Research Bites: Mind over Language

[Unlike most of the Research Bites articles, this one is not so short. It’s more of a research meal than a research bite. But, the research it contains, and its applications, are interesting so bear with me.]

Twitter Summary
Growth mind-set (beliefs about ability) and how we respond to errors is very important for learning success #researchbites

When I was little, everyone thought I was super smart. I always had my face buried in a book, usually the dictionary or encyclopedia. I spoke about things most children didn’t speak about. I also was very shy, quiet, and wore coke-bottle glasses. Sure signs of a genius. In fact, they constantly called me a genius. What an ego boost! So, when I struggled with math, I was shocked. If I were so smart, why couldn’t I solve an equation or understand the most basic geometry. Because I was not good at it right away, I assumed that, while I am still a genius, I am just not good at math. This happened to me consistently with other subjects. If I failed to get something right away (math, computer programming, languages), I assumed it was because I did not have the innate ability to do so. I eventually concluded I wasn’t smart after all. Everyone had been wrong.

And then I read “The Secret to Raising Smart Kids” in Scientific American (paywall, PDF here) by Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck. This article caught my attention because I have kids, and I wouldn’t mind if they were smart. However, I did not think it would hold within it such a salient perspective as to reveal a deep seated problem I have had since childhood: a fixed mind-set of intelligence.

Dweck and others’ research has shown that one’s beliefs about the nature of intellegence – whether it is fixed or malleable – has a significant effect on their learning. A fixed mind-set, in which people believe they are only so smart and cannot get any smarter makes them avoid challenges; ignore mistakes, constructive criticism, and feedback; feel their intelligence is threatened when they make mistakes; and shun rather than ameliorate relationship problems because, why bother when intelligence and personality are fixed?

In Dweck’s words:

The students who held a fixed mind-set, however, were concerned about looking smart with little regard for learning. They had negative views of effort, believing that having to work hard at something was a sign of low ability. They thought that a person with talent or intelligence did not need to work hard to do well. Attributing a bad grade to their own lack of ability, those with a fixed mind-set said that they would study less in the future, try never to take that subject again and consider cheating on future tests.

A fixed mind-set is just one end of the continuum (Dweck never states it is a continuum, but most things tend not to actually exist as a true dichotomy, so I am assuming it is a continuum.). On the other end is the growth mind-set.

Those with a growth mind-set believe that intelligence is not fixed but “malleable”. Through hard work, practice, dedication, and making mistakes and learning from them mastery of some subject or skills comes about. Dweck states that these individuals find learning, not grades, to be the goal. While I think that few fixed mind-set people would disagree with this assumption, and most would also not state they don’t work hard, the real difference between fixed and growth mind-sets lies more in reaction rather than action: “Confronted by a setback such as a disappointing test grade, students with a growth mind-set said they would study harder or try a different strategy for mastering the material.” A typical fixed mind-set individual would sooner give up or state that they just aren’t talented in that area (or maybe any area if they have an overall negative view of their intelligence).

This image should make the distinctions even more salient:

Without evidence, this continuum seems like a wild theory right out of some new age motivational seminar, or something NeuroBollocks would tweet about. So, is there any evidence to this type of behavioral psychology (also called positive psychology)?

As it turns out, there is.

  • Carol Dweck herself has over 20 years of research and experimentation in this area. Look at her faculty page at Stanford and the list of articles on Google Scholar.
  • There is a neuropsychological article from 2006 that found that, after a test of general knowledge, growth mind-set individuals focus on understanding the answers they got wrong while fixed mind-set individuals focus more on their emotional responses. In other words, the brain imaging technology showed that the growth minded paid more attention to the corrective feedback.
    • Mangels, J. A., Butterfield, B., Lamb, J., Good, C. D., & Dweck, C. S. (2006). Why do beliefs about intelligence influence learning success? A social cognitive neuroscience model. Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience (SCAN).
  • A 2010 article found that beliefs about willpower are similar to beliefs about intelligence, and that manipulating beliefs can have positive effects.
    • Job, V., Dweck, C. S., & Walton, G. M. (2010). Ego depletion—Is it all in your head? Implicit theories about willpower affect self-regulation. Psychological science, 21. [link]
  • Building off the 2006 article mentioned above, a 2011 article looked at the neural mechanisms behind the fixed and growth mind-sets by monitoring brain responses to errors (noticing or seeing the error, and then responding to the error). The researchers found that the greatest error-related brain activity was associated with the growth mind-set. They found that growth mindedness may lead to increased learning because of the increase in neurological error awareness.
    • Moser, J. S., Schroder, H. S., Heeter, C., Moran, T. P., & Lee, Y. H. (2011). Mind Your Errors Evidence for a Neural Mechanism Linking Growth Mind-Set to Adaptive Posterror Adjustments. Psychological Science, 22. [link]
  • Boaler did a lit review of classroom-based experiments on ability grouping and mathematics. Ability grouping, she concluded, is very damaging, as it reinforces the fixed mind-set. She also found that teacher’s beliefs in whether students’ abilities could grow also have an effect on the students.
    • Boaler, J. (2013, March). Ability and Mathematics: the mindset revolution that is reshaping education. In FORUM (Vol. 55, No. 1, pp. 143-152). Symposium Journals. [link]

This last article is interesting because it highlights a well researched expectancy effect that has come to be called the Pygmalion Effect, which Steve Draper, a psychologist at the University of Glasgow, explains as: “if teachers were led to expect enhanced performance from some children then they did indeed show that enhancement”.

I think we’ve known, or at least suspected, for a while that both student and teacher beliefs effect outcomes in the classroom. What I’ve briefly described above simply names it and provides various types of evidence for it. So, the question you must be asking or perhaps already answering is: what does this have to do with language learning?

The pedagogical implications and applications of the growth mind-set are only obvious but have already been well written about. Here are two good articles from Edudemic and  Edutopia. However, in terms of language learning, little has been written (that I could find).

Once you are aware of the growth mind-set and its positive effects, its important to try to instill this in yourself and your students. Mercer recommends developing a “a positive
learning culture, which engenders the beliefs underlying such a mindset”. So, holding explicit discussions with students and being more progress focused are two important ideas to keep in mind. She says that:

If they do not believe in their own potential to improve, advance, and develop as linguists, then no matter how engaging, motivating, or pedagogically sound our materials and classroom procedures are, we may fail to reach and motivate all our learners.

Practically speaking, this means not only discussing beliefs about intelligence, aptitude and ability but also showing students how to respond to mistakes or even failure. Without an appropriate response plan, students will not likely keep their growth mindsets. Errors are wonderful opportunities but only insomuch as students and teachers know how to exploit them. Teachers and students should collect errors, analyze errors, and understand the processes behind why they were made. Simple correction will not do anyone’s learning justice.

Teacher feedback, is also very important for students. It is recommended that praise focus on the process of learning, not on intelligence or level. We must be careful as to whether or not our feedback has an implicit message about mind-sets. While corrective feedback at the cognitive level (i.e. linguistic level) is effective, if it is combined with a more metacognitive growth mind-set approach, the effects might be even greater.

Where grades are concerned, it’s important for students to understand grades as representing their current level, not their innate ability or intelligence. If students see grades as indicators of progress (i.e. formative assessment) instead of comments on their ability, then this will foster the growth mind-set. Of course, it’s hard to emotionally recover from receiving an “F”, but this provides a great opportunity for facing errors and finding out what caused failure and why. Only a fixed mind-set individual would see an “F” as an end-all and be-all statement about their brain. The Mindset Works website has a great blog post on grading that is worth a read.


There are still a lot of questions to be answered regarding growth mind-sets, especially for language learning. First, there has been no experimental or quasi-experimental, empirical, or qualitative study on how it might affect language learning, and how it might even play a role in things such as plateauing or fossilization.

Learning styles enjoyed quite a run of popularity, finding “proof” in a number of different qualitative and quantitative studies before it mostly came to be seen as a neuro-fad that had no realistic application or underlying existence. Likewise, there has been plenty of “proof” about the growth mind-set, but is it possible that it may go the way of learning styles? Will it turn out to be mere pseudo-science? Psychologists, cognitive scientists, and neuroscientists will have to weigh in on this one. But, I must say, whereas delegating learners to “styles” and telling them to focus on highly specific (and at times odd, I mean, olfactory styles?) ways to learn can be damaging, there is likely no negative outcome to having a positive outlook on learning.

I’d venture to say that changing myself from a fixed mind-set to a growth mind-set is going to take some very conscious (pun intended) effort, but I can already feel the effects of it in, if not helping me learn more, having a more positive outlook on my future successes and failures. To leave you with words popularly attributed to Henry Ford: “Whether you think you can or think you can’t—you are right.”