The Growth Mindset theory states that how someone views their abilities impacts on how they think, feel and behave in future tasks. It is now arguably the most popular psychological theory in education.
Growth Mindset has been associated with a range of benefits that include persistence, seeking better feedback, coping better with transitions, grit, and pro-social behaviours. These are often the behaviours associated with doing well at school. But does it translate into better grades?
Growth Mindset = Better Grades
Numerous studies conducted by many different researchers have found a strong relationship between students who have a growth mindset and the grades they achieved.
Researchers Susana Claro, David Paunesku and Carol Dweck from Stamford University recently reported a large scale study of over 160,000 students) which found that growth mindset predicts grades across every socio-economic level in students in Chile.
Another study by Jason Snipes, who is the Director of Alliance Research for WestEd, found that in 121, 835 pupils in America, those with lower grades were more likely to have a fixed mindset. Both of these studies are fascinating and very important as they use a very large sample size (potentially adding weight to their findings).
Likewise, a different study by David Paunesku, Gregory Walton, Carissa Romero, Eric Smith, David Yeager and Carol Dweck from Stamford University and the University of Texas on 1,500 students found that combining a growth mindset and a sense of purpose intervention improved the likelihood of students completing Maths, English and Science courses and doing better along the way. This impact was most pronounced for students who were struggling and deemed most ‘at risk’.
Other studies that show a positive relationship between growth mindset and grades include this one of 373 students by Lisa Blackwell of Columbia University and Kali Trzesniewski and Carol Dweck of Stamford University. They tracked students for 2 years and found a positive relationship between mindset and academic achievement. This study of 373 students in Norway by Eric Bettinger, David Yeager, Ben Domingue, David Cooper and Mari Rege found that a positive relationship between growth mindset and grades, as did this study on 312 female high school students in England, with growth mindset also being associated with conscientiousness and academic effort.
Growth mindset has also been found to help to improve grades in students who are likely to suffer from the ‘stereotype threat’, which is when they believe certain stereotypes about who does well in certain subjects. For example, this study by Catherine Good and colleagues from the University of New York on 1,005 students found that growth mindset improved a sense of belonging in females pupils studying maths, which improved their grades, as did this study on 79 students by researchers from New York University, Winona State University and The University of Texas who found that teaching African American students about a growth mindset and how it related to learning led to those students, on average, getting a boost in their grades. These students were also more likely to report greater enjoyment about school and were more engaged in lessons afterwards as well.
This study of over 2,000 high school students in India found combining growth mindset and internal motivation strategies helped students get better grades. This was found to be especially true for high achieving students. Finally, a study of 115 students found that ‘students who believed that intelligence could be developed earned higher grades and were more likely to move to advanced math courses over time'.
A recent paper published at the start of 2018 found similar results. In this study, involving 65 schools and 12,542 students, the researchers found that a brief mindset intervention improved the likelihood of students graduating. Again, the students who made the most gains were the ones who had previously been struggling and not doing well at school.
So to summarise, at least eleven studies from students of different ages, genders and nationalities from around the world show a positive relationship between growth mindset and better grades. We say at least eleven studies, as this was not an exhaustive list based on an extensive literature review… just based on the studies we are aware of. The truth is, it is likely that even more exist.
Growth Mindset = Maybe Better Grades
The Sutton Trust commissioned a study that found that students who received a growth mindset intervention made, on average, two months additional progress in English and Maths, though these results weren’t statistically significant. This means that this difference may be down to chance.
One of the issues that the researchers in this study raise was the difficulties of having a control group. Because growth mindset is discussed so much in schools, it was hard to have a control group to compare the effects of growth mindset interventions against, as they may also be present in the control group already.
A follow up study is already underway, though having seen some of the materials being used in it, I strongly doubt that it would lead to great improvements in grades. To give an example of this, the students will watch a series of videos about historical figures who were said to have a growth mindset. Translating this into grades will be difficult, especially as it doesn’t sound particularly subtle and stealthy as recommended here.
Growth Mindset = No Difference in Grades
As far as we are aware, there is only one study that shows no relationship between growth mindset and grades. This was done by researchers Yue Li and Timothy Bates who examined 222 students in China (their study is an interesting one to read, which you can do here).
Although not strictly focused on exam results, two other studies are worth mentioning in this section as they found no relationship between outcomes you would expect to be associated with grades. This study by Stepan Bahnik and Marek Vranka from the University of Economics in Prague found no relationship between how 5,653 university students did in a university scholastic aptitude test (or how they did in a re-test of it later). Likewise, this study by Brooke Macnamara and Natasha Rupani, of 200 University students, found no link between someone’s mindset and their level of education.
Aptitude tests and level of education are clearly not the same as grades. There are many reasons why someone may not go on to higher education, not just because they didn’t get good grades. However, there is probably enough of an overlap between aptitude tests and level of education with grades to merit these two studies being included in this section.
Final Thought on Growth Mindset and Grades
So to conclude, does having a growth mindset help students improve their grades? To put a definitive answer to this question, researchers at the start of 2018 combined every known growth mindset study to measure the average effect. Their results? Based on a sample of 365,915 students they found that growth mindset did have a rather small but positive effect on grades.
It seems that now that the question on ‘does growth mindset improve grades’ has been answered. The next question for research has got to be ‘how do we design interventions to best maximise this?’ and 'who does it work best for?' As with most things in psychology, it’s not just what you do but how you do it that is key.
If you're interested in the subject, check out our guide page "How to develop a growth mindset in schools".