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LIfBi Lecture: Growth Mindset: How the belief in one's own learning ability effects students

The Growth Mindset theory is popular not only in academia, but also in global business. The best-known example is Microsoft, which elevated the message of Growth Mindset to the guidelines of its corporate culture a few years ago: It's not what we know that counts, but what we want to learn. In the first LIfBi Lecture of 2021 Prof. Emilia Del Bono, Ph.D., Director of the Institute for Social and Economic Research (ISER) at Essex University (UK), presented a case in which the effect of Growth Mindset on students was experimentally tested in a randomized intervention study.

Growth mindset describes the belief that one’s intelligence and cognitive abilities are malleable characteristics rather than fixed traits and can thus be enhanced through effort. Research shows that students endowed with the idea of growth mindset are more likely to be academically successful. Interventions attempting to change these beliefs, particularly in groups with low academic performance, have therefore been posited as a way to improve or even close ethnic or social gaps in students’ performance.  

In their study, Delevande, Del Bono, Holford and Sen (2019) evaluate the effects of a randomized light-touch intervention given to a sample of first year university students in the UK. 

About 1400 British students who were in their first year at university in 2015/2016 took part in the study, with more than 500 completing a total of three waves of the experiment. While waves 1 and 3 consisted of online surveys, wave 2 was designed as a randomized intervention study and conducted in the laboratory. Here the treatment group was shown a short video about recent findings on brain functions, and how new neuronal connections can form after exposure to stimuli. These mindset messages were combined with input from psychology experts as well as with practical learning advices, such as the importance of attending classes or avoiding bad habits. The intervention conveyed the key message to students: one's abilities can be improved through effort and certain study habits. To provide a valid counterfactual, a control group was shown a video about brain functions in general.

The students‘ subjective beliefs about the production function for educational performance as well as various measures of study habits were measured two months later, compared with baseline pre-treatment measures and a control intervention. They document a positive treatment effect on the beliefs that one’s ability is malleable and also on the students' grades at the end of the year. These effects are shown to be consistent with changes in the ways students approach their study, i.e., a change in study habits, Del Bono stated.

No effect was found, however, with respect to attendance rates at courses. „Surprisingly for us, there was a stronger effect on male students, whereas no differences in the effectiveness of the intervention between people with high and low socioeconomic backgrounds could be found“, Del Bono said. The researchers were able to show the strongest influence of the intervention on the learning habits of the treatment group: these students were willing to learn more in the areas in which they had previously shown deficits.

In the subsequent discussion, there was intensive talk about a possible spill-over effect between treatment and control group—Del Bono considered such an effect improbable, since both groups had not been aware that they had seen different videos; also, the term growth mindset was never explicitly mentioned in the video of the treatment group.

Link to Emilia Del Bono’s website

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