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The 'Brain' in Growth Mindset: Does Teaching Students Neuroscience Help?

Teaching students the science of how their brains change over time can help them see intelligence as something they can develop, rather than innate and unchangeable, finds a new analysis of 10 separate studies online in the journal Trends in Neuroscience and Education.

Teaching students the concept of neuroplasticity—the ability of the brain to make new neural connections as a result of experience—is a common tactic in helping students develop a so-called "growth" rather than "fixed" mindset. But recent research has questioned how much students really understand or benefit from this approach. 

Researchers from the Montreal, Canada-based Laboratory for Research in Neuroeducation at the University of Montreal analyzed 10 high-quality experimental studies of growth mindset interventions on students from age 7 into adulthood that included instruction on neuroplasticity. They looked at measures of students' academic enjoyment, motivation, goals, and resilience after failure following participation in these mindset interventions.

They found that while on average, such interventions improved students' motivation, they particularly benefited students and subjects which prior studies have shown are at high risk of developing a fixed mindset. For example, black students at risk of "stereotype threat"—the fear that one will reinforce a negative stereotype of your student group—showed significantly higher increase in motivation and enjoyment of science after a neuroscience-based mindset program than did students who were not at risk of stereotype threat.

A subset of studies also measured brain activity in students with growth and fixed mindsets, and showed that students with a fixed mindset showed stronger reaction to negative feedback, which slowed their ability to process new questions after missing a question. "Neuroimaging results suggest that this type of intervention fosters attention and error-correction mechanisms, leading to better performance," the researchers concluded.

The effect of brain-based mindset interventions was also stronger in math, a content area in which prior studies have shown students are more likely to believe skill is innate rather than malleable. A growth mindset intervention based on neuroplasticity," the authors found, "seems to be mostly beneficial in terms of math achievement for at-risk students (low-achieving and economically disadvantaged students)."

The Canadian study contrasts with a separate meta-analysis published in May in the journal Psychological Science, in which researchers from Michigan State and Case Western Reserve universities found lackluster effects on typical students' grade point averages or SAT scores as a result of mindset interventions.

And the Canadian researchers cautioned that there has not been enough high-quality research on children from preschool and the earliest grades to determine whether brain-based mindset interventions—which could require more advanced science understanding—are effective with their age group.

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