High schools across the country can now turn to a new, free resource to help improve student learning and achievement. According to a national study published in Nature, a brief, online program on growth mindset – or the belief that intelligence can be developed – can improve students’ academic performance and motivate students to challenge themselves academically.
Over the past six years, University of Virginia associate professor Chris Hulleman helped develop and evaluate the program. Hulleman, an associate professor of education and public policy at the Curry School of Education and Human Development, is a researcher at the school’s Center for Advanced Study of Teaching and Learning, as well as the Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy.
“I’ve never been a part of any other study like this. Not only was it the largest randomized controlled trial of a growth mindset program in the U.S., but the first study to truly answer whether growth mindset interventions work in the real world — across different schools, in different contexts and at scale,” said Hulleman.
A Rigorous Study Designed for Context
The idea for a national study on growth mindset was born in 2013, following a meeting at the White House on academic mindsets.
Although previous research showed that interventions were effective at strengthening growth mindset, no one had conducted a national study of this size and scope before. As a result, prior growth mindset research and other social-psychological studies are often criticized for using convenience samples, using samples that are small and lack variety, and ignoring context. Such criticisms helped inspire the national study’s design: a large, nationally representative sample and intervention focused on context.
Hulleman, along with project director and fellow researcher David Yeager, spent a year assembling a group of scholars who were up to the task. For the study, the researchers randomly selected a sample of 65 public high schools in the U.S.
“We wanted a sample representative of the population in terms of social-economic status, ethnicity, geographic location, overall school achievement, etc.,” said Hulleman. “This required us to recruit a large number of schools and a variety of students. In essence, we didn’t conduct just one study — it was 65 studies.”
The researchers then joined together social and developmental psychologists, sociologists, economists and intervention designers to form an interdisciplinary team. “Having experts from a diversity of backgrounds made the work better and more exciting. I learned so much from listening to how the economists and sociologists thought about the research design and intervention materials,” said Hulleman.
After designing the study, the research team brought on third-party researchers and statisticians for implementation and analysis, an unconventional approach in the research field, according to Hulleman. “When developers implement themselves, the research is often criticized because people believe it influences the quality of the intervention. This collaboration really adds to the strength of the findings and removes as much bias, unintended or not, as you can from the intervention developers who want it to work,” he said.
The national study was conducted during the 2015-16 school year. More than 12,000 students in 9th grade were randomly assigned to receive the online growth mindset intervention. Over the course of two weeks, the program was delivered in two 25-minute sessions.
During these sessions, students watched videos about neuroplasticity and growth mindset to learn that intellectual abilities are not fixed and how people can grow through effort. The students were then encouraged to think about the ways they can challenge and strengthen their brains and how that could positively impact the things that matter to them, such as family, community or social issues. At the end of the second session, students were given the option to solve a simple or difficult math question to gauge their willingness to choose hard problems.
The study found that students in the program, compared to the control group, were not only more likely to pick the difficult math problems in the second session but were also more likely to enroll in more advanced math courses in 10th grade. This demonstrated that the program helped change students’ growth mindsets and their willingness to choose hard problems.
“Every day that you go to school, if you are willing to try harder things and learn just a little bit more, cumulatively that adds up. Your performance and how much you learn will increase over time,” said Holleman. “Changes to short-term choices, like choosing a more advanced math class, can put students in a much different position over a longer period of time.”
The study also found that lower-achieving students earned higher grades at the end of 9th grade, an average increase of 0.10 points in core course GPA from the previous year. However, when the researchers dug deeper into the data, they found that effects varied by school achievement and were impacted by school context, including the support students get from teachers and peers and access to resources and learning opportunities in the school environment, such as the availability of more challenging coursework.
To Hulleman, these were not surprising impacts. “If you are in an environment that encourages and provides resources to grow, you are supported to learn. If you want to push yourself to learn but are somewhere people do not like to take risks, you are going to be out of step with your peers,” he said.
The intervention had the strongest effect on grades in medium- and lower-performing schools in which students encouraged their peers to pursue challenging academic work. In these schools, the intervention increased lower-achieving students’ average core course GPA by 0.15 points and STEM course GPA by 0.17 points and reduced the likelihood of D or F averages in core courses by 8 points.
“Some may perceive the GPA increase as small, but considering a 0.2 increase is considered by many to be large in education, it is actually a medium to medium-large effect. What's more, the effect was consistently there, with more than 90 percent of the schools experiencing positive effects relative to the control,” said Hulleman. “In fact, the strength of the intervention surprised many people, given it required such little time and effort from students.”
Future of Growth Mindset Research and Practice
Hulleman hopes this study will and inspire educators to change practice and researchers to think differently about how they approach the problem of what works in education — from an interdisciplinary perspective.
The most important next step, he said, is to identify teaching practices that promote growth mindset in students, test whether these changes impact student outcomes and develop programs that teach educators how to bring them into classrooms.
Hulleman is currently doing this at CASTL’s Motivate Lab, a lab focused on motivation and learning mindset research. Taking insights from this growth mindset intervention, Motivate Lab is helping the state systems of higher education in Tennessee and Georgia revise approaches to teaching and learning as part of their system-wide reform efforts to increase the number of students with college degrees by 2025. Instead of focusing solely on helping students adopt a growth mindset, Motivate Lab aims to help these systems change in ways that align with the principles of growth mindsets to improve the learning experience for all students.
“This study can work as a blueprint for how research could be conducted in the social sciences in general and in the social-psychological intervention space in particular,” said Hulleman. “Researchers can learn a lot from large-scale studies if they are designed correctly. When an intervention looks promising, researchers should consider a large-scale, nationally representative study to determine whether their theories have merit in the real world.”