are hard to come by. As with much psychology research, the reproducibility of Dweck and Mueller's work has frequently been questioned, with teachers themselves reporting mixed results.

As Dweck, now the Lewis and Virginia Eaton professor of psychology at Stanford University, told Tes recently: "There was evidence that growth mindset had been tested and shown to work in ways that were meaningful to students - OK, that was the evidence, but the evidence did not speak to how to implement it in the classroom. That part was not yet evidence-based. Research takes place over many years. We continue to probe and validate and extend it."

The picture becomes even more opaque when you reach college-age students: the initial research paper compiled six separate studies of students aged 9-12. So how much do we really know about growth mindset and other mindset-based approaches among students over the age of 16? What does the research say here and what does that mean for the ways in which those approaches are used by colleges?

Reversing entrenched thinking

There are undoubtedly those who claim to have successfully implemented mindset approaches in post-16 educational settings.

Others, though, are sceptical about the benefits of mindset approaches specifically for older learners. For a paper published earlier this year, Alejandro Ganimian, assistant professor of applied psychology and economics at New York University, evaluated the effectiveness of a growth- mindset intervention among 17- and 18-year-olds at secondary schools in Argentina. Students at about 200 schools were briefed on the "malleability of intelligence", and then asked to write a letter to one of their peers explaining how this might assist their education. The key lessons from the letters were then collated on posters.

The intervention was intended for use - and reported to be effective - in students aged 11-12, who were transitioning into middle school. However, among his older cohort, Ganimian found "no evidence" that the intervention "affected students' propensity to find tasks less intimidating [and did not affect] school climate, school performance, achievement or post-secondary plans".

Why did the approach not work so well with students of college age? According to Ganimian, it could be down to the learners' stage of life. The transition from elementary to middle school (or from primary to secondary in the UK) may be a point in a pupil's school life that is better suited to the development of a different mindset, he theorises. "Middle school is a hard transition for students…Across the board, achievement seems to decline as they transition into middle school. So this is a big change in their lives," explains Ganimian.

"[But] maybe if you're in grade 12 [Year 13], what has happened has already happened - maybe that's not the time…to change things, and so maybe the intervention is not as efficacious at that point."

Another educator keen to explore the impact of mindset interventions on the performance of older students is Philip Oreopoulos, professor of economics at the University of Toronto, who has tested a series of approaches with first-year students at his institution. "The first…experiment I bumped into was by [Canadian psychologist] Jordan Peterson and others, and it is around goal-setting," he says. "The idea is for two hours you sit down, you write down about your future and you map out really carefully where you want to get to and what actions you actually have to take now [to get there]."

The original paper found that university students who completed the goal-setting intervention "displayed significant improvements in academic performance compared with the control group", and concluded that the activity "thus appears to be a quick, effective and inexpensive intervention for struggling undergraduate students".


Oreopoulos was hopeful, but when he tried to replicate these findings, he drew a blank. "I teamed up with all the first-year instructors here at the University of Toronto and together they teach more than 5,000 students a year," he says. "Virtually everyone in the entire first-year economics classes did this, and the kinds of things that they wrote down were quite inspiring.

"And then we got the results…and not only did we not get the big effects, we didn't get any effects at all. We had very good internal validity. The credibility of the study, I think, was quite strong … but we got nothing - precise zeros. Zero across the board."

Nevertheless, the following year, Oreopoulos tried again. This time, his team conducted activities designed to foster a "belonging mindset" in students - making them aware that it is normal to feel like an outsider when they first start university, and that if they "stick at it and be patient, they'll start to get in the groove and find their path and really enjoy life and university, and it will all work out great".

"Again, we didn't find anything," says Oreopoulos, who has continued to develop and test mindset intervention programmes with first-year university cohorts to no avail. He co-founded the Student Achievement Lab, which, on an ongoing basis, tests new ways that research suggests could improve student success. It leverages research from psychology, behavioural economics and sociology, and hopes to develop low-cost, scalable programmes.

So has the team found anything with the potential to work in FE colleges?

"It's been six years now, and we don't have a programme that's worth you using," Oreopoulos says. "I think we have made progress in trying to understand when it works and when it doesn't. But you can't sort of take this blanket…growth mindset - or any mindset - type of intervention or message [and assume] it is going to be effective. The interventions are cheap to do, but if the impact is zero…why keep doing it? Because there is a small cost, right? It's not zero."

If these findings fill you with disappointment, rest assured that Oreopoulos feels the same. On the potential to assist older students specifically, he says he has found his research to be "frustrating".

Message not received

Although it would be incredibly helpful to have interventions that we know are effective in helping learners to reach their potential, Oreopoulos says that he has "become more pessimistic over time" about finding an approach that works.

"Students at that age [18] have different challenges and approaches [from younger learners]. They may have insecurities about their ability, maybe mental health problems, maybe low confidence - there could be a whole bunch of issues around the development and foundation of both their cognitive and non-cognitive skills," he says. "Trying to change [their] habits or routines seems to be much harder to do."

Oreopoulos also agrees with Ganimian's observation that, by the time students reach 17 or 18 years of age, they simply aren't in a position to embrace growth-mindset interventions as effectively as younger children. "Another take on this is that maybe the growth-mindset message has percolated so much that when you are trying these interventions at this stage, they've already heard it - so you've already maximised the benefit you can have from this approach," he suggests. "The growth-mindset message is so popular these days, and so prevailing in classrooms, that maybe they don't need to hear the message again. That could be the one reason why it's not apparently working."

Does this mean that colleges should be abandoning their work on changing the mindset of students? Despite the challenges he has experienced, Oreopoulos stops short of ruling these approaches out. He says that he still wants to see mindset interventions proven right and can understand why colleges would continue to promote the messages at the heart of growth mindset, even if the hard evidence doesn't appear to be there.

"I love the growth-mindset message - I tell my kids the growth-mindset message; I've been telling them that probably every day for the last five years," Oreopoulos says. "But I can see that it's not so simple as just telling someone to have a growth mindset and then everything works out great - even if I'm telling you the personal growth-mindset message over and over and over again.

"I find it really interesting to observe, as a dad, how difficult it is to encourage people to be patient and understand that it's through failure that you're going to get better. It's a very powerful message - but when you're failing, it's a hard thing to get through."

Chris Parr is a freelance journalist

This article originally appeared in the 27 November 2020 issue under the headline "Does growth mindset come with an age limit?"

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