Growth mindset

Share a growth mindset with your students.

Students can be trapped in – and instructors can unknowingly communicate – a mindset that types of intelligence are predetermined and thus cannot be expanded. Students who identify with groups underrepresented in a particular academic field, such as economics, may get a message that they are less capable of contributing to that field. Such fixed mindsets can lead to students feeling like there is no point to working at a certain skill or subject because they will never be able to learn it.

How
  • Communicate through your words and actions that:
    • Intelligence is malleable. Burgeoning evidence in cognitive psychology and neuroscience demonstrates the malleability of intelligence and the plasticity of the brain (e.g., Jaeggi et al. 2008).
    • Math ability can be developed. Gently challenge a student’s statement that they are not a “math person.”
    • Economic intuition can be acquired. Why else do we teach?
    • It is natural to struggle with new material, and it is good to ask instructors, TAs, and classmates for help. Use a personal story, thoughtfully, to illustrate.
  • Expose students to economists who share their background, identity, and/or interests. Invite a diverse set of speakers and add these videos to your curriculum to help students who are underrepresented in the field more readily envision themselves as economists.
  • Help your students understand and enjoy the learning process.
  • Understand the critical role of your own mindset. Believe in your students’ ability to grow and succeed.

Relatedwise feedback / stereotype threat / social-psychological interventions

Why

Researchers have produced – and others have replicated – significant evidence of the effects of growth mindsets on academic achievement, including in math and science. As Carol Dweck (2008) writes, “Students who believe that intelligence or math and science ability is simply a fixed trait (a fixed mindset) are at a significant disadvantage compared to students who believe that their abilities can be developed (a growth mindset). Moreover, research is showing that these mindsets play an important role in the relative underachievement of women and minorities in math and science…[and that] educators play a key role in shaping students’ mindsets.”

A landmark study by Aronson, Fried, & Good (2002) found that “encouraging students to see intelligence as malleable (i.e., embrace an incremental theory of intelligence) can raise enjoyment and performance in academic contexts.” In their experiment, college students in the treatment group learned an incremental theory of intelligence and wrote a letter explaining the theory to a low-performing middle school pen pal. “The African American students (and, to some degree, the White students) encouraged to view intelligence as malleable reported greater enjoyment of the academic process, greater academic engagement, and obtained higher grade point averages than their counterparts in two control groups.”

More recently, Yeager et al. (2019) reports that “a short (less than one hour), online growth mindset intervention – which teaches that intellectual abilities can be developed – improved grades among lower-achieving students and increased overall enrolment to advanced mathematics courses in a nationally representative sample of students in secondary education in the United States.” Providing incoming college students with a brief introduction to growth mindsets and a way to understand the meaning of commonplace difficulties subsequently narrows achievement gaps by increasing enrollment rates and grade point averages of students from underrepresented or disadvantaged backgrounds (Broda et al. 2018, Yeager et al. 2016). Mind-set interventions appear to be particularly helpful to students with low socioeconomic status or who are academically at risk (Sisk et al. 2018, Claro Paunesku, and Dweck 2016).

The critical role of faculty mindsets

Research finds that “when teachers believe in fixed intelligence, the students they identify as having high ability are the only ones who tend to achieve well in their classes. When teachers hold a growth mindset, a much broader range of students do well” (Rheinberg, Vollmeyer, and Rollett 2000, as cited in Dweck 2008).

STEM faculty who believe ability is fixed have larger racial achievement gaps and inspire less student motivation in their classes (Canning, Muenks, Green, and Murphy 2019).

Teacher mindsets help explain where a growth mindset intervention does and doesn’t work (Yeager et al. 2021).

Caution

While sharing a growth mindset with your students is an effective and enjoyable way to boost achievement and engagement, it is a necessary but not sufficient condition. Individual students, even with the best of mindsets, cannot fix problems in the system as a whole. Growth mindset does not address systematic failures such as underfunded school districts or academic departments dominated by a particular group. Growth mindset alone does not recognize the excess burdens some students have that others do not have to contend with. Without care and nuance, a blunt growth mindset message can come across as placing blame on underrepresented and low income students.

For example, when speaking to an underrepresented student in economics who feels like they don’t belong because of their identity and comments made by their classmates, telling them to have a growth mindset about belonging in economics might make them feel as though their issues aren’t been heard or addressed properly. It implies the onus is on them to fix their mindset, rather than on other community members to fix their behavior. 

Cited works

Aronson, J., Fried, C. B., & Good, C. (2002). Reducing the effects of stereotype threat on African American college students by shaping theories of intelligence. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 38(2), 113–125. https://doi.org/10.1006/jesp.2001.1491

Broda, M., Yun, J., Schneider, B., Yeager, D. S., Walton, G. M., & Diemer, M. (2018). Reducing inequality in academic success for incoming college students: A randomized trial of growth mindset and belonging interventions. Journal of Research on Educational Effectiveness, 11(3), 317-338. https://doi.org/10.1080/19345747.2018.1429037

Canning, Elizabeth A., Katherine Muenks, Dorainne J. Green, and Mary C. Murphy. 2019. “STEM Faculty Who Believe Ability Is Fixed Have Larger Racial Achievement Gaps and Inspire Less Student Motivation in Their Classes.” Science Advances 5 (2): eaau4734. https://advances.sciencemag.org/content/5/2/eaau4734

Claro, S., Paunesku, D., & Dweck, C. S. (2016). Growth mindset tempers the effects of poverty on academic achievement. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 113(31), 8664–8668. https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1608207113

Dweck, C. (2008). Mindsets and math/science achievement. New York: Carnegie Corporation of New York, Institute for Advanced Study, Commission on Mathematics and Science Education.

Jaeggi, S.M., Buschkuehl, M., Jonides, J., & Perrig, W.J., Improving fluid intelligence with training on working memory. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 2008. https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.0801268105

Rheinberg, F., Vollmeyer, R., & Rollett, W. (2000). Motivation and action in self- regulated learning. In M. Boekaerts, P. Pintrich & M. Zeidner (Eds.), Handbook of self-regulation (pp. 503-529). San Diego: Academic Press.

Sisk, V. F., Burgoyne, A. P., Sun, J., Butler, J. L., & Macnamara, B. N. (2018). To what extent and under which circumstances are growth mind-sets important to academic achievement? Two meta-analyses. Psychological science, 29(4), 549-571. https://doi.org/10.1177/0956797617739704.

Yeager, D. S., Carroll, J. M., Buontempo, J., Cimpian, A., Woody, S., Crosnoe, R., … & Dweck, C. S. (2021). Teacher mindsets help explain where a growth mindset intervention does and doesn’t work. Psychological science. http://gregorywalton-stanford.weebly.com/uploads/4/9/4/4/49448111/yeageretalmathteacherpsychscience-inpress.pdf

Yeager, D. S., Hanselman, P., Walton, G. M., Murray, J. S., Crosnoe, R., Muller, C., Tipton, E., Schneider, B., Hulleman, C. S., Hinojosa, C. P., Paunesku, D., Romero, C., Flint, K., Roberts, A., Trott, J., Iachan, R., Buontempo, J., Yang, S. M., Carvalho, C. M., … Dweck, C. S. (2019). A national experiment reveals where a growth mindset improves achievement. Nature, 573(7774), 364–369. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41586-019-1466-y

Yeager, D. S., Walton, G. M., Brady, S. T., Akcinar, E. N., Paunesku, D., Keane, L., … & Dweck, C. S. (2016). Teaching a lay theory before college narrows achievement gaps at scale. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 113(24), E3341-E3348. https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1524360113