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Growth mindset

Can a growth mindset be harnessed to improve academic progress?

Students with a more growth-oriented mindset do better on an academic writing course, but reading and writing about having a growth mindset does not work as an intervention to shift to a growth mindset, according to a recent study by Hansol Lee, Jang Ho Lee (Korea Military Academy and Chung-Ang University, South Korea) and Robin Scarcella (University of California, USA).

In essence, having a growth – as opposed to fixed – mindset means that you believe your intelligence and abilities can improve over time: just because you are not good at something today doesn’t mean that with work you can’t get better at it. Over the last couple of decades there has been increasing interest in the role of a growth mindset in education: are students who really believe they can improve actually more likely to make progress?

“Academic scores as a goal is somewhat antithetical to growth mindset philosophy”

This has led to a range of interventions to foster a growth mindset, but it has been very difficult to show that any of these actually impact on academic performance. This study tested whether students with a growth mindset did better on a 10-week academic writing course and, furthermore, whether using a course with content chosen to foster a growth mindset could both change students’ mindsets as well as improve their academic writing.

Three hundred and nineteen non-native English speakers enrolled as undergraduates at a US university took part in the study. Most (93%) of the students were Mandarin Chinese speakers and all had a minimum TOEFL iBT score of 80 (upper intermediate).

Students were given a test of written academic English as well as a mindset scale, a set of 18 questions assessing their mindset, during week one and again in week 10 of the course.

Most attempts to promote a growth mindset involve extra hours added, such as a presentation or workshop-style intervention. In this study, however, the intervention was fully integrated into the writing course by basing the material on Mindset: The new psychology of success by Carol Dweck (2006).

For example, the first module was titled: ‘How do people respond to challenges and failure?’ and the second: ‘Why is having growth mindsets important in achieving excellence and success?’ Each module used chapters from Mindset for reading comprehension and other language activities. The writing tests also used prompts from Mindset, such as, ‘No matter how much intelligence you have, you can always change it a bit’.

Student’s mindset profiles were grouped into three categories according to their responses to the mindset scale. Those with a higher growth than fixed mindset score were allocated a ‘growth profile’. Those with lower growth ‘mixed profile’ and those with the lowest growth scores were referred to as having a ‘fixed profile’.

At the start of the course, there was no significant difference between the week-one writing scores between the three mindset profiles. Comparing the students’ mindset profiles with their academic writing scores after 10 weeks, however, those with a growth or mixed profile had higher writing scores than students with a fixed profile.

To examine the possible effect of changes in mindset profile, the study authors analysed the students’ week one and week ten mindset scores to see how they had changed. In fact, this analysis showed that 55% of those who had begun the course with a growth profile had dropped to a mixed (44%) or fixed (11%) profile. Overall, the proportion with a growth profile dropped from 21% to 15%: mixed profiles rose from 27% to 33%, while fixed profiles remained at 52% (although this comprised only 79% of the original week-one fixed profiles).

The authors, unsurprisingly, struggled to account for these somewhat surprising and disappointing results. Not only did the mindset content not improve students’ mindset profiles overall, it appears to have even eroded students’ growth profiles.

The authors cite previous work suggesting that a growth mindset can be initially challenged when faced with new tasks, but this seems a very weak explanation, given that a growth mindset in itself was still shown to be associated with better progress. (It might also be worth considering that academic scores as a goal is somewhat antithetical to growth mindset philosophy.)

The problem may be in the nature of the intervention: 10 weeks of reading and writing about a growth mindset did nothing (or worse) to foster an actual growth mindset. It may be that, just as reading about dieting does not, sadly, result in weight loss (and may even drive the reader to despair and eat more) students need to walk the walk and not just read the talk.


  • Lee, H; Lee, J H and Scarcella, R C (2023) ‘Influencing language and English writing competence through an EAP program: A longitudinal study with latent transition analysis’.

Gill Ragsdale
Gill Ragsdale
Gill has a PhD in Evolutionary Psychology from Cambridge, and teaches Psychology with the Open University, but also holds an RSA-Cert TEFL. Gill has taught EFL in the UK, Turkey, Egypt and to the refugees in the Calais 'Jungle' in France. She currently teaches English to refugees in the UK.
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