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The Benefits of Teaching Growth Mindset and the Differential Impact on Students At Risk

August 20, 2018

Katie Brohawn

You don’t have to convince anyone around the office at ExpandED Schools that teaching growth mindset is beneficial for kids. We’ve been blogging about the research supporting its impact for years (see here, here and here). In fact our staff kicked off 2017 by sharing the individual ways we would use growth mindset that year (remember this?) — and now we’re going out in the world and training others on how to encourage growth mindset among the youth they work with (Interested? See here for our training calendar and sign up!)

But enough with the shameless self-promotion.  While we don’t need convincing of the benefits of teaching growth mindset, it is always nice when a shiny new research article backs us up! And a new article currently in press from Trends in Neuroscience and Education does just that.

The meta-analysis by researchers at the Université du Québec à Montréal entitled Effects of Teaching the Concept of Neuroplasticity to Induce a Growth Mindset on Motivation, Achievement, and Brain Activity examined findings from ten studies of the impacts of teaching neuroplasticity (the fancy word for growth mindset – or the idea that the brain has the ability to change throughout your life) on students’ motivation, academic achievement and brain activity. They also explored whether effects differed for students specifically considered ‘at-risk’ of developing a fixed mindset – including groups subject to stereotype threat (i.e. female students, minority students), low-achieving students and economically disadvantaged students.

Results revealed a small but significant positive effect of teaching growth mindset on students’ motivation. However, effects were especially pronounced among students considered at risk of developing a fixed mindset. When exploring the relationship between mindsets and academic achievement, results were more mixed. There was a small positive effect of having a growth mindset on students’ academic achievement broadly. Notably though, only in math was it apparent that the benefits were substantially greater for at-risk students.

“Teaching students that intelligence is not a fixed construct can kick off a cascade of positive benefits, especially among those often most in need of them.”

Katie Brohawn PhD, ExpandED Schools Vice President of Research

Lastly, the authors reported on a small body of literature focused on the relationship between growth mindset and brain activity, the results of which may help explain the connection between growth mindset, motivation and academic achievement. Across these studies, a fairly consistent result emerged among students of all ages: when given a task requiring a high level of attention, students with a growth mindset displayed greater cognitive engagement relative to those with a fixed mindset – students with a growth mindset paid greater attention to errors and were more likely to use positive strategies to correct their mistakes, ultimately leading to better achievement. Further, they were more likely to engage neural networks known to be associated with regulation and error-monitoring. The authors hypothesize that it is this enhanced level of attention towards error-monitoring/error-correcting that mediates the relationship between growth mindset, motivation and academic achievement (which may help explain the differential effects in math, which requires more error monitoring than other subject areas).

Overall, the research suggests that promoting a growth mindset and arming students with strategies to use when approaching a problem can benefit any student in a myriad of ways, though the impact may be especially beneficial for those most traditionally at risk of developing a fixed mindset. While technically there is a larger issue here that shouldn’t be ignored and is in desperate need of tackling: the societal factors at play that put any group more or less at risk for a fixed mindset than another in the first place, but in the short-term, it’s critical to identify research-backed strategies that can help.

Teaching students that intelligence is not a fixed construct can kick off a cascade of positive benefits, especially among those often most in need of them.