Growth Mindset Research

Enjoy this summary section from the growth mindset website called MindsetWorks. Connect to their website to learn more from Dr. Dweck, parents, and students who engage in a Growth Mindset worldview. 


The Science Behind Growth Mindset

            Over the past two decades, the main goal of our co-founders Carol S. Dweck, Ph.D. and Lisa Sorich Blackwell, Ph.D. has been to research what helps students to achieve highly, and to apply the lessons learned to improving their motivation and achievement.  They discovered that developing a growth mindset (the core belief that abilities are malleable and not fixed) is critical to adopting learning-oriented behavior.  Dr. Blackwell and Dr. Dweck then developed the Brainology® Program in order to help students cultivate a growth mindset.

Below is information on the growth mindset research background.  You can also view a visual, summary presentation of the growth mindset research that led to the Brainology® Program.


Achievement Motivation

            In Drs. Dweck and Blackwell’s research, we have found that the beliefs and attitudes held by students when they begin junior high school have a strong influence on their achievement over these critical years.
            In particular, the research found that students who believed that their intelligence was something that they could develop and increase—what we term a growth mindset—also held many other positive attitudes.  First, believing that their ability could be increased, they valued learning as a goal, even when it involved hard work or initial errors.  They also believed in the efficacy of effort—that is, they viewed effort in a positive way and felt that they had the ability, through their own efforts, to learn and master new material up to standard.  When they had difficulty in a subject, they made more constructive, mastery-oriented explanations—rather than just saying, “I’m not smart enough,” or “I just can’t do math,” they explained their difficulty as due to lack of effort or inadequate strategy.  And they responded with more positive, effort-based strategies to work harder and spend more time on the subject instead of giving up.
            Even more striking, students with a growth mindset had an upward trajectory in mathematics grades over seventh and eighth grade, while those who viewed their intelligence as a fixed quality did not.  This was true even though students had equal levels of prior achievement: students who believed that their intelligence was malleable did better than did equally able students who viewed their intelligence as an unchangeable, fixed “entity.”  This was true for students at all levels of ability. 
            Our research, as well as that of others, has shown that students who hold a growth mindset use more sophisticated strategies in their coursework.  For example, they use more complex cognitive and meta-cognitive strategies–those that involve active and deeper-level processing of material, and self-monitoring of the learning process.


Research on Learning and the Brain

            In the same period of time, research has shown that the brain is in fact much more malleable than previously thought.  It was once believed that the brain did not grow new cells, and that there were severe limitations on the malleability, or neuroplasticity, of the brain after early childhood.  But in the past few decades, research has shown that learning causes substantial changes in the brains of both animals and human beings throughout life.

            Thinking occurs in the brain through the chemical communication of nerve cells connected in a complex network.  With learning, the cells of the brain develop new connections between them, and existing connections become stronger.  Studies in neurophysiology, neuroanatomy, and brain imaging have shown that when people practice and learn new skills, the areas of the brain responsible for those skills actually become larger and denser with neural tissue, and that new areas of the brain become active when performing related tasks. Furthermore, it has been found that the brain continues to grow new nerve cells, or neurons, daily, and that this process speeds up when a lot of active learning is occurring. Thus, the brain has the capacity to develop throughout life.  However, this development depends on the stimulation of challenge and learning.  This fact makes it all the more critical that students be given challenging material and be motivated to apply effort and take an active role in learning.


Instructor-Led Intervention Approach:  Teaching a Growth Mindset

            Would it be possible to improve students’ motivation and achievement by teaching them a growth mindset?  In a pilot study we did just that by teaching middle school students about what has been learned about the flexibility of the brain to develop and grow new networks with challenge and learning (this was done by an instructor in-person, rather than through software).  We then examined changes in the students’ motivation and mathematics achievement over the year of the intervention, comparing them with a similar group of students in the same school who did not receive this intervention.


Instructor-Led Pilot Study Results

Gains in motivation:

            We asked teachers to assess changes in their students’ classroom motivation over the period of the intervention.  Note that in the pilot study we taught the growth mindset intervention to students outside of their class periods, and teachers did not participate in the intervention.  Thus, teachers were unfamiliar with the content of the intervention, and they did not know which of their students had received instruction in the malleable brain.  Yet teachers cited significantly more of the students who had received the growth mindset training as showing positive change in their effort and interest in.


Teacher Comments Following Instructor-Led Intervention 

            “M. was performing far below grade level.  During the past few weeks, she has voluntarily asked for extra help from me during her lunch period in order to improve her test-taking performance.  Her grades drastically improved from failing to an 84 on the most-recent exam.” “Lately I have noticed that students have a greater appreciation for improvement in academic performance.  R. was performing below standards, but now he has learned to appreciate the improvement from his grades of 52, 46, and 49 to his grades of 67 and 71.  He valued his growth in learning Mathematics.” “Your workshop has already had an effect.  L., who never puts in any extra effort and often doesn’t turn in homework on time, actually stayed up late working for hours to finish an assignment early so I could review it and give him a chance to revise it.  He earned a B+ on the assignment (he had been getting C’s and lower).”“Several students have voluntarily participated in peer tutoring sessions during their lunch periods or after school.  These students were passing when they requested the extra help and motivated by the prospect of sheer improvement.”


Gains in Math Achievement: 

            The mathematics grades of all students in the study had been declining prior to the intervention.  However, after the intervention, the grades of those students who learned about the growth mindset (experimental group) took an upward turn, while those of their fellow students who did not receive this curriculum continued to decline.


For more information, please view Carol Dweck's research studies.



Dr. Dweck and Dr. Blackwell’s research has been funded by grants from the William T. Grant Foundation and the Spencer Foundation.