Study shows benefits to changing students' mindsets about learning

August 07, 2019

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — A groundbreaking experimental study with more than 12,000 ninth grade students in the United States confirmed that a low-cost online program that takes less than an hour to complete can help students develop a growth mindset — the belief that intellectual abilities are not fixed but can be developed. This finding is important because student motivation often suffers when students have been exposed to the idea that their intellectual abilities can't change.

Maithreyi Gopalan

Maithreyi Gopalan

IMAGE: Steve Tressler

David Yeager, associate professor of psychology at University of Texas at Austin, led a multi-disciplinary team of researchers including Maithreyi Gopalan, assistant professor of education (educational theory and policy) in the Penn State College of Education's Department of Education Policy Studies, to conduct the National Study of Learning Mindsets (NSLM), the largest-ever randomized controlled trial of a growth mindset program in the U.S. in K-12 settings. Other researchers on the study team include internationally-recognized experts from the fields of education, psychology, sociology, economics and statistics, many of whom are members of the Mindset Scholars Network.

"The National Study is the most important study we've ever done," Yeager said. "Not only did it confirm the effects of the growth mindset in the most rigorous way we could think of, it also showed us how much more there is to learn. It marks the beginning of the next phase of mindset research — a phase that will focus on how to make growth mindset truly come alive in learning environments."

The results of the growth mindset intervention are summarized in a new paper published today (Aug. 7) in the journal Nature.

"This research collaboration has been a highlight in my professional development as a scholar, because as a policy scholar I am interested in bringing psychological insights to bear on education policy. I am so delighted to have played a role in one of the most ambitious projects I know," said Gopalan, who also is a Social Science Research Institute (SSRI) co-funded faculty member.

Her role was to analyze the representativeness of the NSLM analytical sample by comparing it to national data of all high schools in the United States across several key school- and district-level characteristics.

"While the sampling design was thoughtfully constructed at the school recruitment stage, my analysis of the representativeness of the final 65 schools included in the study gave us more confidence that the results from the NSLM are generalizable to the nation," Gopalan said.

"Her (Dr. Gopalan's) contributions to the NSLM provided confirmation of an essential claim of the study, which is that the results of the study can be reasonably generalized to the population as a whole," Yeager said. "This was the first time that a such an analysis has been conducted for a national, random sample of schools in an education experiment, and it was deeply important to our research report."

Gopalan also did an important analysis that looked at compliance.

"A chronic problem in education research is that people don't implement the treatment with fidelity. Dr. Gopalan's analysis shows that the same conclusions held even when you account for the very small levels of non-compliance," said Yeager.

Each year, nearly 20% of students in the United States do not finish high school on time. These students are at high risk for poverty, poor health and early mortality.

The transition to high school in ninth grade represents an important point in adolescents' paths toward high school completion and long-term success. The study examined what can be done at this time to improve their outcomes.

Psychological "interventions" like the one tested in the NSLM do not change the curriculum or teachers, but rather change how adolescents think or feel about themselves or their schoolwork in ways that encourage them to stay motivated when school is challenging and take advantage of the learning opportunities available in their school environment. Prior research had found that such interventions can improve academic outcomes in smaller samples, but it was not yet clear if these interventions could work on a national level and the conditions under which such interventions might be most effective.

Both lower- and higher-achieving students benefited academically from the program. On average, lower-achieving students who took the program earned significantly higher grades in ninth grade, and both higher- and lower-achieving students selected more challenging math courses in 10th grade.

The research also revealed important insights about how school context can affect the impact of the growth mindset program.

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.

A milestone for mindset science

The pioneering work of Stanford University psychology professor Carol Dweck revealed 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, like height or eye color. Since Dweck's early work in the 1990s, many carefully done studies have observed a link between growth mindset and academic performance and shown that students can be taught a growth mindset.

Many exciting questions grew out of this work: Under what conditions can students be taught a growth mindset most effectively? Can a brief growth mindset program have an impact on students' longer-term success? These are questions tackled by the research team in this study.

The NSLM used a nationally-representative probability sample of U.S. high schools to evaluate a carefully developed and extensively pilot-tested online growth mindset program. Like most high-quality educational evaluations, this study was able to isolate the causal impact of the program through use of a randomized experiment.

Unlike most other educational evaluations, however, this study took place in a sample of schools that was selected randomly, thus ensuring that generalizations from the sample to the U.S. population of high schools could be made. This use of random sampling in the NSLM therefore gives greater confidence that the results can be applied to the nation than any other past study.

"The National Study of Learning Mindsets is a major milestone for science," said Yeager. "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. The study also showed us something new. Students who already get high grades don't get higher grades when they get the treatment, but they are more likely to take harder mathematics classes that can set them up for long-term success.

"Additionally," Yeager continued, "the National Study offered a novel way to understand what is called 'treatment-effect heterogeneity,' or the tendency for an intervention to be more or less effective in certain contexts or with different populations. This is important because in the past researchers have been happy to say that their effects were good, overall, in the particular sample they studied and move on. We went the next step to identify schools where effects were stronger or weaker so that we could begin to assess changes schools could make to magnify growth mindset effects on student outcomes."

"I am absolutely delighted to see how far mindset science has come," said Dweck. "The early research showed that helping students develop a growth mindset could be a new way to help more students succeed. Now, as a field we are starting to understand how to do this at scale — and we are understanding the role of supportive learning environments that can maximize the benefits of a growth mindset. I am proud to be part of the team that designed and carried out this new and important study," she said.

"The most exciting aspect of being part of this research team is that this paper in Nature is the first of many more papers to come from the NSLM," said Gopalan, who last year was selected as an early career fellow by the Mindset Scholars Network after submitting a competitive research proposal to analyze the NSLM.

"In that project we hope to further tease out some of the mechanisms through which growth mindset interventions might be promoting the positive academic outcomes using econometric techniques. I am working on that project independently with the lead researcher of the NSLM, with generous funding from the Bezos Family Foundation and support from the Mindset Scholars Network and the University of Texas, Austin Population Research Center. So, stay tuned," she said.

Key findings

Here are some of the most notable conclusions from the article published in Nature:

  • Positive effects on mindsets. The intervention reduced the prevalence of self-reported fixed mindsets (the belief that intellectual ability cannot be developed), replicating multiple earlier studies conducted with smaller, convenience samples of students. The effects were consistent across all student subgroups.
  • Positive effects on key academic predictors of high school graduation and college success. 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 ninth grade among previously lower-achieving students. It also increased enrollment in advanced mathematics courses in 10th grade among both higher- and lower-achieving students (this result was obtained in a sub-sample of 41 schools that shared 10th grade enrollment data).
  • Positive effects on grades of lower-achieving students. For students whose grades were below the median in their school, the intervention improved their GPA in core courses by 0.10 grade points relative to similar students in the control condition. The intervention also reduced the proportion of these students with a D or F average in their core courses by more than 5 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.
  • Effects on grades were related to school factors. Effects were larger in some types of schools and smaller in others. 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. Again, these effects compare very favorably to those documented in rigorous experimental studies of education interventions with adolescents (see Kraft 2018), many of which are time and cost intensive.
  • Positive effects on advanced mathematics course-taking were observed among both higher- and lower-achieving students. The intervention increased students' likelihood of taking Algebra II or higher in 10th grade by 3 percentage points, elevating advanced course-taking from a base rate of 33% to a rate of 36% (this result was obtained in a sub-sample of 41 schools that shared 10th grade enrollment data). 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.

Findings from the National Study of Learning Mindsets suggest that a carefully developed and tested, but brief, online growth mindset intervention can offer a way to improve key academic indicators and promote the pursuit of more challenging coursework as students make the critical transition to high school. The results also suggest that educators in all schools should pay particular attention to cultivating norms that value the pursuit of challenging schoolwork.

Methodology

The NSLM included a nationally representative sample of 76 regular public high schools; 65 of the schools reported academic data and were included in the analysis reported in Nature. The schools were selected using sophisticated sampling techniques to ensure the results of the study can be generalized to the more than 12,000 regular public high schools in the U.S.

During the 2015-16 school year, ninth grade students at these schools were randomly assigned 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.

An independent firm (ICF International) delivered the program and collected the data. The predictions and analyses were pre-registered according to scientific best practices to minimize potential sources of bias and enhance reproducibility. None of the authors stand to benefit financially from the intervention because it will be given away at no cost.

Funders

Funding for this first phase of the National Study of Learning Mindsets was provided by the Bezos Family Foundation, Character Lab, Houston Endowment, The Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, National Institutes of Health, National Science Foundation, Raikes Foundation, Spencer Foundation, the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences and the President and Dean of Humanities and Social Sciences at Stanford University, and William T. Grant Foundation.

The Growth Mindset for Ninth Graders intervention tested in the study is now freely available to schools in the U.S. and Canada at https://www.perts.net/orientation/hg online.

More information about the National Study of Learning Mindsets and the intervention is available on the Mindset Scholars Network website at http://mindsetscholarsnetwork.org/about-the-network/current-initatives/national-mindset-study/.

About the Mindset Scholars Network

The Mindset Scholars Network is devoted to improving learning and expanding educational opportunity by advancing our understanding of how students' psychological experience of learning and school shapes their academic outcomes. It is composed of 40 leading social scientists who represent 23 institutions across the U.S. The network supports interdisciplinary research and disseminates the latest scientific knowledge through outreach to education stakeholders. It serves as an authoritative resource for reliable, research-based information about learning mindsets, including: Growth Mindset, Belonging, and Purpose and Relevance.

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Last Updated August 08, 2019