By Marla A. Sole
According to Carol Dweck (2008), there are two types of mindsets: a fixed mindset and a growth mindset. A fixed mindset is the belief that intelligence is innate and unalterable. A growth mindset is the belief that intelligence can be developed, and we can make gains by being persistent, trying new strategies, and reaching out for support when we need it. Students who have a fixed mindset exert little effort when faced with obstacles, since their belief is that intelligence is fixed and that effort and outreach will be futile. Students with growth mindsets welcome challenges, embrace opportunities to expand their abilities, and are resilient after setbacks.
Researchers have linked the development of a growth mindset with pedagogical practices, as this belief has the potential to help all students reach their full potential (Sole, 2019). Teachers committed to equity and wanting all students to excel can benefit by embedding practices that cultivate a growth mindset into their teaching repertoires, recognizing that all learning is a cognitive–social process. The following seven tips are designed to give teachers the tools to foster students’ development of a growth mindset.
- Believing Growth Can Occur
Changing ingrained beliefs can be challenging. At the beginning of the academic year, I introduce the idea of a growth mindset, sharing that both a star basketball player and a youngster who has never played the game can hone their athletic skills with practice, persistence, and pivoting as needed in response to feedback. Both experts and novices can follow the exact same path to become proficient and then refine their skills. Although they may make gains at different rates, both will improve.
- Debunking Negative Stereotypes
Many students accept without question negative stereotypes they’ve frequently heard about themselves based on their race, gender, socioeconomic status, disability status, or other factors. For example, gender or racial performance gaps in STEM fields may lead students to assume that women and minorities are naturally less talented in the natural sciences. If you’re committed to cultivating a growth mindset, you and your students need to discredit negative stereotypes that suggest that a group’s intelligence is limited. Remind students that performance gaps can result from a wide range of factors and that all students have the potential to advance in all areas.
- Seeking Support=Strength
It’s beneficial to remind students that seeking support is not a weakness, but a strength. Students should not shy away from challenges and, if they do not automatically find a solution to a mathematics problem or see how to effectively structure an essay, they are still making progress as they work. Missteps teach students valuable lessons for the future; however, when at an impasse, asking for input on ideas already considered or steps taken can be a valuable tool to help students make meaningful gains.
- Combining Beliefs With Behaviors
A growth mindset is not just a “can do” attitude. A growth mindset comprises beliefs accompanied by behaviors. A false growth mindset can emerge if the concept is simplified to thoughts focusing solely on attitude and effort as opposed to seeing the range of strategies that could then pay dividends. Fruitful learning experiences come from combining a positive attitude and effort with a willingness to explore alternative options and reach out for assistance when needed.
- Praising With Caution
Teachers eagerly anticipate the opportunity to celebrate the gains their students have made; however, when students’ intelligence is praised, they come to believe intelligence is innate and unchangeable (Dweck, 1999). To inspire students to remain resilient, educators should praise the effort exerted rather than students’ intelligence.
Changing a belief or a habit is never easy. Students can switch from feeling optimistic and eager to take on a new challenge to feeling pessimistic and defeated. To help prevent students reverting to a fixed mindset, teachers can remind students of recent challenges they took on, new skills they learned, and barriers they overcame. Developing an appreciation for the journey and knowledge gained can inspire students to not give up.
- Developing Grit Through Challenges
Set ambitious, attainable goals. If students are comfortable and can master the material easily, see if they can push themselves beyond the initial goal. The reward from mastering a new skill beyond one’s perceived limits is exciting. Additionally, embracing challenges develops grit, which is a valuable life skill.
Helping students develop a growth mindset will awaken the internal drive to make meaningful progress. The belief that, wherever each student is starting from, gains can be made by being resilient and open to trying new approaches, will ignite students’ enthusiasm for learning. With a growth mindset, students will receive tangible rewards by remaining engaged when faced with a challenge. This new attitude and the resulting behaviors can help all students reach their full potential.
This work was inspired by CUNY’s Mindset Fellows Program and the Mindset Course, which are supported by Strong Start to Finish/Education Commission of the States and their funders, and the City of New York. The opinions reflect those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the funding agency. I would like to thank Dr. Mari Watanabe-Rose, Ms. Dominique DiTommaso, CUNY’s Mindset Fellows, colleagues from University of Virginia Motivate Lab, and CUNY course participants for engaging and inspiring conversations about motivating students.
Dr. Sole is an Associate Professor of Mathematics at Guttman Community College, the City University of New York and one of CUNY’s Mindset Fellows. Her research interests include persistence in the mathematics pipeline, particularly of underrepresented populations; statistics education; and financial and quantitative literacy.
Dweck, C. S. (1999). Caution—Praise can be dangerous. American Educator, 23(1), 4–9.
Dweck, C. S. (2008). Mindset: The new psychology of success. Random House Digital.
Sole, M. A. (2019). Who can excel in mathematics? Mathematics Teacher. 111(6), 468-472.