Teaching Growth Mindset in the Classroom

By Professor Daisy Zhang-Negrerie, Duke Kunshan University*

It was not until 10 years ago that I heard the term “growth mindset”. After learning about it, however, I came to discern that all I had known was a fixed mindset.

We live in a polarized world that pushes people to a fixed mindset, an attitude believing that our intelligence, creative ability, and personality are innate qualities, the quantity of which are fixed constants which we cannot change. Whether we hold this view or not, we are, nevertheless, guilty of endorsing the fixed mindset in one scenario or another—How often do we make remarks such as, “She’s gifted”; “He’s a genius”; or, more subtly: “You have green fingers”; “I’m tone deaf.” In these statements, the “to be” and “to have” verbs communicate a static quality of the noun or adjective following them.

Standing oppositely of fixed mindset is the growth mindset, a concept stemmed from many years of rigorous experimental research of Stanford psychology professor, Carol Dweck. Both mindsets were introduced and discussed in detail in her much celebrated book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. The growth mindset holds the belief that personality can be cultivated, and intelligence/ability can be developed. Although this mindset doesn’t disregard the differences between people, and it certainly doesn’t suggest that anybody can become Mozart or Newton through hard work, but it does believe that a person’s potential is unknown and unknowable, that effort can much alter the outcome, and that the outcome cannot be predicted by the superficial assessment of one’s strength or personality.

By embracing the growth mindset, not only did I turn from a goal-oriented into a process-oriented person, I also completely flipped my priority in teaching—rather than focusing only on delivering the course material, every class I treat as an endeavor to cultivate in the students the growth mindset; the latter has become an ultimate learning objective across all my courses, driving all the decisions about curriculum design as well as how the content is delivered.

In the following section, I list four approaches that I use to teach the growth mindset in my classes

Eliminate fixed-mindset remarks

More often than not, I catch myself wanting to say to a student, “You’re so good with math, you should consider a science track”; or, “You’re a talented writer!” Although well intended, these remarks reflect–therefore, reinforce–the fixed mindset. Instead, we should reframe such statements to emphasize the growth mindset, such as, “You have strong analytical skills. Continue to apply them in this class so you’ll get even better”; “Your lab report is well written. I see the effort you put in structuring the content and designing the layout. Keep up the excellent work!”

Boost students’ confidence

The growth mindset believes that our potential, in learning or becoming, is unknown. The word “unknown” here is almost a synonym of “unlimited”. With this belief, life becomes a journey of discovering the not-yet-discovered possibility while unleashing the potential. A logical consequence of this belief is the confidence to take on any learning project that interests us.  

I go through this logic with my students on occasions when I feel the students needed to be reminded.

I also say to students that, every time they walk into a classroom for their course, they should carry the confidence as they do while walking into a cinema to see a movie; that, unless the movie is in a foreign language or they fall asleep in the middle of it, everyone is expected to understand the story, as every (good) movie is made to be.

In this analogy, however, the professor is the movie producer, whose job is to create a good movie, e.g. with clear, pleasing images, a logical story, etc. If, during the play of the movie the professor perceives that the language has suddenly become foreign to the students, then they should pause, rather than pushing forward, to spend some time reviewing some of the concepts believed to have been covered in the pre-requisite course(s).

Create well-defined space for students to make an effort

As professors, we tend to think that a hard assignment will automatically create more room (than an easy assignment) for students to learn. Therefore, before the weekend arrives, we’re tempted to assign some hard readings or a handful of comprehensive practice problems as homework, imagining our students spending much of the weekend doing these assignments, and, at the same time learning a lot. However, often times, simple, basic, structured practices are more effective, especially as after-class assignments.

Creating a structure that allows students to meaningfully put in effort is vitally important because not all efforts lead to the same results. This abstract concept of “creating a structure” can be visualized as the activity of coloring: the pattern is sketched during class through lecturing and discussions, and after class, students are assigned to continue the learning by filling in colors in the contoured space.

In this analogy, the professor’s job is to make sure that the sketched pattern is clear, and that the students see the pattern and understand the logic in the pattern.

Image source: http://news.artnet.com/art-world/national-coloring-book-day-588860

Help students recognize the role of effort in their achievement

Often times, we bury ourselves in presenting material, loading students with new knowledge, and pushing them to achieve, but forget to recognize students’ achievement. Either we think it’s not important or think it must be obvious to the students. However, that is not the case. A simple remark validating what the student is doing, especially in connecting their effort to their accomplishment, can be the catalyst for the learning process. Therefore, be generous in giving praise to students, for their achievement as well as their effort.

The following is a writing assignment I gave in some of my classes. In this assignment, I specifically asked the students to list their effort to justify “Why do I deserve an A in this class?”, an idea I borrowed from Prof. Benjamin Zander, author of The Art of Possibility and professor at the New England Conservatory of Music. In his classes, Prof. Zander gave everybody an A, simply requesting the students to write a paper at the beginning of the semester what they would do to deserve that A, although I assign the essay towards the end of the term.

In summary, “effort” is the keyword in developing growth mindset in the students: our remarks should promote the effort, our teaching should yield space for meaningful effort, and our validation should always be there, sprinkled along the path, encouraging further effort and building students’ confidence in their potential.

*Professor Daisy Zhang-Negriere is the recipient of the 2020-2021 DKU undergraduate teaching award nominated by students.