In which I consider the relationship between AfL and Growth Mindset

One of the most oft-cited research projects in the AfL literature is Ruth Butler’s 1988 study on the effect of comment-only marking on learning gains:

‘Butler was interested in the type of feedback that students received on their written work. In a controlled experimental study, she set up three different ways of feedback to learners – marks, comments and a combination of marks and comments. The latter is the method by which most teachers provide feedback to their learners in the UK. The study showed that learning gains were greatest for the group given only comments, with the other two treatments showing no gains.’ [1]

What I didn’t realise, until I actually read Butler’s paper, is that the results of her study also provide strong evidence in support of the use of comment-only marking to promote a growth mindset amongst students. Butler doesn’t actually use the terms ‘fixed mindset’ and ‘growth mindset’ Instead, she refers to ‘task-involving’ and ‘ego-involving’ motivation and feedback: ‘Intrinsic, or task-involved, motivation is characterised by the concern to improve mastery vis-à-vis task demands and/or prior performance and should be maintained as long as the task is perceived as relevant to the ongoing development and assessment of individual mastery.’[2] There is, I would argue, a significant overlap with Dweck’s definition of a growth mindset student as ‘one whose primary goal is to expand their knowledge and their ways of thinking and investigating the world. They do not see grades as an end in themselves but as means to continue to grow.’ [3]

Meanwhile, with ego-involving motivation, ‘attention is focused on demonstrating high ability or masking low ability and there is self-esteem-based pressure to achieve positive and avoid negative outcomes.’ [4] Similarly, in Dweck’s terms, fixed mindset students are ones who believe that success in education is the result of natural ability. As a result, these students are more likely to avoid tasks that present any kind of challenge as it threatens their self-concept as someone who should find everything easy. Where they didn’t self-identify as “talented”, fixed mindset students are more likely to use work-avoidance strategies in order to circumvent the possibility of their receiving further negative feedback and, eventually, to persuade themselves that the work itself is of no intrinsic value. [5]

In Butler’s study, ‘it was hypothesised that normative grades would cause a shift from the initial task-involved orientation at pre-test to an ego-involved orientation in later sessions, not only when grades alone were provided, but also when these were given in conjunction with task-involving comments.’ Her results confirmed this hypothesis:

‘in both conditions initial interest was less predictive of interest on both later sessions than after comments. In addition, the results confirmed the predictions that immediate interest… would be maintained for high achievers and undermined for low achievers, and that… subsequent interest and performance on both tasks would be undermined at both levels of achievement. Thus task-involving feedback does seem to have different effects on both interest and performance than ego-involving feedback. In addition, while many teachers seem to feel that any negative effects of grades can be ameliorated by adding a personal comment, the above results suggest that this practice too will induce an ego-involved orientation. This suggestion was further supported by the finding that pupils did indeed tend to recall the grade rather than the comment.’ [6]

On finding that the benefits of comment-only feedback were less clear amongst high achieving students but most clear amongst low achieving students, Butler continues: ‘The reduced interest and performance of low achievers who anticipated further grades, given either with or without a comment, is hardly surprising in view of the considerable anecdotal and research evidence that competitive, ego-involving situations have more adverse effects on the learning and motivation of low than of high ability students.’ [7]

Butler’s study provides clear evidence that comment-only marking can indeed be used to develop a growth mindset. However, I had not previously made the connection between this and other research that shows how growth mindsets lead to continuous incremental learning gains, whereas fixed mindset students actually showed a slight decrease in grades over time. [8] In particular, what I had not realised before I read Butler’s study was the reciprocal nature of the relationship between AfL and growth mindset: comment-only marking (and other types of formative feedback) can be used to develop a growth mindset, and a growth mindset enables students to maximise the benefits of formative feedback.



[1] P. Black, C. Harrison, C. Lee, B. Marshall and D. Wiliam (2003) Assessment for Learning: Putting It Into Practice (Maidenhead, Open University Press), quote from p.43 (my emphasis)

[2] R. Butler (1988) ‘Enhancing and Undermining Intrinsic Motivation: The Effects of Task Involving and Ego Involving Evaluation on Interest and Performance’, in British Journal of Educational Psychology 58, 1-14, quote from p.2

[3] C. Dweck (2012) Mindset: How You Can Fulfil Your Potential [Kindle edition] (London, Constable & Robinson)

[4] Butler, ‘Enhancing and Undermining Intrinsic Motivation’, quote from p.2

[5] Dweck, Mindset

[6] Butler, ‘Enhancing and Undermining Intrinsic Motivation’, quote from p.11

[7] Butler, ‘Enhancing and Undermining Intrinsic Motivation’, quote from p.12

[8] Dweck (2008) ‘Mindsets and Math/Science Achievement’, (site accessed 23 June 2014)


About carljphillips

Geography teacher. PhD in cultural/historical geography (Nott'm., 2006). SF/F genre fiction fan. Liverpool FC supporter. Libertarian. Humanist. Etc. I blog about the theory and practice of Geography teaching, and teaching in general.
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2 Responses to In which I consider the relationship between AfL and Growth Mindset

  1. Pingback: In which I explain why Ofsted’s (alleged) policy on rewards and sanctions is wrong | Forwards, Not Backwards. Upwards, Not Forwards.

  2. Pingback: In which I review ‘Punished by Rewards’ by Alfie Kohn | Forwards, Not Backwards. Upwards, Not Forwards.

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