Archive for September 7, 2018

Growth mindset matters for individual human performance, with a more indirect connection to academic success

One of the most talked-about papers at ICER 2018 was this one, “Fixed versus Growth Mindset Does not Seem to Matter Much: A Prospective Observational Study in Two Late Bachelor level Computer Science Courses.” The claim was that fixed and growth mindset did not have much impact on student course performance.  One of the authors wrote a blog post summarizing the paper.
In my opinion, they got growth/fixed mindset theory wrong.  The mistake is in the first line of the abstract, “Psychology predicts that a student’s mindset—their implicit theory of intelligence—has an effect on their academic performance.”  Growth and fixed mindset have an effect on individual student development. There is an indirect effect on academic performance which is more complex. Grades are not the same as measuring learning. Grades are typically a measure of mastery of concepts.
The presentation of the paper had this amazing graph (picture I took below).  Most students fail in the courses they studied.  Look at the big peaks in the distribution on the left. Those are all the fails.
In Freakonomics, there’s a chapter on why, if drug dealers make so much money, why do so many of them live with their mothers?  (The chapter is reprinted here.) The answer is that drug dealing (like professional sports or acting) is a “lottery” — many people try and make no money, and very few people get to the top and make lots of money.  All those high school and college football players who are waking up early to pump weights have a growth mindset — they believe that their effort will take them to the NFL.  However, the vast majority are *wrong*. They won’t make it.  There is no apparent connection between growth mindset and success.
That’s how I saw the ICER paper on fixed and growth mindset.  If the outcome variable is academic success, growth mindset isn’t going to always pay-off. Sometimes the deck is stacked against you, and even if you think you can win, you won’t.
However, if the outcome variable is individual development, growth mindset will likely beat fixed mindset.  If you believe you can get better, you might. If you don’t believe you can get better, you won’t. A good outcome variable would be learning gain, measured pre-test to post-test.  In this study, most students had a growth mindset, so they probably wouldn’t have seen much variation (between growth and fixed) even if they measured learning.
The students thought if they worked harder, they could do better. And they probably did all do better (from a learning perspective). They just weren’t going to win in this lottery.
It’s a different question whether a given intervention to improve mindset might lead to improved academic performance.  If you improve learning, and academic performance is reflective of learning, then there should be a connection IF it’s possible to change mindset with an intervention. Duckworth and Dweck have shown that they have successfully intervened to change students’ mindset and consequently improve academic performance, and that work was recently replicated (see post here).  The efforts to intervene on mindset in CS have had mixed success (see my blog post here on that). But it’s one thing to say that fixed vs growth mindset does not seem to matter much (the title of the paper presented at ICER), and another to say that a given mindset intervention did not result in academic performance increase. The first claim is about theory, and the second is about designing interventions with a multi-step causal chain. I don’t buy the former claim, but completely agree that the latter is a complex and interesting issue to explore.

September 7, 2018 at 7:00 am 5 comments

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