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How to Encourage a Growth Mindset

A few weeks ago, I listened to a podcast titled How to Become Batman that discussed the expectations people place on each other and highlighted the story of Daniel Kish. Daniel is blind and he sees through echolocation. He rides a bike, is an avid hiker, and he travels internationally by himself. He attributes this to the expectations that were placed on him as a child. When Daniel was a year old his eyes were removed because he had retinoblastoma, a form of cancer. At that time his mother made a decision to raise him like a child who could see and placed very few restrictions on him due to his blindness. Daniel feels that if society, as a whole, had different expectations of what blindness meant more blind people would be able to see as he does.

illustration of a brain

photo from creative commons user Gwendal Uguen

As I was listening to this podcast, I began to think about the expectations I place on others, specifically in my work. I oversee the Supplemental Instruction program at DePaul. This program works to reduce the rate at which students withdraw from or receive a D or F in historically difficult courses. Do my expectations regarding academic success impact my students? Much of the current psychology research says, yes they do. Carol Dweck, a Stanford professor and leading researcher in social psychology has published numerous studies that investigate how a person’s mindset effects their expectations regarding their own and others’ performance. Her research concludes that people tend to have either a fixed mindset, those who tend to believe you cannot further develop intelligence, or a growth mindset, those who believe they have a high capacity for learning and that their skills can be developed. She has found that students who have a growth mindset tend to perform better than their peers who have a fixed mindset. Her research has also found that instructors’ mindset impacts student performance. An article co-authored by Dweck, It’s okay – Not everyone can be good at math, concludes that students are less motivated to improve their skills when they are taught by someone with a fixed mindset.

What Should We Do?

So, how do you foster a growth mindset? Dweck’s research consistently seems to tell us to be careful in how we offer feedback to our students. You can encourage a growth mindset in your students by praising them for their effort and not their intelligence. She argues this helps students feel they are in control of what they can learn. This can be done formally through how you assess your students’ work and informally in your conversations with them. For example, instead of saying “Wow! You finished that problem so quickly – you must be really smart!” say, “I am proud of you for not giving up, when you didn’t understand the concept at first.” Salman Khan, founder of Khan Academy wrote about he applies Dweck’s research to his conversations with his son in a blog post titled The Learning Myth: Why I’ll Never Tell My Son He’s Smart.

You can also help students focus on the process of learning through in class activities. An activity called K.W.L. (Know. What? Learned.) helps students activate prior knowledge and link new information to make connections with what is already known.

  • Ask the students to draw 3 columns and title them: What I Know; What I Want to know and What I Learned
  • Working as a whole group, or individually, students fill in the K and W columns relating to a particular topic
  • Towards the end of the lesson ask students to review their “Know” column to see if any information needs to be corrected; then see if there are any “What” questions left unanswered (these could be the focus of your next lesson); and finally complete the “Learned” column

Dweck further describes how intentional feedback can foster student success in her Tedx talk below.

The Assessment Certificate Program (ACP) and the Teaching and Learning Certificate Program (TLCP) are co-hosting Designing Rubrics, a workshop, which will highlight how staff and faculty can assess student learning through rubrics. Dr. Ranfen Li, a regional expert in the design and use of rubrics, will lead the workshop.

 Interested in Learning More?

The following websites highlight Dweck’s research and publications:


Mindset Works

I also recommend reading Is your Mind Set?, a post on the FITS blog in which Jan Costenbader, a DePaul faculty member, reflected on how he encourages a growth mindset in one of his courses.

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  1. Testing as a Tool for Student Success | DePaul Office for Teaching, Learning and Assessment - May 19, 2015

    […] recommend trying reflective techniques such as the Know. What? Learned. activity I described in this previous blog […]

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