Major US study shows positive impact of growth mindset

Lower-achieving students saw their grades rise after two 25-minute online growth mindset sessions, research shows

A major US study suggests that growth mindset can improve students' results

A major study of growth mindset has found that just two 25-minute online sessions boosted lower-achieving students' scores.

The National Study of Learning Mindsets (NSLM), published today, also found that both higher- and lower-achieving 14- and 15-year-olds taking the growth-mindset course were more likely to enrol on advanced maths courses than their peers who did not.

Growth mindset, a concept pioneered by Stanford University psychologist Carol Dweck, is the belief that intellectual abilities are not fixed, like eye colour, but can be developed and that this belief can lead to better performance.


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But the theory has been controversial, with geneticist Robert Plomin claiming it is a "gimmick".

And a recent study of 5,018 children in England, which looked at the effect of a growth-mindset-inspired programme taught to children by their teachers, found it had no impact on the 10- and 11-year olds' English and maths results.

This latest study, published in the journal Nature, was the largest-ever randomised controlled trial of growth mindset in US schools, covering 12,000 students in 65 schools.

During the study students in the intervention group were asked to complete two 25-minute online courses. The courses were taken three weeks apart. Students were given information about how the brain works and the latest research on growth mindset – then they completed activities such as explaining what they had learned from the course to next year’s ninth graders (Year 10). 

Students in the control group were given a similar programme with information on how the brain worked, but no information on growth mindset.

Months after the intervention, these students’ scores, known as their grade point average (GPA) in their core ninth-grade classes of maths, science, English or language arts and social studies, were collected. Grade point averages run from 4.0, which is an A, to 1.0, which is a D. There is no E grade. The score below D is an F.

The study found that:

  • Lower-achieving students who had the intervention saw their GPA rise 0.1 relative to peers in the control group.
  • The proportion of lower-achieving students with D or F averages dropped by 5 percentage points.
  • In medium and lower-performing schools, the effect on lower-achieving students was greater in schools where the pursuit of challenging work was seen as the "norm".
  • Both higher- and lower-achieving students were more likely to take an advanced algebra course in 10th grade (Year 11) – meaning enrolment in these courses rose from 33 per cent to 36 per cent in the 41 schools that shared this data.

Speaking to Tes, Professor Dweck said that the effect of an average rise of 0.1 grade point may seem small but it needed to be seen in the context of other educational initiatives.

'Amazing' growth mindset results

“This was a 50-minute self-administered online programme. Then the grades were assessed months later. Looked at in that way, it is kind of a miracle anything happened,” Professor Dweck said. “The second point is that for important sub-groups it was substantially higher.”

And she added that a year of schooling in adolescence gives a 0.2 change on achievement test scores, so “the fact you can budge the needle at all with a short programme is amazing”.

The study was led by David Yeager, professor of psychology at the University of Texas. He said: “The National Study of Learning Mindsets is a major milestone for science. The research cemented a striking finding from multiple earlier studies: a short intervention can have an unlikely outcome – it can change adolescents’ grades many months later.”

He added that it was also important that the study had identified the effect of different school environments on the success of the programme.

The research article in Nature suggests that pupils in schools where it was seen as the norm to work hard did better because pupils in schools with unsupportive peer climates “risked paying a social price for taking on intellectual challenges in front of peers who thought it undesirable to do so”.

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