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Putting Growth Mindset into Action — Labels without Limits!

By B. Fiona Hinds, Ed.D., Senior Advisor Equity and Transformation at Cognia

“Growth mindset” has become a familiar phrase and concept in the educational community over the past 20 years. Recent worldwide research findings provide a compelling position that further expands the importance of growth mindset and the positive relationship to student achievement, with notable positive impact for marginalized students.

Administration of the 2018 Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) included a questionnaire for 15-year-old students about beliefs, attitude, home life, school, and learning experiences in 78 countries. Analysis of the results of 600,000 student surveys indicated that students who present a growth mindset score higher than their peers with a fixed mindset. Growth mindset was also associated with having a greater impact on assessment gains in achievement and significantly influenced marginalized students characterized by gender, immigrants, and socioeconomic status (OECD 2021).

Providing students with encouraging language that describes their achievement levels supports a growth mindset and expands viewpoints for understanding that learning is an on-going process; and knowledge, skills and achievement can be improved (Claro, Paunesku, Dweck, 2016). Integrating a growth mindset approach in communicating with students and parents about learning is an immediate opportunity to support equity. In the United States, the Maryland State Department of Education (MSDE) is taking action by exploring the language used to describe achievement levels and applying growth-mindset to the language used to describe and encourage student learning.

"The positive connection between growth mindset and academic performance has especially strong impact on vulnerable populations related to economic status, race, immigration, and gender."

Growth Mindset

The primary researcher and pioneer in defining growth mindset, Carol Dweck (2007), describes students with a growth mindset as having a belief system that their talents and abilities are malleable and can be improved with effort. This is a contrast with a fixed mindset—students believe that their abilities and talents are determined traits; they have what they have, and it cannot be changed.

When students are encouraged to develop and make progress with their learning, they have a sense of hope and determination to improve; on the other hand, when students are provided with messaging that their learning is preset and inflexible, they accept the status of their learning without the possibility of improvement. Students with a growth mindset are more likely to be resilient, develop learning strategies, and achieve complex objectives; they are willing to try new learning strategies, capitalize on learning and experiences, and respond positively to feedback (Yeager and Dweck, 2012).

“Students with a growth mindset are more likely to be resilient, develop learning strategies, and achieve complex objectives.”

The belief that one’s intellectual abilities can be developed, referred to as a growth mindset (Dweck, 2008), is related to improved performance (Dweck, 2000; Claro, Paunesku & Dweck, 2016; Yeager et al., 2019). Growth mindset is associated with feelings of self-efficacy and student motivation—important factors in student learning (National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, 2018).

The positive connection between growth mindset and academic performance has especially strong impact on vulnerable populations related to economic status, race, immigration, and gender (Dweck & Yeager. 2019, Yeager & Dweck 2020). Learning about the malleability of intelligence has been shown to be particularly powerful in improving outcomes for racial and ethnic minority students (Blackwell, Trzesniewkski & Dweck, 2007).

Instilling a growth mindset is not just about praising effort, which can backfire and generate adverse effects. Rather, it implies that rewarding progress and the processes that lead to greater learning impact student performance. It is a process that requires continuous efforts from students and educators, parents, and guardians (Dweck 2016). Putting Growth Mindset into Action.

“The education community can take a stand to support a growth mindset by using language in communicating achievement results that supports students with understanding that they can improve and build on their learning.”

The education community can take a stand to support a growth mindset by using language in communicating achievement results that supports students with understanding that they can improve and build on their learning (Claro, Paunesku, Dweck, 2016). Labels act as social tools that shape and reinforce how people think and behave. When labels are created with an intentional focus on a growth mindset, there is ripple effect of impact on students, teachers, and parents. A growth mindset framework for the identification of labels for achievement levels can influence students’, parents’ and teachers’ mindset and approach to understanding the potential for progress and improvement in learning (O’Donnell, 2020).

Francis O’Donnell’s (2020) research takes a close look at the language of the achievement level labels in state accountability systems across the United States (including Maryland) and notes the effect of feelings of encouragement and motivation on students, particularly those students scoring in the lowest level who are disproportionately students of color. Included in O’Donnell’s research are responses from a previous study Dweck (2014) that explores the terms “yet” or “not yet” with students in Chicago, and student responses indicated that the term “yet” meant not a pass or fail, but that learning was in progress. Other student responses indicated that “yet” meant that “You can get betterand “You did not do well on the test, however you can grow.” These responses indicate that the language used to describe a level of achievement influences how students perceive their own learning as well as personal construct about their opportunity to improve. The achievement level language can be encouraging or discouraging O’Donnell (2020).

Cognia™ and the Maryland Department of Education (MSDE) are collaborating to study the effect of the language used to communicate assessment performance on students’ self-perception of achievement potential. This exploration will focus on how designing and selecting performance level labels that support the state’s belief in every child’s inherent value and ability to succeed. Specifically, MSDE and Cognia are partnering to explore changes to the language in the Individual Student Reports (ISRs) can produce a summative assessment report that students, parents, and teachers will find more encouraging, with special attention to the students who are performing below grade level or who are likely to have been negatively impacted by current ISR language.

This potential negative impact was identified by MSDE’s assessment and curriculum teams’ equity review of state summative reports. Using an equity toolkit rubric, the teams conducted an audit of the historic and current ISR language to identify recommendations to encourage growth mindset. MSDE determined that Maryland students, parents, and teachers would be the best stakeholders to evaluate more encouraging, alternative performance level labels through surveys and focus groups.

The resultant research approach prioritizes feedback from students, parents, and teachers, giving their voices the most weight to select language labels that are the most encouraging among several alternatives to the language currently used for each achievement level. The intent of the survey analysis is to identify language that provides feedback to students that would most significantly support growth mindset and student motivation. (Lyons, Johnson & Hinds, 2021). This is an immediate opportunity to promote a growth mindset for students, parents, and teachers.

The feedback from the survey and focus groups will provide insight into language choices that students find most encouraging, as well as whether students’ perception differs according to racial/ethnic background. Additionally, open-ended responses from students, teachers, and parents will provide an understanding of the achievement levels language related to the influences, perceptions, and possibilities for future achievement. This study represents an evidence-based step toward advancing equity in Maryland’s statewide assessment program.

A growth mindset is the belief that learning and achievement can be improved through effort, effective strategies and encouragement/support, as opposed to a fixed mindset that assumes that these qualities are already determined. The PISA findings are aligned with growth mindset theory and provide insight into understanding that students who present a growth mindset scored higher in reading, mathematics, and science than their peers with a fixed mindset. In addition, growth mindset has the greatest impact on marginalized/disadvantaged students including gender, socio-economic status, and immigrant students (OECD). The education community can take a stand to support a growth mindset by using concepts, strategies, and language in communicating descriptions about learning and achievement results with an emphasis that encourages students with understanding that they can improve their learning, skills, and knowledge.


B. Fiona Hinds, Ed.D., is Senior Advisor Equity and Transformation at Cognia. As an equity and social justice advocate with extensive experience in education management, equitable practices, and strategic planning. Her expertise includes the examination, development, and transformation of current assessment practices to create equitable systems that support diverse learners. Dr. Hinds was a school leader in a charter school system, serving as a principal, curriculum leader and teacher. A version of this article was first published in The Source.


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