PISA Report: A Growth Mindset Can Lead to Better Student Outcomes

growth mindset
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A growth mindset -- the belief that one’s intelligence and abilities can be developed and improved upon over time -- has been linked to increased academic performance in a new global report from The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.

Holding a growth mindset had previously been associated with increased student success, and the new report confirms this association holds, even on a large scale. 

Since 2000, the OECD has conducted its Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), which measures 15-year-olds’ ability to use their reading, mathematics, and science knowledge in the real world. In 2018, the most recent year that PISA was conducted, 600,000-plus students from 78 countries, including the U.S., participated. Students were asked about intelligence malleability and whether they had a growth mindset or a fixed mindset, the belief that people are born with certain abilities and are naturally gifted at certain things and bad at others. 

Overall, students with a growth mindset dramatically outperformed their peers with fixed mindsets, though there were outliers in which this was not the case. 

Here are the key takeaways from the report. 

1. A Growth Mindset Can Improve Grades  

The new report found on average, students who disagreed or strongly disagreed with the statement “Your intelligence is something about you that you can’t change very much” scored 31.5 points higher in reading, 27 points higher in science, and 23 points higher in mathematics than students who agreed or strongly agreed. This was found after the report authors accounted for the socioeconomic profile of the students and the schools. The performance gap for reading was the widest in the U.S., New Zealand, and Australia. In these countries, students with a growth mindset scored nearly 60 points higher in reading than their fixed mindset counterparts. 

While previous research has indicated the benefits of a growth mindset in students, the PISA data is the most ambitious attempt to date to study growth mindset internationally. 

“In large scale studies in the U.S., Chile and Norway, we found that measures of growth mindset predicted grades or test scores, but it was tremendously exciting to see this on a grand scale across much of the globe in the PISA data,” said Carol Dweck from Stanford University in a press conference releasing the OECD report. 

2. Growth Mindset May Be A Better Predictor of Academic Achievement Than Spending 

High PISA scores were more closely associated with growth mindset than with school spending, a finding with profound implications for global education policy, said Andreas Schleicher, OECD, director for the Directorate of Education and Skills, during the press conference. “Think about this -- students having a growth mindset and an education system is a better predictor for the quality of learning outcomes than the amount of money that we spend per student.” 

Unsurprisingly, students from privileged backgrounds were more likely to hold a growth mindset than disadvantaged students. “[But] where education systems were better able to inspire students from both disadvantaged and privileged backgrounds to have that growth mindset, we could also see that they were generally delivering more equitable outcomes,” Schleicher said. 

While Scheicher stressed that it's unclear there is a causal relationship between a growth mindset and more equitable outcomes, if proven, the implication could be profound. “Enabling students from all social backgrounds to develop that aspiration, that growth mindset, that belief it's their own effort, their own kind of struggle that will help them to succeed could be one of the levers to bridge the gap in learning outcomes between students from privileged and less wealthy backgrounds,” he said. 

3. Success is Not Always Linked to A Growth Mindset  

A growth mindset was generally associated with improved educational outcomes; however, the association was not universal and was not observed in four countries: North Macedonia, Hong-Kong [China], B-S-J-Z [China], and Lebanon. 

And in East Asian countries, growth mindset was not as strongly associated with academic performance. In terms of reading scores, after adjusting for the socioeconomic profile of students, those with a growth mindset scored only 22 points higher in Japan, 17 points higher in Korea and Macao (China), and 15 points in Chinese Taipei, the report found. Growth mindset and reading performance were unrelated in Hong Kong (China), and even negatively associated in B-S-J-Z (China).

While the report authors theorized this could be due to the work ethic instilled by a Confucian cultural heritage, the cause is unknown. Dweck said further research is necessary to understand why the association did not hold in certain countries. 

4. Growth Mindset Matters for Teachers and Helps With More Than Grades  

Previous research has suggested educators’ mindset matters as well. Research published in 2019 in Science Advances looked at 150 U.S. STEM professors and 15,000 students. The researchers found that “racial achievement gaps in courses taught by more fixed mindset faculty were twice as large as the achievement gaps in courses taught by more growth mindset faculty.” Furthermore, “course evaluations revealed that students were demotivated and had more negative experiences in classes taught by fixed (versus growth) mindset faculty. Faculty mindset beliefs predicted student achievement and motivation above and beyond any other faculty characteristic, including their gender, race/ethnicity, age, teaching experience, or tenure status.” 

Educators should also be aware that instilling a growth mindset in students can do more than improve their test scores. Even when a growth mindset was not linked to improvement it was often linked to a greater sense of wellbeing on the part of the student. 

“Some of the strongest relations between growth mindset and well-being were found in places that had the weakest links between growth mindset and test scores,” Dweck said. 

Erik Ofgang

Erik Ofgang is a Tech & Learning contributor. A journalist, author and educator, his work has appeared in The New York Times, the Washington Post, the Smithsonian, The Atlantic, and Associated Press. He currently teaches at Western Connecticut State University’s MFA program. While a staff writer at Connecticut Magazine he won a Society of Professional Journalism Award for his education reporting. He is interested in how humans learn and how technology can make that more effective.