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

September 7, 2018 at 7:00 am 5 comments

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.

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5 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Antti-Juhani Kaijanaho  |  September 8, 2018 at 2:25 am

    Thank you for your discussion of the paper I presented at ICER 2018 on behalf of myself and my colleague. Broadly, I think we agree on most things, but the points of our disagreement lead us to very different conclusions. I may write a fuller response later, but I want to correct your discussion of the failure rate now.

    (The graph is not very visible in your photo; but it can be seen in my slides, reproduced here , slide 10.)

    First, as I pointed out to you before on Twitter, the graph itself shows that overall most students included in the study passed at least one course; thus it is incorrect to say that most students failed.

    Second: As pointed out in both the paper and my presentation, “0” includes both fails and noncompletions. However, neither of us fail students much, and almost all of the “0” are noncompletions (the student either never did any serious work toward the course, or gave up sometime during the course). For our purposes in the paper, these are equivalent outcomes, and thus we lump them together. However, to call all of them “fails” misrepresents the situation.

    (To be clear, I define “fail” as a student submitting all required work but the work is judged to be below the minimum standards of the course; all others in the “0” are cases of the student not submitting all required work. Some give up early, some midway, some late.)

    Now, a large number of noncompletions is not unique to these courses at our institution, and we would definitely like to understand why they happen. We have hypotheses, but they are really difficult to test. This issue is beside the point in our paper and thus we did not discuss it in detail.

    Well, actually, before this study one of our hypotheses for the large number of noncompletions was that students were hitting the wall created by a fixed mindset. Both of us were seeing behaviors consistent with it in our previous courses. This study shows to me that this hypothesis is clearly not correct (whatever effect the mindset has, it is not a major contributor here).

    • 2. Mark Guzdial  |  September 10, 2018 at 9:51 am

      This is a methodological question which has popped up at least twice now at ICER: What to do with students who drop? In Elizabeth Patitsas’s bimodal study, she dropped them from the analysis, which she was critiqued for. Many believe that those who drop were likely going to fail, and might have created a bimodality in the grades. You decided to keep them, but include them in the “F” category (which is what I do in my Media Computation studies, when I contrast “WDF” (Withdrawal, D, or F) vs. “Success”).

      Whether you call the noncompletions a “fail” or not doesn’t really matter for your analysis, right? So, if you’re asking the question “Does growth vs fixed mindset influence academic success?” and “0” is defined as not academic success, then you’re calling noncompletions a lack of academic success. Many would define “fail” as the inverse of “success.” You have a different technical definition, but it’s the same thing in your analysis.

      • 3. Antti-Juhani Kaijanaho  |  September 10, 2018 at 9:59 am

        Yes, I agree that for the purposes of the paper they are equivalent; that’s why we lump them together. My only issue here is in how you described our courses.

        Mind you, a lot of people made the same assumption in discussions at ICER, so in retrospect I should have discussed it a bit more thoroughly.

  • 4. wvufanatua  |  September 10, 2018 at 4:41 am

    Mark, thanks for the summary. I look forward to reading the paper this week.

    I am not sure that the NFL analogy fits completely – some thoughts (and 330am here so I may just be in brain fog…)

    “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.”

    – It may be that “success” is a personal definition in the above analogy. The high school football player may not make it on a college scholarship, but the extra work they put in allowed them to be a starter on their team and have some memorable experiences, which they might not have without the growth mindset – that might even be what the player had in mind (starting position) all along as the main motivation for their effort. The college player may not make it to the NFL, but they got a college scholarship because of their drive to put in the effort. The extra work they put in (if driven by a growth mindset) would seem to lead to success in some measure, even if they do not make it to the top of their career (an NFL contract).

    – In an academic context, it is possible that a whole class of growth mindset learners all get “A”s in their class (or they could all also fail). The NFL analogy is based on a fixed set of slots available, but that is not necessarily the case in a classroom, where all “could” have the highest level of success and achieve their highest level of learning, due to their growth mindset. That success may not always translate to winning the job and high salary, but the learning and classroom success is not necessarily a lottery in the same sense as the NFL (unless the teacher of the course feels the need to somehow partition the grades, even if all students achieved highly).

    Jeff Gray

    BTW: Congrats to you and Barb on the new positions! We will miss you as neighbors in the south!

    • 5. Mark Guzdial  |  September 10, 2018 at 9:57 am

      Hi Jeff,

      Your point is exactly my point. The paper I’m critiquing defined academic success as getting a passing grade in the class. I’m saying that growth mindset helps you achieve goals, even if the goal isn’t a passing grade in the class or getting into the NFL.

      Academic success is likely not a lottery, but it might be. There are certainly teachers who believe that they can only give out a certain number of A’s. In this case, so few students won the top slot that I don’t know. It is the case that only a certain number of people did achieve the top spot, but maybe (based on the other thread on this post) because they dropped out. Perhaps they already achieved their personal goals, and a good grade was not one of them.

      Thank you!


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