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Changing students’ mindsets about learning improves their grades, Stanford researchers find

Carol Dweck (Image credit: Mark Estes)

Aug 7 2019

Posted In:

Faculty, In the News

A new national study, co-authored by Stanford scholars, shows that high school students who took a course to cultivate positive beliefs about learning earned higher grades and took more challenging classes.

BY MELISSA DE WITTE

Actions not only speak louder than words, they also happen first and faster, Stanford psychologist Barbara Tversky says. Catching a falling cup, rolling one’s eyes at a bad joke – responses like these happen before people find the words to describe their actions and emotions.

High school students who took a 50-minute online course to help them cultivate a growth mindset – the belief that intellectual abilities are not fixed but can be developed – earned significantly higher grades, according to the new research paper, co-authored by Stanford psychologists Carol Dweck and Greg Walton.

On average, the grade point averages of students who took the online course increased by 0.10 grade points and the number of students with a D or an F average decreased by over 5 percentage points in comparison to students who did not take the online course. This effect compares favorably with the results from far more costly or lengthy successful school reforms for teenagers, Dweck said.

The findings from the research, called the National Study of Learning Mindsets, were published in Nature on Aug. 7.

Dweck has pioneered work on how different mindsets can affect learning. Her previous research revealed that students who believe they can grow their intellectual ability tend to perform better academically than students who believe intelligence is a fixed trait, like height or eye color.

The new research, which examined a nationally representative sample of 12,000 ninth-graders in the United States, focused on how the lessons from Dweck’s research could help students who are making the challenging transition to high school.

“I am absolutely delighted to see how far mindset science has come,” said Dweck, who is the Lewis and Virginia Eaton Professor of psychology in the School of Humanities and Sciences. “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.”

Students from 76 public high schools in the U.S. were randomly assigned to either complete the 50-minute online growth mindset program or complete an unrelated course of the same length. During the online course, students learned that their intellectual abilities are not fixed and reflected on ways to strengthen their brains by persisting on challenges.

“We spent years developing this short program to contain all the critical ingredients of conveying the growth mindset,” Dweck said. “We’ve had other interventions that yielded meaningful results but this time we wanted to see where this type of intervention works well and where it works less well.”

Researchers found that both lower- and higher-achieving students benefited academically from the online course, which was administered to the ninth-graders at the start of their first year in high school. High-achieving students who took the online course were more likely to take harder mathematics classes the following year.

Lower-achieving students who attended schools where they were encouraged and supported in taking on challenging assignments had the largest improvements in grades as a result of the online course, according to the research.

The research was conducted by a multidisciplinary team of scholars who comprise the Mindset Scholars Network. The group’s mission is to advance the scientific understanding of learning mindsets in order to improve student outcomes and expand educational opportunity.

“This is the most important study we’ve ever done,” said the new paper’s lead author, David Yeager, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Texas at Austin. “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.”

Additional co-authors are from the University of Texas at Austin, UC Irvine, Northwestern University, Michigan State University, University of Virginia, University of Chicago, Project for Education Research that Scales, Paradigm Strategy Inc., ICF, Arizona State University and Pennsylvania State University.

The work was funded by the Raikes Foundation, the William T. Grant Foundation, the Spencer Foundation, the Bezos Family Foundation, the Character Laboratory, the Houston Endowment, the Yidan Prize for Education Research, the National Science Foundation, a personal gift from A. Duckworth and the President and Dean of Humanities and Social Sciences at Stanford University.