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A Growth Mindset Helps Girls Learn Math

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Scan of a brain


In math and science, women and girls trail behind their male peers. 


Teaching girls that intelligence is a skill they can develop over time, rather than a trait they are born with, helps them earn higher grades in math.


Catherine Good, a social psychologist and math educator, and her colleagues recruited 138 seventh graders in a rural Texas school district. Each middle-schooler was assigned a college student computer skills mentor.

Good’s research team then randomly assigned the seventh graders to learn one of four educational messages:

In the growth mindset condition, the mentors taught participants that intelligence is not like a talent they are born with or not, but like a muscle they can grow through hard work. To drive home this message, the mentors demonstrated how neurons in the brain grow new connections throughout people’s lives.

In the new view of difficulty condition, mentors taught that many students have a hard time adjusting to junior high school, but then bounce back. They also warned that many students mistakenly blame themselves for their academic struggles, when they should instead blame the challenges everyone faces in a new school.

In the combined message condition, mentors taught students both that they can grow their intelligence and that they should attribute their academic difficulties to the challenges inherent to middle school, rather than to their own shortcomings.

In the control condition, students learned about the perils of drug use.

At the end of the year, the researchers found that boys and girls in the intervention conditions scored equally well on standardized math tests, while girls in the control condition lagged behind their male classmates. In other words, the growth mindset and new view of difficulty interventions both closed the math achievement gap between boys and girls. In addition, both boys and girls benefited from these interventions, but girls’ scores improved the most.

Why This Works

Learning that people can become smarter with effort and that setbacks in middle school arise from temporary circumstances helps kids overcome their fear of failure. They can then focus on school, learn more, and earn better test scores. 

When This Works Best

Growth mindset interventions work best when students think they struggle with school because they lack intelligence, and when they believe intelligence is inborn and fixed, rather than cultivated and malleable. 

Original Study

Good, C., Aronson, J., & Inzlicht, M. (2003). Improving adolescents' standardized test performance: An intervention to reduce the effects of stereotype threat. Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology, 24(6), 645-662.

See Also

Aronson, J., Fried, C. B., & Good, C. (2002). Reducing the effects of stereotype threat on African American college students by shaping theories of intelligence. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 38(2), 113-125.

Blackwell, L. S., Trzesniewski, K. H., & Dweck, C. S. (2007). Implicit theories of intelligence predict achievement across an adolescent transition: A longitudinal study and an intervention. Child Development, 78 (1), 246-263.

Steele, C. M., & Aronson, J. (1995). Stereotype threat and the intellectual test performance of African Americans. Journal of Personality and Social psychology, 69(5), 797.

Steele, C. M. (1997). A threat in the air: How stereotypes shape intellectual identity and performance. American Psychologist, 52(6), 613-629.

Related Topics

Education Parenting