Students’ beliefs about their intelligence and how their brains work can play a big role in how they approach challenges. But can encouraging students to believe in their ability to learn actually improve their learning ability? According to growth mindset researchers — and a growing body of research — the answer is yes.
The concept of a growth mindset is well-known in education circles, thanks to the work of Carol Dweck, and is defined as the belief that intelligence can be developed. Those with a growth mindset believe that they can become smarter through hard work, the use of effective strategies, and help from others when needed. In contrast, those with a fixed mindset believe that their skills and intelligence are a fixed trait.
Nurturing a growth mindset in students, however, requires practice and reinforcement. Here are five strategies to help struggling students develop a growth mindset.
5 Strategies to Nurture a Growth Mindset in Students
It can be especially hard for students to stick with something and not give up, particularly if they’re struggling. Check out these strategies to foster a growth mindset in your students across math, English language arts, science, social studies, and the arts.
1. Remove factors that may cause math anxiety.
Math is the subject of nightmares for many students, but the reason why might be attributed to a matter of mindset. Fear of failure sometimes prevents students from thinking outside the box or trying new ways of solving math problems. “It’s easy for students to get frustrated in math, especially if they struggled in the past,” says To the Square Inch. “Facilitating a growth mindset helps students overcome difficulties, see success in math, and work through their math anxiety.”
One of the ways to alleviate math anxiety can be to take away the expectation that students will only be graded if they solve the problem. Instead, focus on the process — and their persistence — by giving them a grade for the effort they put into solving the problem.
2. Confer with students about their process after a reading lesson.
For students who are trying and failing to read fluently, it’s easy to lose the stamina and stick-to-it attitude that’s characteristic of a growth mindset. This may be because they experience the hard part, but don’t see the growth part.
After a lesson, invite students to reflect on what was difficult about the lesson or the content, and how they faced that difficulty. Reminding students that struggling is part of learning can help them tap into those reserves the next time they feel themselves losing stamina while reading. It can also help them see how they are progressing and growing, despite the challenges they’re facing. Questions like these help focus the discussion around the learning process:
- What was the most challenging part of that lesson?
- What did you do to face that challenge?
- How did you feel at first? How do you feel now?
- Did any previous challenges help you with this one?
- What can you take away from this challenge to help you next time?
3. Encourage students to think like a scientist or engineer.
Some of history’s most successful scientists and engineers — like Thomas Edison and Albert Einstein — have stayed optimistic, open-minded, and dedicated to improvement, even in the face of failure. “Students who are successful with STEM are the ones that understand how to use their mistakes to improve,” says Carly And Adam. This is why they believe it’s important for STEM educators to focus on the “improve” and “alter” phases of the scientific and engineering process. “Students need to know that they will not always get it right on their first try, and even if they are able to create a successful prototype there is always room for improvement.”
Science class can also be the ideal pathway to introduce students to the neuroscience behind a growth mindset. Teaching students the concept of neuroplasticity — or, the ability of the brain to change continuously throughout an individual’s life — can help turn an “I can’t” attitude into an “I can.” And it works: multiple studies have found that students who are part of programs that teach about the science of the brain ultimately earn more course credits, get higher grades, and get higher standardized test scores.
4. Teach students about “famous failures” in history.
The study of history can provide a natural context for lessons on growth mindset. Often, social studies lessons center around individuals, groups, or nations overcoming challenges and being resilient in the face of struggle, which provides struggling students with real-life examples of what can be achieved in the face of adversity.
Students might be shocked to learn that Michael Jordan did not make it onto his high school baseball team or that Steve Jobs was once fired from Apple. Stories like this can teach students about mitigating mistakes, and overcoming adversity, all of which are key elements of a growth mindset. By celebrating the journeys and perseverance of famous failures, educators can emphasize that it’s the process, not the product, that counts.
5. Define artistic success in terms of practice and dedication, not talent.
For students of the arts, in particular, learning comes from dedicated practice, taking risks, making mistakes, and applying feedback — all of which are critical to developing a growth mindset. In fact, research done by University of Pennsylvania psychologist Angela Duckworth and author of Grit shows that sustained involvement in an extracurricular activity during high school is one of the most beneficial factors in students’ successful transition to various forms of higher education and work. This makes educators in the arts uniquely positioned to teach students about the concepts of grit and a growth mindset.
For many students of the arts, practice is the key to sustained growth and development. Musicians and dancers with a growth mindset, for instance, believe that their skills are developed through devotion to routine training — whereas those with a fixed mindset believe those skills are due to innate talent. Educators should strive to create a supportive environment that emphasizes effort, practice, and determination over talent. For instance, every time a struggling student says “I can’t,” respond with the word “yet.” This implies that there is a path to understanding and growth, so long as they are willing to make the effort.
This blog, originally published in 2019, has been updated for 2022.