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Study Finds that a Growth Mindset Bolsters Interest in Math and Science for Liberal Arts Students

Study Finds that a Growth Mindset Bolsters Interest in Math and Science for Liberal Arts Students

A new study finds that promoting a growth mindset among liberal arts undergraduates sparks higher interest and performance in mathematics and science.

A new study by researchers at Yale and Stanford reveals that promoting a growth mindset among liberal arts undergraduates sparks higher interest and performance in mathematics and science.

Growth Mindset versus Fixed Mindset

Advising students to ‘discover’ their passion can sometimes inadvertently stifle their curiosity and deter them from exploring unfamiliar disciplines or developing new skills.

A recent study by Yale-NUS College and Stanford University revealed that instilling a growth mindset in undergraduates led to increased interest and enhanced grades in mandatory Mathematics and Science courses.

The Power of a Growth Mindset in Education

Researchers at Yale-NUS and Stanford built on previous studies to design an intervention that depicted interests as malleable, not fixed, and tested its effect on liberal arts students.

Those students—who usually gravitate towards arts, humanities, and social sciences—were asked to participate in an online activity during orientation.

The exercise led to more profound engagement in areas outside of their primary academic interests, and by the end of the academic year, higher grades and interest in compulsory Math and Science courses.

Delving into the Methodology

The team conducted two studies – a pilot with first-year undergraduates at a small liberal arts college and a full study with incoming students in the school of arts and social sciences of a large university.

The first involved a pilot at a small liberal arts college with 175 participants and a larger randomized, controlled field experiment with 580 first-year undergraduates from the school of arts and social sciences of a large university.

The students were asked to complete a 30-minute online module before starting school that promoted the concept of a growth mindset, juxtaposed with the conventional notion of fixed interests.

The results were then observed and recorded at the end of their first and second semesters.

This brief yet impactful intervention prompted students to engage more deeply in areas outside their immediate academic preferences.

In the larger university setting, students displayed proficiency in mathematics and science but had varying interest levels in these fields.

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The researchers found a noticeable difference between students who received the growth-mindset intervention and those who did not.

Students who were part of the intervention not only showed increased interest but also achieved higher grades in their compulsory math and science courses.

To measure the outcomes, the researchers relied on self-reported interest levels, course selections, and students’ final grades.

At the end of the academic year, students in the growth-mindset group demonstrated a significant increase in interest and performance in mathematics and science.

This was notably observed among students who did not initially identify as a “math and science person,” a clear testament to the transformative power of the growth mindset intervention.

Notably, the researchers also found that the growth-mindset group students who achieved higher grades in their math and science courses did so precisely because they developed more interest in these subjects.

This learning, rooted in curiosity and engagement, tends to be more lasting and integrate more readily with their other interests.

The study thus offers significant insights into how educational systems and structures can cultivate an environment that nurtures a growth mindset, leading to a more holistic and inclusive approach to learning.

The Impact on Students

The study also noted that the students who achieved higher grades in their Math and Science courses did so because they developed more interest in their coursework, proving that learning rooted in interest is more enduring and more likely to be integrated with other interests.

This finding emphasizes the transformative potential of a growth mindset in educational environments.

The Future of Interdisciplinary Learning

The broader implication of this study is the value it brings to the Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) areas in colleges.

By fostering a growth mindset among students and encouraging them to view their interests as developable, colleges can enhance students’ achievements in these disciplines, encouraging a holistic approach to learning and exploration.

This stands in contrast to the prevalent view of interests as innately fixed, fostering an academic environment that champions growth and interdisciplinary scholarship.

As interdisciplinary education gains traction worldwide, eliminating the psychological barrier that treats interests as fixed could stimulate new interests among students across all disciplines.

By promoting a culture of interest development and endorsing a growth mindset, we can encourage the new generation of engineers, scientists, and mathematicians to collaborate across diverse disciplines for more innovative outcomes.

  • Study Title: “A Growth-Theory-of-Interest Intervention Increases Interest in Math and Science Coursework Among Liberal Arts Undergraduates”
  • Authors: Paul A. O’Keefe, E. J. Horberg, Carol S. Dweck, Gregory M. Walton
  • Publication: Journal of Educational Psychology
  • Publication Date: June 6, 2023
  • DOI: https://doi.org/10.1037/edu0000798
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