Growth Mindset

Mindsets are the implicit theories that individuals hold about the malleability of human characteristics. Research indicates that students’ beliefs about the nature of intelligence and ability significantly shape their response to academic challenges (Dweck, 2006; Yeager & Dweck, 2012).

The mindset framework summarizes research on how people think, feel, and respond to failure and challenging experiences. Individuals who believe that intelligence and ability are largely immutable (‘fixed mindset’) respond to failure by withdrawing, disengaging, or persisting with the same set of strategies despite their prior demonstrated ineffectiveness.

On the other hand, students who believe they can substantially increase their intelligence and ability through experience and effort (‘growth mindset’) often react to academic challenges by allocating more effort, experimenting with new approaches, and seeking feedback. Students with a growth mindset set mastery goals and increasingly challenging tasks that promote skill development and acquisition.

Students with a fixed mindset, by contrast, tend to select performance goals, safer learning experiences that help them validate their intelligence, and avoid exposing deficiencies to others, as shown in the table below. 

Fixed vs. Growth Mindset Attributes

Fixed MindsetGrowth Mindset
Views on effortSees the exertion of effort is a sign of weaknessSees effort as an integral component of learning
GoalsPerformance goals: picks challenges that are easier to meetMastery goals: picks increasingly more difficult challenges
Attribution of failureInternalizes (not enough ability) or externalizes reasons for failure (blames others & situation)Diagnoses more objectively his/her own responsibility (not enough effort, preparation, or ineffective strategies) vs. the contribution of external factors (ineffective mentoring, poor course design, etc.)
StrategiesAbandons & withdraws due to feelings of helplessness or repeats the same failed strategyDoubles down on effort, tries new things, asks for help
FeedbackAvoids feedback, acts defensivelySeeks feedback proactively

Mindsets occur in a continuum between the fixed and growth extremes and are domain-specific. For example, a student can have a growth mindset towards developing coding skills while demonstrating fixed mindset beliefs towards public speaking. Even within a certain domain, an individual might initially approach a particular challenge by exerting effort and seeking help—demonstrating a growth mindset, but may subsequently perceive setbacks as a diagnosis of low inherent ability—demonstrating a fixed mindset.

Why is it important?

Effect of mindsets on individuals

Although students with fixed mindsets can succeed academically when their studies are going well, a fixed-mindset approach can hinder individuals when confronted with serious setbacks. Fixed-mindset thinking can result in students:

  • Interpreting failure as an inherent inability to improve in a challenging domain, which in turn can cause students to 1) feel inadequate (also known as “imposter syndrome”) and unable to succeed (leading to a loss of self-efficacy), 2) drop out of a course, major, or educational experience, and/or 3) abandon developing skills that could be beneficial for academic and professional growth.
  • Underutilizing available resources that could help them overcome the challenging experience (Y. Hong, Chiu, Dweck, & Lin, 1999). Those with a fixed mindset may view the utilization of resources as a confirmation of inadequacies. Additionally, it is hard to see the utility of said resources if one believes that skill in the challenging domain cannot be substantially developed. 
  • Failing to seek feedback from peers and mentors and/or discarding helpful, constructive feedback from others (Mangels, Butterfield, Lamb, Good, & Dweck, 2006; Moser, Schroder, Heeter, Moran, & Lee, 2011).
  • Experiencing increased anxiety and depression (Shih, 2011; Da Fonseca et al., 2009; Schleider, Abel, & Weisz, 2015). 

Beyond helping students to overcome the negative outcomes listed above, teaching students that intelligence/abilities are malleable has been shown to bridge the academic gap for women and underrepresented minorities (Aronson, Fried, & Good, 2002; Good, Aronson, & Inzlicht, 2003) and to increase their sense of belonging (Good, Rattan, & Dweck, 2012).

Practices that support development

The mindset communicated by an instructor’s teaching practices can influence students’ behavior regardless of the students’ original mindset (Park, Gunderson, Tsukayama, Levine, & Beilock, 2016; Rattan, Good, & Dweck, 2012). Therefore, as an instructor, it is important that you model a growth mindset in the classroom.

1. Normalize the experience of mistakes and failure

Use personal examples and examples from others. Interventions that exposed students to narratives of eminent physicists modeling how they themselves overcame failures and struggles improved physics learning (recall of facts and problem solving) and increased their interest in physics (H. Y. Hong & Lin-Siegler, 2012; Lin-Siegler et al., 2016). 

Emphasize the importance of failure and iteration in the engineering design process and research. Although the connection between mindset and the research/engineering process has not been rigorously evaluated, explicitly destigmatizing failure in this way may help students adopt a growth mindset orientation and help them embrace educational challenges and risks.

2. Praise student effort and use of study strategies, rather than intelligence

Although we do not have data on how many students at MIT exhibit a fixed-mindset orientation, students may arrive at MIT with a history of success that has been accompanied by “intelligence praise” from parents, teachers, and mentors. Studies that probe the origin of mindset inclinations show that when children are given lots of praise for their intelligence—as opposed to receiving praise for using strategies and allocating effort (i.e., “process praise”)—they are more likely to adopt a fixed-mindset orientation (Gunderson et al., 2013; Mueller & Dweck, 1998). If a student is operating primarily with a fixed mindset relating to academics, they may encounter academic struggle for the first time at MIT.

3. Teach students that feedback is an important part of the learning process

In a recent online intervention (Study 3 in Yeager et al., 2016b), students from a highly selective private university were taught that critical feedback from professors and other instructors reflected “high standards and confidence that students can meet those standards, not a negative judgment of the student or his/her potential” (Yeager et al., 2016b). Past research has demonstrated that clarifying the intent of critical feedback can increase students’ motivation to revise or improve their work, particularly for students who are more at risk of stereotype threat (Cohen, Steele, & Ross, 1999). 

4. Challenge the notion that learning should feel easy

Students who are taught to reframe their interpretations of why a task might be difficult (ex: learning something new can be difficult) improve their performance during demanding tasks (Wilson, Damiani, & Shelton, 2002).

You can help students reframe their interpretations of learning difficulty by using personal examples of times when they struggled to learn something and had to exert effort to learn. Explain to students how learning takes place and that it is normal and expected to have difficulty learning something new.

  • Deep conceptual understanding—the re-organization of mental frameworks and accommodation for new understanding—requires time and effort.
  • Many central concepts at the heart of disciplines are not obvious or intuitive to a novice; they are the product of hard-won inquiry.

Emphasize that learning should feel challenging. Behaviors that make studying feel less effortful may not be desirable for learning (E. L. Bjork & Bjork, 2011). For example, testing yourself by doing a new set of problems, rather than reviewing previously solved problems might feel more effortful and difficult, but leads to better performance & deeper learning.

5. Communicate that abilities can grow over time

Mindset interventions demonstrate that teaching students about neuroplasticity has the potential to change their beliefs about the nature of intelligence and ability.

Explain to students how expertise develops. Expertise is achieved by zeroing in on weaknesses and tackling those aggressively—a form of practice called “deliberate practice.” Deliberate practice requires focused attention to deficiencies and constant feedback. The goal of deliberate practice is not to just meet someone’s potential but to build it by continuing to move beyond someone’s current ability level (zone of proximal development) (Ericsson & Pool, 2016).

By communicating the process for increasing competence for a particular skill and by providing examples and strategies to demonstrate skill development within a domain, you can help students understand that 1) abilities and intelligence are not fixed and 2) that struggling and making mistakes are part of the natural process of learning, as they seek experiences that stretch their comfort zones. 

Provide assignments and exams where students can show progress over time, such as projects or papers that incorporate cycles of feedback and revision, so that students have the opportunity to improve their work with each iteration and allowing test corrections. 

Growth mindset at MIT

Professor Srini Devadas reinforces the message that learning should be challenging in 6.006 Introduction to Algorithms. (The clip of interest ends at 8:28)

Reflection question: Was there anything that you found particularly motivating about how Professor Devadas presented this to the class?

Professor Gunther Roland describes how the 8.13 Experimental Physics I & II “Junior Lab” teaching staff emphasize to students that public speaking is a skill that can be improved through practice. Professor Roland also describes how the course is designed to facilitate that practice. (The clip of interest ends at 4:19)

Reflection question: What activities does Professor Roland describe that help students develop their public speaking skills?

Instructors William Li and Grace Teo designed 6.811 Principles and Practices of Assistive Technology to normalize failure as part of the design process. (The clip of interest ends at 3:01)

Reflection question: What structures and class activities were used to normalize failure and highlight it as an essential component of the design process?


Fixed-mindset environments

Mindset interventions may be ineffective if students are mostly operating in fixed-mindset environments.

From the literature on mindset, we understand that student behaviors may be more tightly correlated with the instructor’s mindset than students’ own mindsets (Park et al., 2016; Rattan et al., 2012). Therefore, it is not enough for faculty and instructors to express a desire to have a growth mindset—their classroom practices and behaviors must also support the development of a growth mindset. 

Programs and processes that emphasize grades too much (ex: entrance into medical school) or cultures in which extreme time constraints are the norm (ex: the culture of course and extracurricular overload common at MIT) can contribute to adoption of performance goals rather than mastery goals. 

Unknown long-term effects

The long-term effects of scalable interventions are unknown. The most scalable interventions on mindset (i.e., those delivered online) are brief and their effects have only been assessed for a short period of time—from a single semester to approximately one year. We do not know if the effects of these brief interventions can persist over long periods of time, such as for a student’s 4 undergraduate years and beyond (Orosz, Péter-Szarka, Bőthe, Tóth-Király, & Berger, 2017)

Overemphasis on mindsets

An overemphasis on teaching about mindsets can backfire.

Be sure you are not focusing on mindset at the expense of teaching students specific strategies to improve performance and learn from feedback. The adoption of a growth mindset is helpful—but not sufficient— in overcoming academic challenges. 

It is also critical to be conscious of the changing inequities in our society that make it more difficult for certain students to succeed.

Well-designed curricula, high-quality instruction, and nurturing learning environments where all feel welcomed are also essential to ensure your students are maximizing their potential. 

Related initiatives

MIT and various peer institutions have launched initiatives to collect and share experiences from faculty and students that can help normalize struggle and failure, such as:

  • Flipping Failure: a collection of stories told by MIT students about their experiences of struggle while at MIT.
  • Stanford Resilience Project: In addition to a host of campus resources, the Resilience Project has a large collection of personal stories of struggle and hosts various events (ex: the annual ‘Stanford, I screwed up!’ event).

We also offers 2 different types of mindset training to the MIT Community:

  1. A short workshop on mindset during TA days, a TA training event that takes place at MIT before the start of each academic term. 
  2. An IAP course on How to succeed at MIT and beyond- developing a growth mindset. This 4-part workshop series focuses on learning strategies and the development of a growth mindset. 


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