How can educators help improve students’ potential and academic outcomes? One effective strategy is cultivating growth mindset—the belief that skills and abilities are not fixed traits determined at birth, but instead can be developed through effective strategies and practice.
Growth mindset shapes how you interpret failure and challenge and is associated with positive outcomes like enrolling in more difficult classes, getting better grades and feeling more confident you can succeed. Similar to other beliefs that shape motivation, such as sense of belonging and perceptions of task relevance, growth mindset is malleable. Students can change their beliefs about their capabilities and limitations, which in turn, can impact their motivation to learn.
Teachers, and the learning contexts they create, play an important role in student motivation and can be a meaningful agent for positive change. Here are four practical things teachers can do to help students develop growth mindset:
1. Use language that promotes key components of growth mindset.
Every message a teacher sends to a student influences that student’s beliefs about the nature of their intelligence. It is important for teachers to choose their words carefully and select language that promotes growth mindset, and avoid language that sends fixed messages about intelligence.
For example, when encouraging students after they experience difficulty, it is more effective to use phrases like “Struggling on this assignment doesn’t mean you can’t get it. It means you’re learning it. Let’s talk together about what you might try differently next time,” instead of, “Well, not everyone could get an A on that test. Just try to do better.” And when praising students after they experience success, it is better to say “You’re improving. If you use good strategies and keep practicing, you can stay on this path,” instead of “You’re really good at that,” “Practice makes perfect,” or “Keep trying hard.”
2. Choose activities, assessments and pedagogical practices that appropriately challenge students and promote a growth mindset.
Teachers have a plethora of practices and tools to select from, but they should be mindful to select ones that help students learn new methods to rise above challenge and believe in their ability to grow. This involves choosing tasks that challenge all students at an appropriate level given their prior experiences and current knowledge base, provide an opportunity to learn and improve, and reward them for employing new strategies or reaching out for help.
For example, teachers can step outside the norm by allowing students to request to retest or revise essays after their initial submission. These practices reframe challenge as an opportunity to grow by enabling students to learn from and correct their mistakes.
3. Frame struggle as an opportunity to grow.
Teachers should send students the message—through their words, activities and examples—that making mistakes is one of the best things students can do, as they provide an opportunity to grow and overcome challenges. Part of this involves giving students time and space to engage with challenge and even experience failure. While many teachers’ instinct is to jump in and support struggling students right away, some of the most powerful learning experiences can arise from students working their way through challenges.
For example, teachers might build prompts into their assignments where students reflect on the different approaches they used to answer a problem and what they learned from each attempt (both successful and unsuccessful). These practices help students reflect on lessons learned from trying different approaches and identifying strategies that were effective.
4. Reward deliberate strategy use.
Learning how to learn is incredibly important in growing intelligence. Teachers can reinforce good learning habits by acknowledging students when they exhibit good strategy use, such as seeking help from a peer or talking to classmates about strategies they used to be successful.
For example, teachers can design activities where classmates pair up to share approaches they used to solve a novel problem. These activities can help students reflect on what strategies were helpful for them and learn about other approaches used by others.
Check out this infographic from the Mindset Scholars Network for more examples of effective teacher practices.