This cheap, brief “growth mindset” intervention shifted struggling students onto a more successful trajectory

GettyImages-499346152.jpgBy guest blogger Bradley Busch

Can a brief video telling students that it’s possible to improve their intelligence and abilities make much difference to their educational outcomes? And if fostering a “growth mindset” in this way does make a difference, does it benefit all students and schools equally?

Research on growth mindset over the past twenty years has progressed from experiments in a laboratory into real world settings, such as classrooms. This has shown that having a growth mindset leads to a small but positive improvement in grades and better mental health. But to date, little work has examined whether a brief mindset intervention is likely to help some adolescents more than others, especially those at greater risk of poor outcomes later in life.

Keen to rectify this, 23 of the leading researchers in this field, including the likes of Carol Dweck, Angela Duckworth and David Yeager, recently collaborated on a large study which they released briefly as a pre-print (they are now revising the manuscript pending submission to peer review). As a Chartered Psychologist who delivers mindset workshops, I believe the preliminary findings are extremely promising.

The study involved 12,542 ninth grade students aged 14 to 15-years-old from 65 different US schools. They watched two 25-minute videos, roughly twenty days apart, early in the school year. Half the students, randomly determined, watched two growth mindset videos featuring clips about the brain that explained that intellectual abilities are not fixed but can be developed. The other half of the students acted as the control group and watched two videos about the brain in general but unrelated to growth mindset.

The researchers took several steps to ensure scientific rigour. This was possibly because of the recent issues in psychology around failed replications of other studies or to avoid any accusations of bias. This included pre-registering their hypothesis and having an independent third party recruit the sample and administer the intervention. Finally, neither the students, teachers, nor the people analysing the data knew who had been in the intervention and who had been in the control group.

Those students who received the growth mindset intervention went on to achieve higher grades at the end of the school year than the controls (a .03 grade point difference, on average). Furthermore, and as they predicted, the researchers found that the intervention’s effect was most pronounced for struggling students, who achieved .08 more grade points on average compared with struggling students in the control condition.

Overall, the growth mindset students were 3 per cent less likely to fall into the “poor performance threshold” with GPAs in the D or F range than those in the control group – putting them  “on a new trajectory” in the researchers’ words, and reducing the likelihood of their graduation being delayed.

Why are struggling students more likely to benefit from this sort of intervention? The researchers suggest that high achieving students “may already have habits (e.g. turning in work on time) or beliefs (e.g. a growth mindset) that lead to higher grades”.

The growth mindset intervention also had different positive outcomes depending on which school the students went to. For struggling students that went to a school that was not in the top 25 per cent for academic performance, the intervention had a positive impact on their grades. Students who attended high achieving schools did not get a boost to grades but were more likely to choose more challenging courses the following year.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, students who attended schools with a culture that endorses high expectations and academic effort benefited most from the intervention. This suggests that if students receive a growth mindset message but feel that it is at odds with the practices, behaviour and ethos of the school, it is unlikely to have much impact.

One of the pertinent practical considerations from this study is not to do with magnitude of the intervention’s initial effect (which at three percentage points with regards to graduation doesn’t sound huge at first), but rather the impact of the intervention relative to the time, cost and effort it takes to implement it, and how it can potentially change the trajectory that a young person is on.

With regards to this, the authors made three points worth considering. First, the intervention lasted under an hour. Second, it was very cheap, especially when compared against other types of interventions that have achieved a similar impact. For example, they note that a supplementary literacy course cost £2,000 per student. Third, because the intervention was delivered online, it is highly scaleable – the researchers estimate that rolling out the intervention nationwide would benefit approximately 98,000 students across the US.

The authors conclude that their findings “illustrate the power of even slight adjustments in motivational priorities to create enduring change during adolescence”. Given that shifting the needle on student achievement and graduation rates is notoriously difficult, any intervention that is short, inexpensive and scalable is something definitely worth considering.

–MANUSCRIPT UNDER REVISION: Where and For Whom Can a Brief, Scalable Mindset Intervention Improve Adolescents’ Educational Trajectories? [this study was made temporarily available as a pre-print and is now undergoing revision prior to submission to peer review]

Bradley BuschPost written by Bradley Busch (@Inner_Drive) for the BPS Research Digest. Bradley is a registered psychologist and director of InnerDrive. He has worked with Premiership and International footballers and is the author of Release Your InnerDrive

8 thoughts on “This cheap, brief “growth mindset” intervention shifted struggling students onto a more successful trajectory”

  1. Hi Bradley – I don’t know much about the States’ grading system but +0.03 of a grade doesn’t sound particularly impressive!

    1. Hi Adam,

      Agreed it’s not huge. But think any intervention that was essentially a 50 minute video which improved academic outcome months later is pretty impressive. My take from this is a) gives us insight into how/why some mindset interventions may work better than others and b) best to view effect size or academic improvement relative to time/cost of intervention. In this case, I think the ratio is pretty decent.

      1. Agreed not bad for 50 mins. My concern with GM is the whole magic bullet thing and constantly worried that any shred of evidence would be pounced on as excuse for zillions of assemblies, intervention groups, focussed PM obs etc etc

  2. I wonder if there’s an element of the placebo effect in there, too. Either way, this does show promise.

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