“Growth mindset” has become a familiar phrase and concept in the educational community over the past 20 years. Recent research findings provide a compelling position that further expands the importance of growth mindset and the positive relationship to student achievement, with notable positive impact for marginalized students (OESD, 2021).
Providing students with descriptions that indicate opportunities for expanding knowledge and skills is an immediate opportunity that can support equity. The Maryland State Department of Education (MSDE) is taking action and exploring the language used to describe achievement levels in order to provide language that encourages students to improve their learning.
The primary researcher and pioneer in defining growth mindset, Carol Dweck (2007), describes students with a growth mindset as having a belief system that their talents and abilities are malleable and can be improved with effort. This is a contrast with a fixed mindset—students believe that their abilities and talents are determined traits; they have what they have, and it cannot be changed.
When students are encouraged to develop and make progress with their learning, they have a sense of hope and determination to improve; on the other hand, when students are provided with messaging that their learning is preset and inflexible, they accept the current status of their learning without the possibility of improvement. Students with a growth mindset are more likely to be resilient, develop learning strategies, and achieve complex objectives; they are willing to try new learning strategies, capitalize on learning and experiences, and respond positively to feedback (Yeager and Dweck, 2012).
The education community can take a stand to support a growth mindset by using language in communicating achievement results that supports students with understanding that they can improve and build on their learning.
The belief that one’s intellectual abilities can be developed, referred to as a growth mindset (Dweck, 2008), is related to improved performance (Dweck, 2000; Claro, Paunesku & Dweck, 2016; Yeager et al., 2019). Growth mindset is associated with feelings of self-efficacy and student motivation—important factors in student learning (National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, 2018).
Administration of the 2018 Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) included a questionnaire for 15-year-old students about beliefs, attitude, home life, school, and learning experiences in 78 countries. Analysis of the results of 600,000 student surveys indicated that students who present a growth mindset score higher than their peers with a fixed mindset. Growth mindset was also associated with having a greater impact on assessment gains in achievement and significantly influenced marginalized students (OECD 2021).
The positive connection between growth mindset and academic performance has especially strong impact on vulnerable populations related to economic status, race, immigration, and gender.
The positive connection between growth mindset and academic performance has especially strong impact on vulnerable populations related to economic status, race, immigration, and gender (Dweck & Yeager. 2019, Yeager & Dweck 2020). Learning about the malleability of intelligence has been shown to be particularly powerful in improving outcomes for racial and ethnic minority students (Blackwell, Trzesniewkski & Dweck, 2007).
Instilling a growth mindset is not just about praising effort, which can backfire and generate adverse effects. Rather, it implies rewarding progress and the processes that lead to greater learning. It is a process that requires continuous efforts from students and educators, parents, and guardians (Dweck 2016).
Growth Mindset into Action—Labels without Limits!
The education community can take a stand to support a growth mindset by using language in communicating achievement results that supports students with understanding that they can improve and build on their learning (Claro, Paunesku, Dweck, 2016).
Labels act as social tools that shape and reinforce how people think and behave. When labels are created with an intentional focus on a growth mindset, there is ripple effect of impact on students, teachers, and parents. A growth mindset framework for the identification of labels for achievement levels can influence students’, parents’ and teachers’ mindset and approach to understanding the potential for progress and improvement in learning (O’Donnell, 2020).
Francis O’Donnell’s (2020) research takes a close look at the language of the achievement level labels in state accountability systems across the United States (including Maryland) and notes the effect of feelings of encouragement and motivation on students, particularly those students scoring in the lowest level who are disproportionately students of color. Included in O’Donnell’s research are responses from a previous study Dweck (2014) that explores the terms “yet” or “not yet” with students in Chicago, and student responses indicated that the term “yet” meant not a pass or fail, but that learning was in progress. Other student responses indicated that “yet” meant that “You can get better” and “You did not do well on the test, however you can grow.” These responses indicate that the language used to describe a level of achievement influences how students perceive their own learning as well as personal construct about their opportunity to improve. The achievement level language can be encouraging or discouraging O’Donnell (2020).
The Maryland Department of Education (MSDE) and Cognia™ are collaborating to study the effect of the language used to communicate assessment performance on students’ self-perception of achievement potential.
The Maryland Department of Education (MSDE) and Cognia™ are collaborating to study the effect of the language used to communicate assessment performance on students’ self-perception of achievement potential. This exploration will focus on how designing and selecting performance level labels that support the state’s belief in every child’s inherent value and ability to succeed. Specifically, MSDE and Cognia are partnering to explore changes to the language in the Individual Student Reports (ISRs) can produce a summative assessment report that students, parents, and teachers will find more encouraging, with special attention to the students who are performing below grade level or who are likely to have been negatively impacted by current ISR language.
This potential negative impact was identified by MSDE’s assessment and curriculum teams’ equity review of state summative reports. Using an equity toolkit rubric, the teams conducted an audit of the historic and current ISR language to identify recommendations for possible changes that could encourage growth mindset. MSDE determined that Maryland students, parents, and teachers would be the best stakeholders to evaluate more encouraging, alternative performance level labels through surveys and focus groups.
The resultant research approach prioritizes feedback from students, parents, and teachers, giving their voices the most weight to select language labels that are the most encouraging among several alternatives to the language currently used for each achievement level. The intent of the survey analysis is to identify language that provides feedback to students that would most significantly support growth mindset and student motivation. (Lyons, Johnson & Hinds, 2021).
This is an immediate opportunity to promote a growth mindset for students, parents, and teachers.
The feedback from the survey and focus groups will provide insight into language choices that students find most encouraging, as well as whether students’ perception differs according to racial/ethnic background. Additionally, open- ended responses from students, teachers, and parents will provide an understanding of the achievement levels language related to the influences and perceptions of possibilities for future achievement. This study represents an evidence-based step toward advancing equity in Maryland’s statewide assessment program.
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Claro, S., Paunesku, D., & Dweck, C. S. (2016). Growth mindset tempers the effects of poverty on academic achievement. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 113(31), 8664-8668.
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Dweck, C. S. (2016). What having a growth mindset actually means, Harvard Business Review.
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Lyons S., Johnson M., Hinds B.F., (2021). A Call to Action Confronting Inequities in Assessment. Lyons Assessment Consulting
National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. (2018). How people learn II: Learners, contexts, and cultures. National Academies Press.
Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OESD). (2021), Sky’s the Limit: Growth Mindset, Students, and Schools in PISA. Programme for International Student Assessment.
O’Donnell, Francis, (2020)”What’s in a Label? Unpacking the Meaning of Achievement Labels from Tests”. Doctoral Dissertations. 1856. https://doi.org/10.7275/15558737 https://scholarworks.umass.edu/dissertations_2/1856
Papay, J. P., Murnane, R. J., & Willett, J. B. (2016). The impact of test score labels on human-capital investment decisions. Journal of Human Resources, 51, 357–388. https://doi.org/doi: 10.3368/jhr.51.2.0713-5837R
Yeager, D. S., Hanselman, P., Walton, G. M., Murray, J. S., Crosnoe, R., Muller, C., … & Paunesku, D. (2019). A national experiment reveals where a growth mindset improves achievement. Nature, 573(7774), 364-369.
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