Growth Mindset Explained

By | First Published: | Last Updated: 27 September, 2021

Most teachers have heard about the growth mindset. It became a phenomenon in 2006 when Carol Dweck released her book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. Yet, not everyone is clear about what a growth mindset means and whether it is worth your time.

This article will explain what the growth mindset is and isn’t. It will also explain the evidence on the impact of a growth mindset.

What is a Growth Mindset?

While there are many espoused benefits to holding a growth mindset, the definition of a growth mindset is quite simple.

Growth Mindset Definition

You have what Carol Dweck refers to as a growth mindset if you believe you can develop your abilities – abilities such as intelligence.

Fixed Mindset

While some people hold a growth mindset, others have what Carol Dweck calls a fixed mindset.

You have a fixed mindset if you believe your abilities cannot be developed further. Put another way, you believe you are born with certain abilities and those abilities are set in stone.

Carol believes that is important to have a growth mindset, but why?

Why Mindsets May Matter

According to Dweck, mindsets matter because they influence motivation and behaviour, which in turn influence success. More specifically, a person with a growth mindset:

Is motivated to expand their understanding and proficiency

Loves to be challenged

Sees effort as essential to maximising their success

Sees failure as a signal to work harder, to change their approach or to ask for help

Growth Mindset Clarified

No one doubts that factors such as student motivation, effort, feedback-seeking, and being proactive in how they respond to setbacks all contribute to successful learning. Therefore, you should do what you can to nurture them in your students.

Yet, Dweck claims that these things flow naturally from a simple change in mindset. In other words, if you change a student’s mindset, she will automatically be more likely to:

Put effort into her learning

Be persistent

Ask for help

Dweck’s Example of an Intervention

Dweck believes that rather than telling students to try harder … etc., it is better to:

Explain how intelligence is malleable, using the mind as a muscle metaphor

Have students then write a letter to a struggling student giving advice based on what they have learned

See this sample lesson plan as an example.

Evidence of Impact

There is evidence that teaching students about the malleable nature of intelligence can have a positive impact. And, the research shows that this teaching can take less than 2 hours per year.

But the impact is small.

Impact of Having a Growth Mindset

First, we have a correlational, meta-analysis conducted by Brooke McNamara and her colleagues. The best statistic for reporting correlations is Pearson’s r. However, as later results use Cohen’s d I will also use it for this study so that you can make easy comparisons.

The research shows that the more students believe in the growth mindset, the more likely they are to do better at school. But this research does not measure the impact of teachers’ efforts to nurture a growth mindset. Rather, it simply shows that existing mindsets are related to achievement.

Note – the impact isn’t large. It was slightly larger for children than for adolescents. By comparison, the less fashionable notion of self-efficacy has a larger impact.

growth mindset correlation to achievement diagram

Impact of Growth Mindset Programs

A team of researchers, including Carol Dweck, conducted what became known as the National Study of Learning Mindsets conducted. found that a particular growth mindset program had a positive but small impact on students’ learning. The impact was larger for struggling students. The program involved over 12,000 Year 9 students from 65 different schools and included:

An initial assessment of students’ existing mindsets

2 x 30 minute online sessions explaining the nature of intelligence and the mind as a muscle metaphor

Students writing advice to a hypothetical struggling student based on what they had learned

A second assessment of students’ mindsets

Brooke McNamara’s (& co.) conducted a second meta-analysis exploring the impact of a broader range of growth mindset programs. Their research revealed similar results for students in general, but slightly higher for struggling students.

growth mindset program imoact mcnamara meta-analysis

What Does This All Mean for Students & Teachers

I draw 4 conclusions for all of the above, which I frame as recommendations for schools and teachers.

Keep on encouraging effort, help-seeking and changing approaches when a particular approach isn’t working – but be aware, this is not nurturing a growth mindset

Don’t get carried away with the hype associated with the growth mindset, especially when it adds to your or your teachers’ workloads.

Consider running a periodic (2 x in primary school, 2 x in high school), short (<90 min) growth mindset program based on Dweck’s program. But make it face-to-face and age-appropriate.

Explore how you can nurture task-specific self-efficacy

shaun killian drawing

(MEd., MLead.)

Shaun Killian (me) is an experienced and passionate teacher, as well as a past school principal. After a heart transplant and having both my legs amputated, I am not yet capable of returning to work. Yet, my passion for helping students succeed has led me to use my time to research teaching and associated practices. I then share what I find in practical ways through this website. The greatest compliment I have ever received from a past student was I never left any student behind. That is mission of most teachers and I hope you find the information on this site useful.

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