I’m pleased to share some news that we have been working on for a long time at the Population Research Center. Our paper, A National Experiment Reveals Where A Growth Mindset Improves Achievement, based on the initial findings of the National Study was accepted for publication in the Nature journal.
Nature is one of the top two academic journals across all disciplines (Science being the other) and this is the journal where the double-helix structure of the DNA (1953), the discovery of the neutron (1932), and more recently, the sequencing of the human genome (2001) was first published. So you can imagine why we are so pumped.
This is a monumental achievement and tipping point for mindset research and it lays to rest any doubts about the impact on academic outcomes. The paper is based on the National Study of Learning Mindsets (NSLM) which is one-of-a-kind, highly visible national study currently being implemented in 76 nationally-representative schools all across the United States using the most rigorous experimental design using a randomized experiment (in a probability sample, with arms-length data collection and pre-registered analysis plans). That means, the use of random sampling in the NSLM gives greater confidence that the results can be applied to the schools in the nation than any other past study.
On a personal front, although I joined the project only 8 months ago, I’m honored that the team asked me to be a part of this paper. After all, it’s not every day that you get to be a co-author on a paper with David, Angela, Carol, and other preeminent psychologists and sociologists.
So what did the paper find? In theory, it confirms Carol Dweck’s now-well-known premise that reveals a critical insight about education: Students who believe they can grow their intellectual ability tend to perform better academically than students who believe intelligence is simply a fixed trait.
During the 2015-16 school year, 9th grade students at these randomly-selected schools were in turn randomly assigned at the student-level to complete either the growth mindset program or a control activity during two, 25-minute sessions. The carefully-crafted and extensively pilot-tested growth mindset activity vividly conveyed to students that intellectual abilities are not fixed but can be developed. Students were asked to reflect on ways to strengthen their brains by persisting on challenges, and to describe how they could use a stronger brain to make a difference for things that matter to them, such as their family, community, or a social issue.
The overall proportion of students with growth mindset beliefs increased from 50% to 66%.
The intervention had benefits for both lower- and higher-achieving students. It improved grades in core academic subjects (mathematics, English language arts, science, and social studies) in 9th grade among previously lower-achieving students. It also increased enrollment in advanced mathematics courses in 10th grade among both higher- and lower-achieving students.
The intervention also reduced the proportion of these students with a D or F average in their core courses by over 5 percentage points.
In medium- and lower-performing schools in which the peer climate (the “norms”) supported the pursuit of challenging academic work, the intervention increased core course GPA by 0.15 points and STEM course GPA by 0.17 points on average among lower-achieving students. In these schools, the intervention also reduced the likelihood of D or F averages in core courses by 8 percentage points among these students.
The intervention increased students’ likelihood of taking Algebra II or higher in 10th grade by 3 percentage points. In the highest performing quarter of schools, the intervention increased the likelihood of taking Algebra II or higher in 10th grade by 4 percentage points.
These effects are substantial when compared to the most successful large-scale, time-consuming, and rigorously evaluated interventions with adolescents in the educational research literature, and they are particularly notable given the low cost and time investment of the online program. The average cost of the intervention turned out to be less than $0.10 per student and lasted less than an hour in the entire school year. Compare that to more extensive interventions involving tons of money and hours.
Lower-achieving students who attended schools in which the peer climate (the “norms”) supported the pursuit of challenging work registered the largest improvements in grades as a result of receiving the program. So context matters. Students who develop a growth-mindset cannot alone affect their grades but if their schools support their efforts then the effects are fully realized.
You can access the PDF for the study here or visit the Nature website to access the full online supplemental materials that describe the implementation, analysis, and statistical methods used. Here is the press release from UT Austin.
This is only the beginning for applying mindset research. If requested, I can share the intervention materials. They have been made available to all public high schools in the nation for free. We are already working on the next step; the part that I’m currently leading.
Mindsets could affect long-term trajectories by improving shorter-term “gateways” (e.g., grades, course-taking), but empirical tests of this sequence are lacking. A critical next step, therefore, is to explore how mindsets raise the odds of positive educational outcomes (e.g., on-time high school graduation, college persistence) through interim steps (e.g., persistence in advanced coursework) that build on each other and create self-sustaining momentum.
Also, a learning mindset might be most effective in a demanding course with a less than ideal motivational climate. Furthermore, a rigorous curriculum in a fixed mindset environment may not benefit under-represented students. A critical next step is to look closely at curricular content and teaching styles and how they foster or blunt the potential benefits of mindsets.
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