Do Your Students Have a Fixed Mindset or Growth Mindset? The Answer Is Both

This article is part of a series aimed at sharing insights from learning sciences research with educators. (Read the first two blogs in this series here and here.) Now that learning is happening at home with support from family and friends—and, of course, teachers—it’s important to address the contextual nature of growth mindset. After all, parents bring their own mindsets to learning experiences, including “ghosts” of classrooms past. And while the idea of a growth vs. fixed mindset may be familiar to educators, it is likely foreign to parents. This article can help educators incorporate information about growth mindset into their communications with caregivers who are supporting students’ learning at home.

I remember first hearing the term growth mindset when I was a preschool teacher. I was relatively new to working with young children and reveled in the idea that my words could impact my students’ beliefs about their own intelligence. My mother’s words—that my sister was “smart” and that I “worked hard”—confused me. After all, my sister worked hard too, and wasn’t I smart? The dichotomous nature of growth mindset has become a bit of a myth. It’s not that we either have a fixed or growth mindset as a long-term condition, but that context plays a part in whether we feel powerless, or empowered, to grow and learn.

In her 2006 book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, Carol Dweck explains that mindsets shape an individual’s interpretations of events. Some learners assume they are either inherently “smart,” or not. Understanding the differences between growth and fixed mindsets and how to nurture them can help educators have a greater impact on student outcomes. Over the past 14 years, schools have been taking Dweck’s work and applying it in programs, interventions, and professional learning. What do we now know about how a fixed or growth mindset impacts learning? Here are key findings:

  • Students experiencing a growth mindset seek out opportunities to learn, develop effective learning strategies, and assess their own weaknesses to work on them
  • Growth mindsets are context-specific and don’t always transfer to different domains
  • Interventions should be targeted towards lower-performing students for best results; some students who are academically high-performing have positive fixed views of their intelligence

How are growth mindsets misunderstood?

Mindsets are tied to content or contexts and are not identity-based, meaning a person's mindset depends on the situation, and not on inherent ability. For instance, students may feel that with effort they can improve in social studies, but that they are “just not good at” science. Similarly, different types of activities, like public speaking, or environments that are intimidating to some students, like a competitive classroom, may stir feelings of inadequacy, even if students adopt a growth mindset in these situations.

Why are schools implementing growth mindset interventions?

Interventions targeting mindsets can have substantial positive effects on outcomes, including academic assessments. Adoption of a growth mindset can mitigate the negative effects on achievement of variables outside students’ control, including poverty and the transition to middle or high school. A recent intervention study led by North Carolina State University associate professor of psychology Jeni Burnette found that positive learning outcomes (i.e., improvement in grades), while not apparent at first, indirectly increased motivation to learn, which in turn influenced learning efficacy. Better grades were apparent after just four months.

The latest research shows that mindset interventions don’t work for everyone.

A meta-analysis study looking at more than 300 papers and involving 366,000 students found that mindset interventions don’t always lead to large gains in achievement for every student. Academically at-risk and economically disadvantaged students may benefit from such interventions. Conversely, some students with fixed mindsets, but positive views of their abilities, did not benefit from interventions. The results of this study should not be used to discount the idea of a growth mindset, but to target interventions at the right students.

How can educators help students develop the right mindset and give them every opportunity to succeed? A close look at HMH’s Learning Sciences Pillars can help:

  • Rigorous: Productive struggle is when students persist at challenging activities and learn more. Remember: Getting frustrated while learning is natural and does not necessarily indicate a fixed mindset.
  • Aligned: Retrieval practice, more so than rereading, is effective in supporting deep learning. This holds true even though students can feel frustrated when they cannot remember everything they try to recall.
  • Motivating: Competence is built when students see their own consistent incremental progress. Model this for students by acknowledging the skills you see them building. This will make them aware of their learning progress and support their socially informed growth mindset.
  • Personal: Self-Awareness and Management skills support a growth mindset and can be directly taught to students. Begin by telling them how the brain forms new connections every time they learn new things. Students with a growth mindset take responsibility for their learning, display self-regulation skills, and build strategies to self-assess.

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