Growth mindset and Cognitive Load Theory are arguably two of the most popular psychological theories in education. Often, these theories have been seen as separate entities. However, a new research paper has been published that examines the effect having a growth mindset has on cognitive load.
Let’s take a look at what these theories are and how the research suggests they interact…
What is a Growth Mindset?
Growth mindset refers to a learning theory originally developed by Dr Carol Dweck. It is the belief that a person’s intelligence, ability and performance can all be improved. This is in contrast to having a fixed mindset, which is the belief that a person’s ability is set in stone.
Having a growth mindset has shown to have many benefits for students including:
- Seeking out better feedback and persisting for longer
- Coping better with transitions
- Experiencing lower levels of stress and aggression
- An increase in their well-being and emotional functioning
There has also been an interesting debate on if having a growth mindset impacts on students’ grades. Some studies found that having a growth mindset is associated with better grades, with others finding that it does not, and some saying that it might. You can find a summary of some of that research here.
What is Cognitive Load Theory?
Cognitive Load Theory highlights the fact that during learning, new information is held in our working memory, which has a very small capacity. This contrasts with long-term memory, which is very large. Therefore, transfer between the two is key. Unfortunately, this transfer does not always occur. This can occur for many reasons, one such one being if students are presented with too much information. This theory therefore relates to helping ensure we find an optimal load for students to process.
What does the latest research suggest?
In this recent study, the researchers investigated whether having a growth mindset could help reduce a person’s cognitive load and therefore help them perform better when tested on the new information they learnt.
To do this, some students were encouraged to have a growth mindset by reading about how intelligence is malleable as well as writing a letter to a student struggling in a subject. The other set of students completed tasks that did not prompt them to have a growth mindset. They were then taught about a new topic.
Following this lesson, students’ cognitive load was measured using a questionnaire. This questionnaire included items such as “The text that I just read was very complex”. (As a side note, it is worth mentioning that although this might measure their subjective cognitive load, it might not distinguish between those who have a high cognitive load and those who generally struggle to read a piece of text). The final task was to take a retention and transfer test on the material they just learnt.
So, what did they find? Well, the students in the growth mindset group showed:
- A greater growth mindset belief
- Lowered perception of cognitive load
- Better performance on the tests
Why is this? The researchers suggest that having a growth mindset means that students are less likely to pay attention to factors that are uncontrollable, for example thinking that a task is too difficult to understand. Instead, they are more likely to focus on things they can control, such as working harder in learning the material and being more motivated to learn it. This lowered the demands on their cognitive load, and as a result, they perform better when having to retrain new information and when they complete subsequent tests.
How can you apply this in the classroom?
As this research suggests that having a growth mindset is beneficial when learning new material, it may be useful to encourage your students to develop a growth mindset. Some ways you can do this include:
- Types of praise – Praising your students' process rather than their result will help encourage your students to ask for and act on feedback. It will also allow them to encourage a sense of curiosity.
- Levels of expectation – Having high yet realistic expectations for your students’ performance can help them work harder.
- Minimise fear of failure – Minimising any shame or embarrassment if students get things wrong can encourage them to challenge themselves further.
- Helpful self-talk – Teaching your students to talk to themselves in “the right way”, which is positive, helpful and energising, can help improve their concentration and reduce their stress levels.
A Quick Word of Warning
Often, Cognitive Load Theory can be misinterpreted. Although this study shows that students performed better once by reducing their cognitive load, this is not always the case.
Cognitive Load Theory is more about finding an optimal load, as opposed to just reducing it (though of course reducing it can help find an optimal load). We like to think of this is as the “Goldilocks Effect”: the amount has to be just right. Having too little cognitive load could mean that the students may be bored. On the other hand, having too much would mean that the information would get lost as they are confused or stressed. To find out about 4 problems Cognitive Load Theory still needs to sort out, see this blog.
Having a growth mindset can have many benefits. This recent study shows that one reason for this could be linked to the Cognitive Load Theory. By helping students develop a growth mindset, it could mean that they try and put more effort into the task rather than thinking of things that are uncontrollable. As a result, students may perform better on the task.