Teaching With a Growth Mindset

What is it?

Students often are taught to believe that their talents or abilities are fixed, and that they possess certain areas to which they have a natural capacity and others where they may not. Students who believe this can become discouraged when they confront challenges or when they do not perform well. They believe they will always be a failure in that specific area due to their limited ability. However, when students are taught that these same abilities are not fixed, they become motivated to better themselves while exerting more effort to succeed. Teaching students in this way is the idea of a growth mindset, where individuals believe their ability and talents can improve over time with hard work and effort. By fostering a growth mindset, students are taught to embrace challenges with open arms, and failure is viewed a learning experience. Effort is used as a tool to gain knowledge (Blazer, 2011). Encouraging students to try hard, along with letting them know they have what it takes to improve and develop in their academics helps them to believe in themselves and succeed in the classroom. 

How does it work?

Before attempting to teach students with a growth mindset, it is important that educators also embrace a growth mindset. Carol Dweck suggests educators begin by listening to the voices inside their heads. Do these voices categorize or evaluate students based on their abilities? If so, try to ask “What can I do to unleash this student’s motivation? What does the student not understand that is preventing them from learning?” Answer those questions, and act on them. Educators should develop a growth mindset about their own teaching abilities. If they are unsure of how to truly unlock a student’s potential, they should consult other educators, who might have suggestions or advice on how to tackle this challenge. Teaching is a learning experience for the educator, and facing challenges head on while learning from them further develops their own personal skills (Educational Horizons, 2012-2013).

When fostering a growth mindset, Dweck stresses the nature of feedback given to student. In order to build self-esteem and encourage students, many teachers praise them for their intelligence. However, this type of feedback has been shown to develop a fixed mindset in students, whereas if teachers give students positive feedback on their hard work and the process they’ve worked through, a growth mindset develops. Encourage students to challenge themselves and persist through their struggles, as they can be effective learning experiences. Let students know that hard work and taking risks is admired.

In order to foster the development of a growth mindset among students, Blazer (2011) suggests:

  • Emphasizing effort and progress over final outcomes: focus on students’ improvement, rather than their success or failure
  • Encourage in-depth learning: emphasize that students who take longer to learn can ultimately understand things at a deeper level
  • Create a growth mindset culture: students need to feel like their teachers’ goal is to help them learn, not to judge them based on their intelligence. Taking on challenges, exerting effort, and surmounting obstacles is valued more than natural or innate talent.
  • Praise students for their effort, not their intellect: feedback that focuses on students’ effort promotes the idea that students have the ability to continue learning. Studies show that students who are praised for their intelligence lose confidence in their ability and enjoyment of tasks as soon as they struggle, whereas students praised for their effort stay confident and eager.
  • Avoid labeling students: educators often categorize or label students, such as “smart students” or “slow students”, but these terms negatively affect students’ mindsets
  • Conduct interventions to develop growth mindsets: teach students that intelligence is expandable, and that their brains are like any other muscle that can be strengthened with use and hard work
  • Evaluate students based on their growth: when a student says they can’t do something or aren’t good at something, add the word “yet” to convey their ability is fluid

Dweck (2010a) and Moss (2008) recommend the following exercises to encourage a growth mindset:

  • Encourage students to develop their knowledge of an individual topic or skill. This implies that ability is not fixed.
  • Ask students to think about a friend that has changed the most over the years. This activity has proven to instill the belief that human are malleable.
  • Convey phrases that highlight the capacity to change such as, “It’s never too late to learn” or “Experience is the best teacher”.
  • Include material on geniuses or individuals who have made significant contributions to their fields, emphasizing their hard work and effort.

(as cited in Blazer, 2011). 

Who is doing it?

Educators at all levels are adopting this teaching and learning technique. By beginning in grade school, students learn to think with a growth mindset early on, which helps them believe they can succeed from an early age. As a result, these students have more confidence in their work ethic and put forth more effort throughout their educational career.

College is an important time to reinforce or instill this mindset in students, as many students are leaving behind their main support system when they come to school. Allowing students to realize their potential and getting them to see how they can reach their goals can be done using a growth mindset teaching approach. Students want to be reassured that they can succeed, despite difficulties and obstacles they may encounter.

Educators can also use growth mindsets for their own learning. As mentioned above, it is easier to teach a growth mindset when the individual doing the teaching already thinks with a growth mindset. It is also easier for educators to encourage and motivate the students if they view students in this way. Instead of them being doomed to fail, professors can tweak and adjust lesson plans for students that need the extra support because they truly care about student success.

Why is it significant?

When educators develop growth mindsets, an entire educational community using similar teaching techniques is created. As a result, students have a large group of models and supporters, encouraging them to learn and develop. Students want to feel as if their institution truly cares about their success, according to Dweck (As cited in Blad, 2016). Many students come to college without a strong support system, so in order for them to be successful they need to feel supported, and like someone believes in them.

Research shows that students with growth mindsets outperformed their fixed minded classmates, and had overall increases in their achievement levels (Atwood, 2010; Dweck, 2010b; Cury et al. 2008, Blackwell et al. 2007, as cited in Blazer, 2011). Having a growth mindset decreases or closes achievement gaps among classmates, and encourages students to face challenges and put forth effort. When faced with setbacks in school, students who have adopted a fixed mindset do not get discouraged. Instead, they adjust their studying habits or study more to see if this is more effective.

Students who believe in themselves and their potential are more likely to take on more difficult work, and succeed, compared to students with a fixed mindset. They then develop feelings of empowerment which positively influences their own learning.

Hochanadel and Finamore (2015) looked at the research of Angela Lee Duckworth, who looked at the effects of grit within a growth mindset. Grit was defined as “not just having resilience in the face of failure, but also having deep commitments that you remain loyal to over many years” (Perkins-Gough, 2013, as citied in Hochanadel & Finamore, 2015). Throughout Duckworth’s research, grit predicted students’ achievement in challenging situations. When educators teach students to persevere, they better develop a growth mindset and grit. 

What are the downsides?

Carol Dweck (2016) found there was a phenomenon occurring among some educators that thought they were teaching with a growth mindset, called the false growth mindset. This happens when teachers believe they are practicing a growth mindset, however they are leaving out key details and for someone new to this concept, it can be an easy trap to fall into.

Teachers cannot be afraid to tell the truth, and make students aware of when they are not learning effectively. If a professor comes across a student that they feel is not learning effectively, they need to work with them to establish new strategies. If a student is putting forth effort, but not learning, it is not helpful to praise them on their effort alone if they are not learning. Make them aware their effort is appreciated, however the current technique needs to be revamped.

Occasionally, educators will give students the impression that they can do anything, which is often not realistic. When setting high standards for students, teachers need to help guide them in their journey to reach these goals, especially if these students have not yet acquired the necessary knowledge, skills, strategies, or resources.

Where is it going?

With increasing numbers of educators adopting a growth mindset, entire educational communities can be created, all teaching and learning with a growth mindset. Studies continue to show the increasing performance levels of students with growth mindsets due to their motivation to learn and to put forth effort. Students will become more confident in their abilities, and schools everywhere could experience higher graduation rates.

As more students adopt a growth mindset as well, institutions could begin to see more diverse campuses. For colleges who look at test scores as a means for admission, minority students with fixed mindsets might get overlooked. Research has found that African American and Latino students who have adopted a growth mindset had grades and test scores closer to those of white students. Also, for certain subjects or fields that tend to be male dominated, growth mindsets can help females believe that they are just as capable. Studies have shown that female students with growth mindsets improved math grades and test scores, to where they are similar to male students (Dweck, 2010b; Aronson, 2007; Good et al., 2003, as cited in Blazer, 2011).

What are the implications for teaching and learning?

A growth mindset is a teaching and learning experience for both educators and students. In order to effectively teach students to think with a growth mindset, educators first must learn to think with a growth mindset. By becoming aware of categorizing or labeling students, professors are now aware of those subconscious thoughts. If the focus is shifted towards tapping into those students’ potential, and learning how to let them shine and succeed, those educators now have a growth mindset by believing students’ ability can improve with effort. Professors with this teaching technique can now use this on the entire body of students when they notice someone struggling. It will be more feasible to think of a way to help these students improve, and get through various challenges.

Students have the opportunity to learn that their abilities are not fixed, and they can succeed if they are willing to put forth effort and persistence. This can have a drastic impact on their educational experience, as well as their careers because of how they handle struggles and challenges. They can learn to embrace difficulties by seeing them as learning experiences. Their self-confidence increases, as they feel more capable, making them more willing to learn. Creating a generation of learners with growth mindsets can result in future generations of more learners with growth mindsets. 

Want to learn more?

Mindset: A Primer Post 
Dr. Oliver Dreon, Associate Professor & Director for the Center for Academic Excellence

TED Talk The Key to Success? Grit
Angela Lee Duckworth, Psychologist

TED Talk The Power of believing that you can improve
Carol Dweck, Psychologist, Stanford University

Mindset: The New Psychology of Success
Carol Dweck, Psychologist, Stanford University (copy available through CAE)

Motivation & Encouragement Resources
CAE Reference Library


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         Retrieved April 7, 2016. 

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          intelligence influence their academic performance. Information Capsule. Volume
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Dweck, C., & Eaton, V. (2016, January 11). Recognizing and overcoming false growth mindset
         [Web log post]. Retrieved April 7, 2016. 

Heggart, K. (2015, February 3). Developing a growth mindset in teachers and staff [Web log
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Hochanadel, A., & Finamore, D. (2015). Fixed and growth mindset in education and how grit helps
         students persist in the face of adversity. Journal Of International Education Research,11(1),