Author: Arif Mahmud, Project Officer – University of Portsmouth
‘Changing Mindsets’ is an innovative intervention initially developed at the University of Portsmouth for schools and Further Education colleges. It is a student and staff workshop-based intervention (avoiding a student deficit model) that aims to build a growth mindset; the belief that ability can be developed through effort and by embracing challenge. Developing a growth mindset has profound motivational impacts on learners and on staff expectations of learners that have been shown to close attainment gaps (Blackwell, Trzesniewski, & Dweck, 2007; Dweck, 2006; Dweck & Molden, 2000; Gunderson et al., 2013; Mueller & Dweck, 1998; Paunesku et al., 2015). This latest iteration of the Changing Mindsets intervention has been refined for staff and students within higher education, focused on fostering beliefs about the nature of academic ability that counters the impact of stereotype threat (Osborne, 2007) and implicit bias (Staats, 2014).
Professor Carol Dweck is one of the world’s leading researchers in the field of motivation and mindsets at Stanford University. Her research is focused on why people succeed (or don’t) and what’s within our control to foster success. In her own words, she says:
My work bridges developmental psychology, social psychology, and personality psychology, and examines the self-conceptions (or mindsets) people use to structure the self and guide their behaviour. My research looks at the origins of these mindsets, their role in motivation and self-regulation, and their impact on achievement and interpersonal processes.
Understanding Dweck’s Mindset theory
Why do some students seek to gain competency, whereas others seek to outperform their peers? Why do some athletes redouble their efforts when facing setbacks, whereas others respond with helplessness? Why do some dieters feel confident in their ability to face challenges to their weight-loss goals, whereas others feel they lack the requisite skills? Research on implicit theories has sought to answer these and similar questions for decades, examining how incremental theories (beliefs that human attributes can be improved or developed) and entity theories (beliefs that human attributes are fixed or invariant), influence academic performance (Dweck, 2012; Dweck & Leggett, 2000; Dweck & Molden, 2008; Molden & Dweck, 2006).
Dweck suggests that entity beliefs can lead us to make more rigid judgements and can limit the paths we choose to take. These beliefs are held to be an important part of people’s motivational systems. They are held to influence the goals that people pursue, the level of interest that they maintain and the effort that they invest as well as predict their behaviour after setbacks (Dweck, 2000; 2007).
Research has shown that incremental theorists set goals focused on learning, employ mastery-oriented strategies to reach these goals, and report greater confidence and expectations when evaluating the potential for success. In contrast, research has shown that entity theorists set goals focused on performance, employ helpless-oriented strategies in the face of challenges to goal pursuits, and report feeling vulnerable and anxious when evaluating past and future performance. (Kray & Haselhuhn, 2007; Nussbaum & Dweck, 2008; Thompson & Musket, 2005)
Motivation sought by learners with an entity or incremental mindset are held to differ. It has been argued that those with entity beliefs seek performance goals (for example, to achieve a certain grade or to out-perform others) and that those with incremental beliefs adopt mastery goals and will seek out challenges. These different mindsets are said to lead to different responses to challenging tasks or to failure. For example, Dweck (2000) notes that pupils with an entity mindset are more likely to exhibit a “helpless” response to challenge and attribute failure to a lack of ability or to factors outside of their control, such as bad luck or poor teaching, which, she notes, may lead to a reduction in effort and task avoidance. Those with an incremental mindset, on the other hand, are said to be more likely to welcome challenge; they may view errors as opportunities for learning and tend to attribute failure to lack of effort, rather than lack of ability (Dweck, 2000).
In her TED talk, Dweck describes “two ways to think about a problem that’s slightly too hard for you to solve.” Operating in this space — just outside of your comfort zone — is the key to improving your performance. It’s also the critical element to deliberate practice. People approach these problems with the two mindsets …. “Are you not smart enough to solve it …. or have you just not solved it yet.”
Speaking to the cultural pressure to foster the ‘now’ instead of ‘not yet’, in her TED talk Dweck says:
“The power of yet.I heard about a high school in Chicago where students had to pass a certain number of courses to graduate, and if they didn’t pass a course, they got the grade “Not Yet.” And I thought that was fantastic, because if you get a failing grade, you think, I’m nothing, I’m nowhere. But if you get the grade “Not Yet” you understand that you’re on a learning curve. It gives you a path into the future.”
It’s easy to fall into the trap of now. Students are obsessed with getting A’s – they dream of the next test to prove themselves instead of dreaming big like Walt Disney or Michael Jordan. A by-product of this is that we’re making them dependent on the validation that we’re giving them — the gamification of pupils.
Putting theory into practice: Can mindsets be shaped?
Many researchers have primed implicit theories (Burnette, 2010; Hong et al., 1999), and temporarily changed them in both one-shot laboratory experiments (Spray et al., 2006) and longer-term interventions (Blackwell, Trzesniewski, & Dweck, 2007; Burnette et al., 2013).
Blackwell, Trzesniewski and Dweck (2007) carried out two studies in the U.S to examine the impact of implicit theories (mindsets) on academic achievement. The first of these studies was a longitudinal study involving 373 pupils in four successive seventh grade classes across the transition to secondary school. The researchers assessed the pupils’ mindsets, learning goals, effort beliefs and response to failure at the beginning of the year. It was found that a growth mindset at the beginning of the school transition predicted more positive motivational patterns and higher attainment in mathematics over the next two years (Blackwell et al., 2007).
In the second of these studies, 48 of these pupils were taught about mindset, whilst the remaining 43 pupils were placed in a control group. The key message taught to the experimental group was that learning changes the brain by forming new connections and that the students are in control of this process. In addition, the students’ maths teachers were asked to cite individual students who had shown changes in their motivational behaviour. It was found that pupils in the experimental group endorsed a growth mindset more strongly three weeks after the intervention. Participants in the control group did not change. In addition, 27% of intervention group pupils were spontaneously cited by their maths teachers as having shown positive change in their motivational behaviour, compared with 9% of those in the control group. The researchers concluded that their study confirmed that even a brief targeted intervention, focusing on a key belief, can have a significant effect on motivation and achievement (Blackwell et al., 2007).
A myriad of empirical research has indicated that learners’ mindsets may be malleable and that it is possible that a mindset can be promoted via interventions that explicitly teach students about mindset theory and include information on the brain’s malleability both at school (Yeager et al., 2015; Rattan, Savani, Chugh, & Dweck, 2015; Paunesku et al., 2015; Yeager et al., 2016) and at university level (Yeager et al., 2016). Mega et al. (2014) write that students who believe that intelligence can be increased may use different strategies to control and regulate their learning. However, students who believe intelligence is fixed may reduce their level of strategy use. Mega et al. (2014) continue to argue that a belief in the fixed nature of abilities may undermine a student’s long term academic success by fostering avoidance of difficult yet necessary tasks.
In Summary: The benefits of cultivating a growth mindset
Research has shown that developing a growth mindset is beneficial in a variety of contexts, from making a difference for academic success (Aronson, Fried, & Good, 2002; Blackwell, Trzesniewski, & Dweck, 2007; Cury, Da Fonseca, Zahn, & Elliot, 2008; Good, Aronson, & Inzlicht, 2003; Good, Rattan, & Dweck, 2012; Stipek & Gralinski, 1996), in social relationships for adults and children (Beer, 2002; Erdley, Cain, Loomis, Dumas-Hines, & Dweck, 1997; Finkel, Burnette, & Scissors, 2007; Kammrath & Dweck, 2006; Knee, 1998; Levy & Dweck, 1999; Ruvolo & Rotondo, 1998), in the workplace (Heslin & Vanderwalle, 2008; Kray & Haselhuhn, 2007; Tabernero & Wood, 1999), and in emotional and physical health (Biddle, Wang, Chatzisarantis, & Spray, 2003; Burnette, 2010; Burnette & Finkel, 2012; Kasimatis, Miller, & Marcussen, 1996; Tamir, John, Srivastava, & Gross, 2007).
Cultivating more of a growth mindset leads people to take on challenges they can learn from, to find more effective ways to improve, to persevere in the face of setbacks, and to make greater progress, all of which we need to further cultivate in education. Furthermore, there is evidence that its benefits are most pronounced for people who face negative stereotypes, such as underserved minorities and females in STEM (Dweck, 2012; Good et al., 2003; 2008; Hill & Corbett, 2010; Osborne, 2007; Sassenberg & Moskowitz, 2005), and as a result growth mindset efforts can narrow the achievement gap.
Whilst we hope that this brief overview provides a good introductory understanding of Dweck’s Mindset Theory, we invite people to continue diving deeper by reading further.
Learn more about Dweck’s mindset theory in her BBC Radio 4 interview
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Disclaimer: the views, thoughts, and opinions expressed in this blog post belong solely to the author, and do not necessarily reflect the values of the University of Portsmouth or the extended Partnership.