A "growth mindset" can be defined this way, see this article:

In a fixed mindset students believe their basic abilities, their intelligence, their talents, are just fixed traits. They have a certain amount and that's that, and then their goal becomes to look smart all the time and never look dumb.

In a growth mindset students understand that their talents and abilities can be developed through effort, good teaching and persistence. They don't necessarily think everyone's the same or anyone can be Einstein, but they believe everyone can get smarter if they work at it.

Are there any studies that attempt to show a measurable effect of a student possessing a growth mindset? What are the implications of these studies for math educators?


3 Answers 3


Psychologist Carol Dweck's "growth mindset" theory has become a popular solution and intervention technique in (mostly American) schools of all ages. We might say that it's become the new version of the "self-esteem" movement seen in the 80's. While Dweck first developed the theory in the 90's, it's really taken hold of popular consciousness from the 2010's on.

Unfortunately, we should remember that psychology has an ongoing replication crisis in many of its landmark findings. Many of the "easy" ideas for transformative effects have not borne fruit over the years, and been later found to have tainted methods by core researchers. Sure enough, in recent years many or most of the large-scale, high-quality attempts at replicating the claims of growth mindset have failed to so. Here are a few examples:

Li, Y., & Bates, T. C., Ph.D. (2017). Does growth mindset improve children’s IQ, educational attainment or response to setbacks? Active-control interventions and data on children’s own mindsets. https://doi.org/10.31235/osf.io/tsdwy (Study done in China, students aged 9-13 years, N = 624).

No effect of the classic growth mindset manipulation was found for either moderate or more difficult material... children’s mindsets were unrelated to resilience to failure for either outcome measure... Finally, in 2 studies relating mindset to grades across a semester in school, the predicted association of growth mindset with improved grades was not supported. Neither was there any association of children’s mindsets with their grades at the start of the semester. Beliefs about the malleability of basic ability may not be related to resilience to failure or progress in school.

Bahník, Štěpán, and Marek A. Vranka (2017). Growth mindset is not associated with scholastic aptitude in a large sample of university applicants. Personality and Individual Differences 117: 139-143. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.paid.2017.05.046 (Study of university students taking an admissions test in the Czech Republic, N = 5653).

We found that results in the test were slightly negatively associated with growth mindset (r = −0.03). Mindset showed no relationship with the number of test administrations participants signed up for and it did not predict change in the test results. The results show that the strength of the association between academic achievement and mindset might be weaker than previously thought.

Foliano, F., Rolfe, H., Buzzeo, J., Runge, J., & Wilkinson, D. (2019). Changing mindsets: Effectiveness trial. National Institute of Economic and Social Research. Summary at PsychBrief. (Study in England, Year 6 students, N = 4584).

The difference between the control group and the intervention group on all 3 primary outcomes [math, reading, GPS] was 0... The difference between the groups for all 4 secondary outcomes was also 0... This RCT was a highly powered test of the efficacy of growth mindset in a real-world environment across a wide range of schools in the England. The fact none of the primary or secondary outcomes were distinguishable from 0 raises serious questions as to the efficacy of growth mindset for Year 6 students... Given the evidence so far, it is unrealistic to expect growth mindset to have large and/or wide-scale impact.

Caitlin Brez, Eric M. Hampton, Linda Behrendt, Liz Brown & Josh Powers (2020) Failure to Replicate: Testing a Growth Mindset Intervention for College Student Success, Basic and Applied Social Psychology, 42:6, 460-468, DOI: 10.1080/01973533.2020.1806845 (U.S. study, university math & psychology students, N = 2607).

The pattern of findings is clear that the intervention had little impact on students’ academic success even among sub-samples of students who are traditionally assumed to benefit from this type of intervention (e.g., minority, low income, and first-generation students)... These findings support some of the emerging literature that demonstrates that growth mindset interventions may not be as effective as once thought... The proposition that a one-time intervention at the postsecondary level will result in long-term measurable student outcomes was not supported in the present study.

Now, a not-uncommon defense in a number of these cases in psychology is that the attempts to replicate didn't properly recreate the conditions or variables for a true test. The counter-argument here would be the observer-expectancy effect -- in some cases a primary researcher has even argued that only they have the necessary knowledge to ever do so. Indeed, Dweck has made the "not anyone can do a replication" argument (BuzzFeed News interview). In response, Nick Brown, who developed the GRIM (Granularity-Related Inconsistency of Means) test and found several errors in Dweck's seminal paper, said this:

The question I have is: If your effect is so fragile that it can only be reproduced [under strictly controlled conditions], then why do you think it can be reproduced by schoolteachers?

Finally, psychologist Russell Warne wrote on his blog:

I discovered the one characteristic that the studies that support mindset theory share and that all the studies that contradict the theory lack: Carol Dweck... So, there you go! Growth mindsets can improve academic performance –if you have Carol Dweck in charge of your intervention.

This is somewhat hyperbolic, but clarifies the issue at stake. Growth mindset theory fits fairly snugly into the basket of psychological "quick fixes" that make up the replication crisis, broadly cuts against long-standing findings from neuroscience on intelligence, and is racking up more failures-to-replicate as it garners more attention. Like other similar principles that came before, it's probably a bad bet that institutional interventions based on the theory will be worth the resources spent on them.

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    $\begingroup$ Are there any larger studies that have had positive results? $\endgroup$
    – Tommi
    Commented Oct 2, 2021 at 6:57
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    $\begingroup$ @Tommi: I'm not aware of any. My impression is that the N = 2k+, 4k+ studies seem very large for this this kind of subject. $\endgroup$ Commented Oct 2, 2021 at 13:50

Yeager and Walton's Social-Psychological Interventions in Education: They're Not Magic https://www.researchgate.net/publication/258182797_Social-Psychological_Interventions_in_Education_They%27re_Not_Magic is a good "meta-study" for growth mindset and similar interventions. It discusses the psychology behind these types of interventions: how students who struggle academically may feel and the feedback loops that keep them struggling academically. It also explains ways in which social-psychological interventions may backfire, which can explain the replication issue in Daniel R. Collins' answer.

A specific study to add to your list is Niiya, Crocker, and Bartmess' "From vulnerability to resilience: learning orientations buffer contingent self-esteem from failure" https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/15563324/

In terms of implications, Joe Feldman's Grading for Equity describes how a traditional grading system reinforces a fixed mindset and a retakes-based system can support a growth mindset.

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    $\begingroup$ Might be helpful to note year, sample size, key results? E.g.: the Crocker, Bartmess paper is N = 108 from 2004, etc. $\endgroup$ Commented Oct 2, 2021 at 14:43

Yeagar and Dweck 2021 take a look at various criticisms ("controversies") of mindset theory and argue for why they are flawed. Dweck is a central actor behind the theory, so one can doubt the neutrality of the arguments. I am not quite inside enough of this research to comment on whether the arguments in the article hold up to critical scrutiny.

The article also provides an answer to the question posed here; it cites several positive results on mindset theory and discusses how to understand them and what limitations they have.

The central issues or arguments in the paper are:

  1. Predictive power of mindsets on student outcomes. The authors claim that there is heterogeneity (different students respond to mindset in different ways), but overall these is a weak positive correlation between mindset and achievement in national-level studies and often stronger effects with students who struggle academically.
  2. Student interventions work, provided they are proper ones. There is some work on what a proper intervention is like. There is a pre-registered USA-level experiment, also analyzed by external people, that verified that for students of lower achievements there was significant improvement. (But what about higher achievement?) There is more reference to heterogeneity.
  3. Effect sizes of around 0,2 standard deviations in weaker schools and 0,1 among weaker students have been observed in pre-registered studies, according to the article. There is also an argument for why such effect sizes are significant.
  4. Teacher-targeted mindset interventions have not been successful thus far. The authors argue that this is because they are an emerging field.

Summarizing, the article points out several pre-registered studies or studies based on national datasets that suggest effects at least among weaker students. The article claims heterogeneity as the main culprit for failed results in some studies. I did not check the sample groups of the pre-registered studies.

Someone with a greater understanding of the methodology and the research field will have to comment further on the quality of the arguments in the article.


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