Mindset Scholars Network
May 18, 2017
Partner Spotlight: Mindset Scholars Network

FOSTERING a growth mindset in students

When Carol Dweck was working on her doctorate in social and developmental psychology at Yale University, she became intrigued with a fundamental question about education:  Why do some students give up in the face of failure, while others thrive?

“I was interested in how children coped with difficulty and setbacks,” Dweck recalled. “Some of the children as I expected folded and thought it was the end of the world. Others looked like I was giving them a gift. They said things like, ‘I love a challenge,’ ‘I was hoping this would be informative,’ or ‘mistakes are our friend.’  And I thought, where are these kids from, Mars? I’m failing them! And yet they were relishing it. And benefiting from it.

“Then and there,” Dweck said, “I swore that I would uncover their secret, bottle it and give it to the world.”

Today, Dweck’s mission is being pursued by the Mindset Scholars Network, a diverse mix of nearly 30 researchers from a broad array of disciplines – from psychology to economics, education, sociology and statistics -- who are exploring how schools and communities can help students cultivate learning mindsets that will help them grow in the classroom and in life.

The Raikes Foundation helped launch the Mindset Scholars Network with a grant in 2015 and remains one of the Network’s core supporters. The Network is housed at the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences at Stanford University.

Dweck’s pioneering research on students’ motivation and engagement spurred the creation of what is now a broad field of scientific inquiry of students’ learning mindsets.

In the 1990s, Dweck and her colleagues confirmed that students’ beliefs about the nature of intelligence have a significant impact on their learning outcomes. Specifically, Dweck’s work found that students who held a growth mindset about intelligence – a belief that they can get smarter if they persist through setbacks, try new strategies and learn from their mistakes – seek out challenging tasks and perform better in school. Students with a fixed mindset about intelligence – who believe that their intelligence is fixed at birth, like eye color, and can’t be improved -- perform worse, especially during times of transition and when work gets challenging.

Subsequent research has identified two more mindsets that have big impacts on students’ performance. One is a sense of belonging. Students who feel respected by their peers and their teachers and by the other adults in their school get better grades, persist in school longer and report better health and well-being than students who don’t feel they fit in. When students worry that they aren’t valued as individuals and might be judged negatively based on their identity, their focus shifts from their studies to reading the cues around them to see whether they are accepted.

Another important mindset is a belief that one’s school work is relevant and connected to a purpose that is bigger than themselves—whether a contribution to their family, their community, or society at large. Students who believe their studies have purpose and relevance perform better than students who feel like their education is not connected to their lives.

Members of the Mindset Scholars Network are now focused on the field’s next big question:  How do students’ learning environments shape their mindsets about learning and school?  And, what can teachers, schools and post-secondary institutions do to create environments that will have the most beneficial effect on students’ mindsets and, in turn, their grades, graduation rates and other outcomes?

A cornerstone of the Mindset Scholars Network’s on-going research is the National Study of Learning Mindsets, a comprehensive, first-of-its-kind effort that is looking at the experiences of more than 15,000 young people in 76 high schools chosen at random from across the U.S.

David Yeager, co-chair of the Mindset Scholars Network and an assistant professor of developmental psychology at the University of Texas at Austin, is leading the National Study of Learning Mindsets.

Yeager said the unusual scale and design of the National Study presents unique opportunities to examine why some schools and classrooms are especially effective at helping students develop adaptive mindsets about learning that lead to better performance.

 “What’s so thrilling,” said Yeager, “Is we can finally test under what conditions, in what types of schools does an improvement in mindsets translate into an improvement in achievement.”

Yeager and his team are hopeful that the research will help identify tangible and practical insights that teachers and schools can use to send consistent messages to all students that they can grow their intelligence, that they belong in school and that their schoolwork has value.

“A real challenge for mindset science is to think not, how can we add another thing for teachers to do? But instead say, how does mindset science help teachers do what they’re already doing more effectively?” said Yeager. 

Early results from the National Study suggest that teachers who are particularly adept at developing their students’ mindsets “capitalize on occasions to praise students, help students with struggle, help seek out new challenges,” Yeager said. “And they don’t waste an opportunity to help students perceive a mindset that promotes growth and learning and belonging in the day-to-day.”

Students’ sense of belonging in school has come into particularly sharp focus since the U.S. presidential election in November 2016.

A survey of more than 10,000 k-12 educators by the Southern Poverty Law Center Center’s Teaching Tolerance project found that harassment of immigrants, Muslims, students of color and members of the LGBTQ community skyrocketed in the weeks after the election.

Students from demographic groups that are regularly negatively stereotyped enter a vicious cycle: They are vigilant for cues in their environment that signal whether or not they belong, fit in or are welcome there. They may also be concerned about confirming a negative stereotype about their group.

This hyper-vigilance and extra stress use up cognitive resources that are essential for learning and can diminish students’ performance and discourage them from building valuable relationships.

Students who are confident they belong and are valued by their teachers and peers engage more fully in learning. They have fewer behavior problems, are more open to critical feedback, take greater advantage of learning opportunities, build stronger relationships, and generally have more positive attitudes about their classwork and teachers.

Ron Ferguson, director of the Achievement Gap Initiative at Harvard University and another member of the Mindset Scholars Network, said such contextual factors are crucial to keep in mind for all stakeholders in a school community – not only students but also teachers, parents and administrators.

“We want all of them to come from a growth mindset and believe that if they really work at it, things can get better,” Ferguson said. “All of them care about whether they are accepted and welcomed, so there is a sense of belonging issue coming from every direction.”

“My interest is in affecting kids’ lived experiences in ways that affect their mindsets and ultimately their behaviors and their life outcomes that result from those behaviors,” he said.

Ferguson’s colleagues on the Mindset Scholars Network share his aspirations and are collaborating in new and creative ways to achieve them.

Camille Farrington, a senior research associate and managing director at the University of Chicago Consortium on School research, is leading the Building Equitable Learning Environments Network, another Raikes Foundation-supported effort to partner with 10 school support organizations around the country to identify ways that schools can increase the equity of educational outcomes for students of color and from low-income backgrounds. She anticipates the science generated by members of the Mindset Scholars Network will be invaluable.

“We understand a lot better about how humans respond to environments and what they need to really be emotionally healthy and to do well in life,” Farrington said. “So, I think this is all coming together at an opportune time.” 




Stanford University’s Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences 


Mindset Scholars Network


Nov. 2014- Jan. 2019