Mindsets and Science Persistence

I’ve briefly discussed identity and self-efficacy before in this blog. Today I’m taking a little time to talk about Mindsets. Lots of folks have heard bits and pieces of the research on mindsets, certainly, most people have heard about adopting “growth” mindsets and the idea that intelligence is plastic rather than fixed. Though the anecdotal behavior I’ve observed in my life and work tends to suggest that we as humans still generally believe that intelligence is something largely set at birth. I find this most commonly demonstrated in people discussing their own competencies (or lack thereof), particularly around subjects like art and math, where stereotypes about native brilliance are still alive and well.*  

In the 1980s Carol Dweck, a student of the famous Alfred Bandura, conducted a series of studies in how children responded to tasks that were designed to be too difficult for them. What she found was quite surprising. Some students became frustrated, sought to avoid the tasks, or even reported they would try to cheat if a similar situation arose. Other students tackled the challenge with enthusiasm seeming to enjoy the frustration. From these early works Dweck developed the concept of mindset. She found that students who avoided the challenges were operating from a fixedmindset. That is, they believed that intelligence and talent are fixed, therefore challenges presented evidence of their lack of intelligence and talent. Students who enjoyed the challenge had adopted a growthmindset. These students viewed challenge as an opportunity to expand their understanding and grow their intelligence.

Dweck has identified four primary elements that influence the adoption of fixed or growth mindsets: process-based feedback, setting high expectations, challenge seeking, and teaching plasticity in learning.

Image Credit: P. Kim

Image Credit: P. Kim

Process-based feedback.Modern neuroscience clearly shows that human intelligence is not fixed, and that individuals can continue to learn and grow throughout the life cycle. However, an individual’s mindset can influence the decisions she makes and the challenges she takes on. In fact, many girls adopt fixed mindsets around math and science while boys adopt a growth mindset. This seems to be the result of the differing types of praise boys and girls receive in the classroom. Boys, often rambunctious and behind girls in the development of social skills, are praised for effort and process in science, while girls, often better behaved in the classroom, are praised for product and innate talent. Process-oriented praise contributes to the growth-oriented mindset, while praise for results and intelligence foster a fixed mindset. Dweck and colleagues also demonstrated that mindset can be altered through liberal application of process-based praise and emphasizing to students the flexible nature of intelligence.

Setting high expectations. A rich body of research spanning several decades shows that students are more likely than not to meet the expectations of teachers and other authority figures, regardless of the level or quality of expectation. Dweck argues that setting high expectations helps children develop resilience (i.e positive outcomes in the face of danger of failure or threats to adaptation of development). High expectations on the part of teachers and role models signals to learners that they are trusted, which encourages students to try harder and put more effort in correcting mistakes.

Challenge seeking.Dweck and her colleagues found that children with a fixed mindset found challenges threatening. For these students being required to put effort into a task meant that they were not naturally gifted and challenged their sense of worth. For these students, effortless skill is a sign of success. Children with growth mindsets viewed challenge as an opportunity to learn and equated success with hard work. Dweck advocates using process-based feedback and framing as a method to shift students into growth mindsets. Teachers and mentors can encourage challenge seeking by framing hard work as a sign of growth and using mistakes as learning opportunities rather than simply praising students for easy tasks.

Teaching plasticity. Dweck also emphasized the importance of explicitly teaching neural plasticity. That is, fostering the idea that humans can become smarter with effort and practice. A key element of the fixed mindset is that talent and brilliance are innate to the individual, therefore, if she is not automatically good at something she cannot improve over time. Societal messages about science and gender foster fixed mindsets in girls. Dweck found that girls were more likely than boys to adopt fixed mindsets with regards to math and science and less likely to persist through failures in STEM activities. Fostering the idea that intelligence is flexible and framing failures as part of a learning process helps individuals adopt a growth mindset and resilience.

The inevitable frustration and failures that come with studying science rapidly prove unattractive and disheartening to students with the fixed mindset. Rather than continue down a path the constantly affirms their lack of intelligence and talent, girls and women often focus their efforts in areas where they have a growth mindset. Recent studies show that emphasis on innate talent over growth is contributing to women’s choices in careers. Women, more than men, opt for careers that do not emphasize innate talent as a prerequisite for success.

Integrating identity, self-efficacy, and mindsets.These three foundational theories overlap substantially, but also provide a unique lens on the issue of gender disparities in STEM. The figure below represents a synthesis of the relationship between the theories graphically. Identity and self-efficacy share the closely related elements of experience and mastery. Self-efficacy and mindsets are both built around fostering expectations/vicarious learning by mentors and through examples. Mindsets and identity share the need for confidence building through challenge seeking and perceived successes. All three theories share feedback as a core element.

Another key element shared by all three theories is that they are all based in the beliefs of individuals. Whether or not an experience builds identity or self-efficacy is not the result of any objective measure, though the individual’s assessment may be based somewhat or entirely on external assessments. Two individuals may interpret outcomes very differently. In Dweck’s early studies children faced identical challenges, but their interpretation of the activities and their own performance varied widely depending on their mindset. Individuals may view a very difficult puzzle that they fail to solve as a success, because they learned something new. Or they may view an easy challenge they succeed at as a failure, because they did not perform to their own high standards. These areas of overlap present concentrated opportunities to help build identity and self-efficacy around science. 

Venn diagram of the overlapping elements of the theories of identity, self-efficacy, and mindsets.

Venn diagram of the overlapping elements of the theories of identity, self-efficacy, and mindsets.

With this in mind, the success of an activity can be rooted more in the framing of the resultsthan in any objective measure of success at a task. The feedback elements of each theory are crucial in helping individuals frame their experiences in a positive identity/self-efficacy building light.

The theories also differ in specific ways. Identity is more generalized and related to an individual’s wider self-concept. Self-efficacy, on the other hand, is typically specific within disciplines and domains. To build a strong sense of identity, the individual will need to build efficacy in many small ways. Mastery of one sub-task is unlikely to build a strong overall science identity. Mindsets are likewise specific. Individuals may have very different mindsets about different disciplines and even between very similar tasks. Fostering a growth mindset in science will generally involve fostering the mindset in many more specific areas.

Identity and self-efficacy can be cultivated, and once established can be expected to persist. Individuals with strong identities and efficacy will be more likely to seek out positive experiences in these domains, so in a way, identities and efficacy can be viewed as self-sustaining—though over time, negative experiences may undermine these identities. Mindsets in a domain may also persist, however, they do not implicitly contribute to interest in a subject area. Individuals may have growth mindsets around science, but not adopt a strong interest or identity. For this reason, mindset should be thought of more as a tool for fostering identity and self-efficacy.

Practical Considerations and Stereotypic Messages

So what does fostering a growth mindset look like and why to girls tend to adopt fixed mindsets in STEM? As mentioned above, girls faster behavioral development often leads to earlier outcome-based praise that supports the fixed mindset. Another factor, in my opinion, is plethora of messaging about scientists that says 1) scientists are effortlessly brilliant, and 2) they are overwhelmingly male. For the modern audience we can think of this as the Sheldon Cooper effect (though these stereotypes long predate the Big Bang Theory). For good or ill, our general social ideas about scientists support the notion that intelligence is fixed and that science is the realm of men. These are not great messages for boys, however, a boy struggling in science has at least the implicit message that science is a realm of men and therefore a place they belong. This sense of belonging can go a long ways toward helping boys adopt a growth mindset toward math and science. Girls on the other hand are getting a double whammy of messaging telling them that this is not something they will or even can be good at.

For folks looking for practical advice in supporting the adoption of growth mindsets toward science in girls it’s all about the feedback. Children are pretty good at rooting out false praise. Just telling a child she’s done well at something that she clearly has had a setback in won’t help the situation. Nuanced feedback that points out where she worked hard, how she persisted when things when wrong, and what she has learned from her failure can help position her for future success. Asking a girl who has suffered a setback in science to reflect on what she did, why she thinks she failed, and what she will try next is a much more valuable path to supporting the idea of plastic learning. Often times when we are in the midst of a failure it’s very hard to see how much we’ve learned and grown. It’s important to help young learners contextualize what failure is and point out all the past failures (and successes) that have helped them become the competent learner they are today. Remember, the best problem solvers and teachers are NOT the people for whom the answer always came easily. They are the people who have suffered setbacks and persisted. Failure is the best way to become more creative and a more compassionate and insightful teacher when it is your turn to mentor someone else. 

 *Please note, large chunks of this blog post have been lifted my 2015 dissertation. Self-plagiarism for the win!


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