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Encourage a growth mindset to help students improve their learning

October 28, 2014

Carol Dweck (2006) describes a fixed mindset as the belief that talent, intelligence, or other skills are static, enduring characteristics.  The fixed ability mindset assumes that abilities can be assessed, but little can be done to change abilities.  In contrast, a growth mindset is the belief that ability can develop and improved. The growth mindset assumes that individuals will grow more expert with an ability if they engage in appropriate learning activities, receive effective formative feedback, and make an effort to learn from their experiences. A growth mindset appears to be more effective in promoting student behaviors that support student learning. These students are more likely to seek out and use formative feedback. They will exert more effort toward developing skills.

How does mindset influence how students experience higher education?

Students who are dominated by a fixed mindset believe that selection for programs and evaluation of ability are important components of the educational process.  Students with a fixed mindset might believe that a major goal of their education is to identify those disciplines in which their skills allow them to excel and avoid disciplines in which they have limited ability.  A student with a fixed mindset might believe that effort expended toward trying to learn skills in a discipline in which they are weak is a futile battle with inadequate talent.  Students who believe that academic performance measures an unchangeable aptitude or ability may interpret weak performance as a sign that they lack ability and should give up.  They may have difficulty getting motivated to expend effort toward learning new skills.  Either you’ve got “it” or you don’t.  Dweck argues that individuals with a fixed mindset often describe individuals who work hard and spend extra effort to produces quality work as “overachievers” who compensate for a lack of “real talent” with extraordinary effort.

In contrast, individuals dominated by a growth mindset regard current ability as a product of an individual’s background, effort expended on practice, access to skilled coaches and mentors, and use of effective learning strategies.  They regard ability as a fluid characteristic that can be altered with the right kinds of experience and adequate effort expended toward improving performance.  Students with a growth mindset might believe that their performance is determined primarily by the quality of effort they expend and the appropriateness of the strategies they use to learn.  They interpret weak performance as a sign that they did not exert enough effort or did not use an appropriate strategy for learning.  They seek feedback that will identify alternative approaches that will enable them to perform better in the future.

How to provide feedback to students to encourage a growth mindset

Teachers can encourage students to adopt a growth mindset instead of a fixed mindset to encourage productive learning experiences.  Students need feedback that will accurately calibrate their evaluation of the quality of their work.  Feedback should also provide explicit, concrete information about specific behaviors and strategies students can adopt to develop their skill and improve future work. Feedback about the amount of effort the student expended helps reinforce the value of effort and practice to improve skill. Dr. Saundra McGuire (2014) suggests that faculty connect specific learning strategies with levels of Bloom’s taxonomy to help students see the connection between specific concrete activities and the quality of their learning.  The Study Cycle Handout by Dr. McGuire describes the relation between Bloom’s taxonomy and effective learning activities. 


Dweck, C. S. (2006).  Mindset:  The new psychology of success.  New York: Ballantine Books.

McGuire, S. Y. (October, 2014). Get students to focus on learning instead of grades: Metacognition is the key! Workshop presented at the University of West Florida.

Stanny, C., J. (Spring, 2011). Providing feedback to motivate student learning: The role of beliefs about teaching and learning. Innovative Teaching at UWF, Issue 5, University of West Florida.

Update: 10/28/2014 cma