New Research Suggests Teachers Need to Revisit Nuances of ‘Growth Mindset’ Approach

Research published in the journal Child Development Perspectivessuggests that praising student effort alone to improve “growth mindset” in teenagers can have the opposite effect.

The study found that when teachers only praised efforts, instead of focusing on the process or strategies for learning, students were less likely to have a growth mindset or believe that their work could boost their intelligence.

Coined by Stanford University psychologist Carol Dweck in her bookMindset: The New Psychology of Success, the phrase “growing mindset” identifies intellect as an ability developed through hard work and dedication, rather than innate skill.

But emphasizing effort alone makes teenagers in particular less likely to believe they can “grow their brains,” according to the research. As they enter larger schools that emphasize academic success and social cliques, students become more aware of academic rank and stereotypes. Teens might view effortless achievement — the innate ability to “just get” math or “just get” history — in a more positive light than success based on process and continual learning.

Focusing on effortless success puts this group at risk of interpreting praise as a critique of their innate skills. A high school student might interpret a teacher comment to “work hard” as a critique of his or her innate intelligence. The student might think, “Why do I have to work harder than other students?”

Instead of tossing the growth mindset philosophy altogether, teachers can develop and reinforce their students’ growth mindsets by focusing on what was “effective” about a student’s effort, rather than the effort itself, according to the research. In an article for Education Week, Indiana University associate psychology professor Mary Murphysuggests teachers allow students to reflect on their own learning styles and develop from their mistakes by highlighting what they found difficult. By focusing less on praising effort and more on student struggles and strategies, students can see how they are growing their knowledge.

Dweck also encourages teachers to make these adjustments. “My colleagues and I are taking a growth-mindset stance toward our message to educators,” she recently told Education Week.