A Growth Mindset Promotes Persistence in STEM

May 30, 2011

Why So Few? Chapter 2Each month this year, AAUW is teaming up with Nature Publishing Group, one of the world’s leading science publishers, to put together an online forum on women in science. The AAUW posts highlight findings from our 2010 research report, Why So Few? Women in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics, now in its third printing.

Achievement is one thing, but persistence is another. As we’ve seen, girls and women are achieving at the same levels as boys and men in math and science by many measures, yet women are not persisting to the same degree in many science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields. Ongoing research by Stanford University psychologist Carol Dweck and her colleagues has shown that a growth mindset promotes not only higher achievement but increased persistence in STEM fields as well.

In one study, Dweck and her colleagues followed several hundred women at an elite university through a semester of a calculus class. Women who reported that their classrooms communicated a fixed mindset where negative stereotypes were widespread showed an eroding sense that they belonged in math during the semester, and they were less likely to express a desire to take math in the future. Women who said that their classrooms promoted a growth mindset were less susceptible to the negative effects of stereotypes, and they were more likely to intend to continue to take math in the future. At the beginning of the semester, no difference was seen in interest, excitement, sense of belonging, or intention to continue in math, but by the end of the study, girls who were continually exposed to the fixed-mindset message along with the stereotype that girls don’t do well in math lost interest. A growth-mindset environment can help cultivate and maintain girls’ interest in STEM fields.

Now, you may be thinking, “How much difference can a growth mindset make? Aren’t some people just born with more ability than others?” While Dweck does not deny that there can be “talent differences” among students, she reminds us of the difficulty of measuring individual potential. “I don’t know how much of talent – even among prodigies – comes from the fact that a person is born with an ability versus the fact that he or she is fascinated with something and passionate about it and does it all the time. I’m not saying anyone can do anything, but I am saying that we don’t know where talent comes from, and we don’t know who’s capable of what.”

Quite an empowering message.

By:   |   May 30, 2011


  1. Thea Iberall says:

    I am wondering what these women were doing around the age of seven in the second grade. What is the correlation to the drop out rate and their interest and encouragement regarding math? There is growing anecdotal data suggesting people develop their vocational interests quite early. And if parents and teachers expose kids to math and science more in a positive way, then this wouldn’t happen in college. These mindsets start a lot earlier than college.

  2. […] can learn rather than something you are either good at or not. Students who believe they can learn make far more progress than those who believe they are forever defined by their skills in that moment. On average, women […]

Join the Conversation

You must be logged in to post a comment.