– Jeanne M. Slattery
Like you, I want my students to succeed. I want my students to see themselves as capable of personal, academic, and professional success.
Unfortunately, many of our students see themselves as incapable of success: “I can’t write,” “I’m not good at math,” “I can’t go to graduate school.” Dweck (2006) refers to this style of thinking as fixed mindset (“I can’t change”). These statements easily become self-fulfilling prophecies that limit students’ ability to learn, their ability to succeed.
I want my students to see themselves as able to grow and change, to learn to write better, and to further develop their mathematical skills. I believe – and Dweck (2006) concurs – that we can help our students develop a growth mindset (their belief that they can grow and change) – if we know how.
Why would we want to do this? I want my students to own their own learning, become life-long learners, be self-directed, and think outside the box. When we develop their ability to own their own learning and to grow, we develop the kind of students we want to see.
Ten strategies for building growth mindset
How can we do this? Dweck (2006) describes a number of different strategies for building growth mindset, including talking about brain plasticity and neural development, focusing on behavior rather than traits (e.g., “You really worked hard on this,” rather than “You’re so smart!”), and challenging our students’ permanent attributions about their behavior (e.g., “You’re not a good writer – yet“).
With my students, I focus on behavior and performance and regularly challenge my students’ self-perceptions – and often self-fulfilling prophecies – that they are unable to perform a task. These are some of the other things that I do, including the actual assignments or tools that I use.
Challenge students’ beliefs that they cannot do better on later exams. My students often do poorly on their first exam – perhaps due to failures to read the text, study for the exam, or study effectively. Because I want my students to succeed rather than perceive themselves as “bad in psychology,” I show them Figure 1, which describes average performance on exams across semesters (this is for Psychology of Personal Growth). I emphasize that, on the whole, students do get better as the term progresses.
Teach students about mindset. When I return my students’ first exams, I talk explicitly about mindset and why it matters. I talk about the impact of mindset using this table, which I display one row at a time. See Figure 2.
- Mindset isn’t just a conversation for one day. I talk about mindset all semester, both as I talk about class content and as I respond to student concerns. If I want my students to believe me, I have to be genuine and consistent as I talk about mindset (or anything else). They have to believe that I believe they can grow and do better.
Ask students to reflect on their study and test-taking behaviors. I ask students to reflect in several ways, but the first way that I do this is with an assignment due a week after their first exam, where they are asked to compare their study habits to descriptions of effective habits. See Figure 3. These resources include Chew’s videos (this is the first of five), a section of Dweck’s (2006) book, and an article by Mark Mitchell that helps students decode where they ran into problems on an exam.
- Ask students to specifically consider their study behaviors. McGuire (2015) describes a number of behaviors associated with academic success. This semester I’m asking my students to reflect on their exams and behaviors relative to theories of effective study. I’ve asked them to complete this survey of their strategies for preparing for their first exam. (Feel free to crib this or anything else I have here.)
- Describe and reinforce improvements in behavior. Their second exam is no easier than their first, but when students better do better, I tell them. In my Abnormal Psychology class this summer, after their second exam, I told them that they had performed 8% better on average than on the first exam, with 86% of the class doing better.
Explicitly teach students how to learn more effectively. This semester, I am spending a few minutes at the beginning of many classes describing study tips that can make them learn more effectively and communicate well what they learn. See Figure 4. It does not need to be time consuming to help students learn well. In fact, McGuire (2015) suggests that this might be accomplished in one class period. I plan to distribute this conversation over the course of the semester.
- Write syllabi to help students become successful. I include information on where their grades come from and what they can do to be successful including, in some cases, the research supporting my recommendations: “You can use your computer to take notes on the PowerPoint, but be aware that the research suggests that we learn best when taking handwritten notes (Mueller & Oppenheimer, 2014). People are also more likely to be tempted to multitask when their computers are open – which few people do successfully.” (Abnormal Psychology, Fall 2017)
- Ask students to reflect on how they’ve changed. In many courses, I ask students to reflect on how they’ve changed across time. In Senior Seminar, our department’s capstone, I ask my students to come to the first class of the semester with an assignment from early in their college career – something they performed well on, but something they would now complete more successfully. I am trying to get my students to think about how they have grown and changed – in order to help them grow and change as they transition into graduate schools and careers.
Include inspirational quotes and models illustrating growth mindset. Figure 5 is from Senior Seminar and shows my description of their first assignment – but also includes a quote from Cornel West: “If you graduate the same as when you entered, you wasted someone’s money.” In addition, I include quotes from Kay Redfield Jamison and John Nash, respectively, a major researcher on affective disorders, herself diagnosed with bipolar disorder, and a Nobel laureate, diagnosed with schizophrenia. Finally, I talk about my own learning process. It may look easy now, but it hasn’t always. (Although I am a strong teacher now, when I first started teaching, I wrote out my lectures – even my jokes!)
I have no systematic evidence that these strategies work better than others, although McGuire (2015) describes research on similar interventions. Generally, students do perform better across the semester and stay in my course rather than withdrawing.
Are there other explanations for their behavior? Quite possibly. However, if your students aren’t already performing better across exams over the course of the semester, then consider adopting these strategies.
And, if as a university we want to build growth mindset among our students most effectively, we all need to adopt this attitude: when our students say, “I can’t learn ____________ ,” we can chime – “YET!!!”
Dweck, D. S. (2006). Mindset: The new psychology of success. New York, NY: Ballantine Books.
McGuire, S. Y. (2015). Teach students how to learn: Strategies you can incorporate into any course to improve student metacognition, study skills, and motivation. Sterling, VA: Stylus.
Jeanne M. Slattery is a professor of psychology at Clarion University. She loves teaching and learning and describes herself as a learner-centered teacher. She has written three books: Trauma, meaning, and spirituality: Translating research into clinical practice; Counseling diverse clients: Bringing context into therapy; and Empathic counseling: Meaning, context, ethics, and skill. She can be contacted at email@example.com