Topic 8: Mindsets and Metacognition

What do I need to know?


  • Professor Carol Dweck and colleagues proposed that some students have a growth mindset, believing that abilities can change over time, while others have a fixed mindset, believing that abilities are stable and cannot change.
  • Research has shown that those with a growth mindset tend to show more positive learning behaviours, such as choosing challenging tasks and showing resilience after failure. This leads to higher attainment. Studies suggest that mindsets can be changed in the short term and in lab settings. Researchers are now investigating how growth mindset training can be delivered in a school setting, and if this has an effect on attainment.


  • Metacognition is the awareness of one’s own thought processes, and the ability to change them in order to complete a task. It is often described as thinking about thinking, and tends not to arise naturally without external instruction.
  • Metacognition can be thought of in terms of three phases applied to the task at hand: planning, monitoring, and evaluation. Within each phase, students can ask themselves questions to encourage metacognitive thinking.
    • During task planning, students might ask themselves what will be required, whether they have done anything similar previously, what they already know about the subject, and how they can achieve the goal. These questions reflect knowledge of the task, knowledge of the self, and knowledge of strategies.
    • During monitoring, which occurs during the task, students might question whether their strategy is helping them to reach their goal. They might ask if they are confident that they are doing well and if their pace is appropriate. These questions will help them to adapt their learning.
    • During the evaluation phase following the task, students might ask themselves how well they performed the task, if they achieved the goal, how it compared to previous similar tasks, and what they could have done better.
  • Studies show that teaching metacognitive strategies leads to moderately large improvements in school attainment. This means that students who are taught metacognitive strategies gain on average eight months more progress in a year compared to students who do not learn the strategies.
  • Preliminary results suggest that mindfulness, a type of meditation that aims to promote awareness of the current moment, may improve metacognitive ability.

What can I do in my classroom?

  • Expose students to a range of strategies and techniques for solving different problems, and reassure students that many different strategies may be equally effective for one task.
  • Ensure that each task has a clear goal for the student to work towards, which may be defined by student or teacher. This will help students to monitor whether or not they are on track.
  • Utilise the think-aloud approach: demonstrate a task in front of the class while clearly verbalising the questions above and describing each part of the process in sequence.
  • Provide feedback that raises awareness of the skills students used and how they used them, pointing out misconceptions as well as successful strategies.

Credit: Neuroscience for Teachers: Applying Research Evidence from Brain Science by Richard Churches, Eleanor Dommett and Ian Devonshire.

Where can I find out more?

  • Watch Professor Dweck’s TED talk on mindsets.
  • The Education Endowment Foundation summarise the results of their trials on metacognition and self-regulation on their online teaching and learning toolkit.

What should I be wary of?


  • Sometimes the concept of growth mindset is misconstrued. A growth mindset means believing that you can change your abilities. Sometimes people interpret this to mean that effort is the only thing that matters to learning. This is not the case. Effort is only one part of the puzzle. Getting support from others and wanting to improve are also important techniques people can use to change their abilities.
  • Having a growth mindset does not mean that you believe all individuals will achieve the same outcomes.
  • Given these misunderstandings surrounding mindsets, it is hard to know whether trials attempting to study mindset interventions are taking an approach that is consistent with Professor Dweck’s theory.
  • This means that at the moment, we don’t know whether or not attempts to foster a growth mindset benefit learning. However, a growth mindset does seem to be linked to behaviours which are linked to enhanced learning.
  • In order to find out whether teaching practices can lead to a growth mindset and in turn, improved performance, we will need more randomised control trials and meta-analyses. It will also be important to look closely at the methods and measured used, to see if they reflect Professor Dweck’s definition of growth mindset.
  • Read more about the promising but mixed evidence on growth mindsets in this piece on the Blog on Learning and Development (BOLD) by Annie Brookman-Byrne.