Growth Mindset and Grit Interventions
By Cindy Nebel
Last week I was provided with a unique opportunity to see into the world of administration in higher education. I attended the Higher Learning Commission annual meeting in Chicago, IL where I was mostly joined by Presidents, Vice Presidents, Deans and Provosts, and individuals in charge of assessment (who have widely varying titles). Little old Assistant Professor me was eager to immerse myself in whatever way I could. I attended talks on gaining assessment buy in (even through the use of learning science!), “brain-based” learning, and the dismal career outlook for many of our students. But the talk that has stayed with me was a round table conversation I had about growth mindset and grit, topics on which I was only somewhat familiar.
Mindset refers to an individual’s beliefs about their talents. A fixed mindset is a belief that one’s talents are due to inborn traits. For example, someone might believe that they got a good grade because they are good at math. In contrast, a growth mindset refers to the belief that talents are malleable, by whatever means. For example, someone might believe that they got a good grade because they worked hard, sought out extra help, etc. Often a growth mindset is described as being a synonym for hard work or motivation, but that is only one way in which talents might change. Someone with a growth mindset might similarly be more likely to sign up for a pill meant to improve memory because they have the belief that memory can be changed.
Research on mindset has been championed by Carol Dweck and indeed her research is very compelling. Students show improved test scores, greater resilience after failure, and subjective experiences of empowerment. A meta-analysis of studies looking at different types of interventions on self-regulation found that across 113 different studies, mindset interventions were significant predictors of goal setting (1).
Mindset is related to grit, although they are somewhat different concepts. Grit refers to a student’s ability to persist after setbacks. Grit is related to mindset in that if one believes that failures are due to their fixed traits, there is no reason to try again. Conversely, individuals with growth mindset are more likely to be resilient and have more grit. Research on grit has been primarily championed by Angela Duckworth, but is not as comprehensive as that of mindset, having only been coined in 2007. The research that exists does indicate that grit predicts academic success (2), but there has been limited research on how the scales developed to assess grit work in all circumstances, despite their current widespread use.
These theories are not without criticism. Much of Dweck’s original research on mindset has been simplified into something akin to “if you tell students to work hard, they will succeed, but if you tell them they are smart, they will fail” and that’s far from what Dweck wrote. Others have questioned the original research due to failed replications (3) and limitations of the theory for actual practice. Finally, there is an argument that the pendulum has swung too far; we know that both ability and effort are important for success. A growth mindset will not compensate for lack of talent, but talent is rarely sufficient without the resilience that comes from a growth mindset.
This past year one of my undergraduate students was interested in examining the effect of mindset feedback on effort and performance. She gave students a mindset questionnaire and a series of memory tests. After each test, she pretended to grade their answers and gave them simple feedback: good job, you must have a great memory OR good job, you should be doing great by the end. I had pretty serious doubts that such a small manipulation would work, but it did… sort of. The project had some limitations. The vast majority of participants were labeled as having a growth mindset on the questionnaire, although perhaps that is unsurprising in a college student sample. We were therefore only able to look at those individuals, instead of examining interactions. The other major problem is that everyone was trying really hard from the very beginning of the study. We gave them up to 6 minutes to study 20 words and about half of the participants took the full amount of time, which didn’t allow us to see any changes in effort over time, so we reduced the analysis to growth mindset individuals who took less than the full 6 minutes on the first test. And lo and behold: individuals who received growth feedback studied longer and improved their performance significantly more than those who received fixed feedback.
Does this make me a believer? Yes and no. My experiences in the classroom tell me that many students lack resilience. They flounder after receiving that first poor grade and struggle to bounce back. These students do need encouragement. The results of the study above indicate to me that small changes can make a difference, but perhaps not for everyone. The research seems to show that growth mindset interventions can improve student success, but only under the right circumstances.
So, back to the conversation at the HLC convention. Across the universities there was a sense that this work is important, that our students need to be more resilient (because we need to increase retention), and that grit or growth mindset interventions offer a promising avenue with which to help our students. However, there was considerable variability in the way this is being implemented. At one university, students are shown videos of peers who talk about times that they failed during their first year and how they recovered. At another institution, students are given a series of advising appointments in which they review their grittiness scores and talk about their current successes and failures. Other universities are trying to get faculty buy in, encouraging them to talk in growth and gritty ways.
I got the sense that very few of these institutions were going to the research to figure out what works and under what circumstances. I strongly caution educators from this kind of implementation of any educational fad, science-backed or otherwise. Changes need to be made carefully and with a solid understanding of the science that supports the intervention.
(1) Burnette, J. L., O'Boyle, E. H., VanEpps, E. M., Pollack, J. M., & Finkel, E. J. (2013). Mind-sets matter: A meta-analytic review of implicit theories and self-regulation. Psychological Bulletin, 139(3), 655-701.
(2) Duckworth, A.L., Peterson, C., Matthews, M.D., & Kelly, D.R. (2007). Grit: Perseverance and passion for long-term goals. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 92(6), 1087-1101.
(3) Li, Y., & Bates, T. C. (2017, July 7). Does growth mindset improve children’s IQ, educational attainment or response to setbacks? Active-control interventions and data on children’s own mindsets. http://doi.org/10.17605/OSF.IO/TSDWY