Carl's Teaching Blog

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Mindset In The Classroom, Sending Messages And Giving Feedback

Discussion of growth mindset has been really popular lately. Both my school and my wife’s school each gave us a copy of Carol Dweck’s book as summer reading. In the downtime between my honeymoon trip to South East I read Carol Dweck’s book Mindset as part of the Coast2Coast reading project. In my previous post, Carol Dweck’s Mindset and My Teaching, I summarized the fixed and the growth mindsets, and what they are.

In this post I want to try and summarize the most significant parts of the book that relate to the classroom.  Mindset talks about learning, but the whole book isn’t exactly relevant to classroom teachers.  Rather than spending the last week’s of August trying to rip through the whole book before your school’s book club, why not read this blog post about how to help your students this year?

How Does A Growth Mindset Affect Students?

After even a minimal look into Mindset it becomes clear that having a classroom full of students with growth mindsets would be ideal. Listen to this vignette from p. 61 where Dweck studied a group of College freshman taking their first chemistry class. She used a survey to determine their mindset, fixed or growth, and asked them about their approach to learning in the class.

Once again we found that he students with the growth mindset earned better grades in the course.  Even when they did poorly on a particular test, they bounced back on the next ones.  When students with the fixed mindset did poorly, they often didn’t make a comeback.

In this course everybody studied.  But there are different ways to study.  … [fixed mindset students] read the textbook and their class notes.  If the material is really hard they read them again.  Or they might try to memorize everything they can like a vacuum cleaner. … If they did poorly on the test they concluded that Chemistry was not their subject.  After all “I did everything possible, didn’t I?”

… The students with growth mindset completely took charge of their learning and motivation.  Instead of plunging into unthinking memorization of the course material, they said “I looked for themes and underlying principles across lectures,” and “I went over mistakes until I was certain I understood them.”  They were studying to learn not just to ace the test. [Emphasis Added]

Instead of losing their motivation when the course got dry or difficult, they said: “I maintained my interest in the material.” “I stayed positive about taking chemistry.” “I kept myself motivated to study.” Even if they thought the textbook was boring or the instructor was a stiff, they didn’t let their motivation evaporate. That just made it all the more important to motivate themselves.

The students who arrived at college with the growth mindset in this study had more than just better study habits than the fixed mindset students.  They had a belief in their own ability to learn that the other students lacked. Teachers have a great opportunity to challenge or support their students’ beliefs, and if those beliefs can sustain the students in their future challenges it would be worth our while to work towards shaping those beliefs appropriately. How likely is it that some of these students who decided that chemistry was “not their subject” were the kinds of people who were told, or told others, that they were or weren’t “good at math” at some point in their life.

Can Teacher’s Comments Really Make A Big Difference?

Another study described on page 71 of the book describes in more detail how students are affected by the things we adults around a learning task.  In this study students were given a set of questions from a standard IQ test. When they finished one group was told “That’s a really good score, you must be smart at this!”,  while another group heard “That’s a really good score.  You must have worked really hard!” One group’s ability was praised, while the other group’s effort was praised.  Mindset repeatedly makes the connection between making judgements on a person’s ability, and the fixed mindset as opposed to talking about someone’s effort.  What happened next?  The experimenter offered students the opportunity to try sets of harder problems.  The first group was less likely to try more problems, as they probably didn’t want to change their perception of themselves and their ability.  The second group was more likely to take more problems, looking forward to the chance to keep challenging themselves.  The feedback students received about their performance turned the task into an assessment of their ability, of who they are, instead of an assessment of their effort, of what they did that one time, and it changed the way students thought about doing more of the tasks in the future.

There was a stark difference that the groups of students in this experiment had towards the task they were learning. This experiment was done with hundreds of students in a clinical setting, where experimenters took care to treat students in both groups in a virtually identical manner.  The only consistent difference was whether students were told they were smart, or they had worked hard.   What is even crazier about this study, is that the differences extended beyond just whether they wanted to try more problems.  Of the students who took the more difficult problems, the first group was more likely to see their performance drop, to report that the problems weren’t fun, and to lie about their scores to other students afterwards.

OK, It’s Bad.  We Get It.  What Do We Do About It?

To avoid the negative effects of the fixed mindset, teachers can focus on the messages being sent to their class.  What messages are you sending your class. the same time, using the language of ‘ability’ instead of the language of ‘effort’ sends messages to all of your students about what it means to learn in your class and in your subject area.  It can be daunting just to think about how to create the right set of messages to keep kids from thinking in this way.

Here is one example from page 176 from one of Dweck’s students who was reflecting on his history in school:

I remember often being praised for my intelligence rather than my efforts, and slowly but surely I developed an aversion to difficult challenges.  Most surprisingly, this extended beyond academic and even athletic challenges to emotional challenges.  This was my greatest learning disability–this tendency to see performance as a reflection of character and, if I could not accomplish something right away, to avoid that task or treat it with contempt.

Sending messages about ability and intelligence is setting kids up for trouble.  If their successes come from their ability, their intelligence, and their character, what happens to all those things when they fail?

Instead, send messages about effort and hard work.  There may be some struggle from people, as a big part of the fixed mindset is believing that hard work is only for people who don’t have ability or lack intelligence.  This type of thinking sets up an “either-or” belief around work.  As Dweck describes on page 40: “…this is part of the fixed mindset.  Effort is for those who don’t have the ability… ‘If you have to work at something you must not be good at it.'”  I often argue a major purpose of math in all students’ course of study is so they can learn to expend effort on solving difficult problems. It follows that the fixed mindset might be behind all of those people who believe the message that they are “not good at math” when really they are doing work that is inherent to the field.

What Kinds Of Feedback Foster Growth Mindsets

In order to change the types of messages that students receive in the math classroom, there needs to be a change in the types of language that teachers use when giving students feedback.  There are a host of examples of positive student feedback on page 177 and on her website, and it is all centered around process and growth.  Praise them for “what they accomplished through practice, study, persistence, and good strategies.”  Here are some of her examples:

  • “That homework was so long and involved.  I really admire the way you concentrated and finished it.”
  • “You really studied for your test and your improvement shows it.  You read the material over several times, you outlined it, and you tested yourself on it.  It really worked!”
  • “I liked the effort you put in, but let’s work together some more and figure out what it is you don’t understand.”
  • “We all have different learning curve.  It may take more time for you to catch on to this and be comfortable with this material, but if you keep at it like this you will.”

What get’s tricky with the growth mindset is trying to pick a student up who is defeated.  If a student really falls short of expectations, it is hard to boost that students’ self esteem, but avoid giving them a growth mindset.  In an example from the book they talk about a girl who failed at her gymnastics meets, and five different ways parents could respond. Most approaches are angled at repairing the girl’s self esteem, but the fifth one focuses on giving the chlid the tools to grow from this experience.  Instead of saying something like “You’re still special, but the judges are stupid” the parent said this:

Elizabeth, I know how you feel.  It’s so disappointing to have your hopes up and to perform your best but not to win.  But you know, you haven’t really earned it yet.  There were many girls there who’ve been in gymnastics longer than you and who’ve worked a lot harder than you.  If this is something you really want, then it’s something you’ll really have to work for.

Perhaps a similar line of reasoning could be given to students struggle in math, but also students who think they are “good at math,” but struggle when it comes time to more difficult abstract topics like operations on fractions, working with variables, or trigonometric functions.  It would be good to communicate to students, and really the rest of the world, that “being ‘good at math’ means ‘consistently put forth your best effort towards new problems, not that things are always easy for you by innate ability.”  From this it would follow that if you are having you consistent troubles with the subject, you need to spend more time thinking through challenging problems.

Additional Resources

Educating students directly about growth mindset would be a great thing to try based on reading the book.  Dweck mentions materials for an online course called Brainology.  It’s certainly not free, but since you can get a class of 25 access to this website for $500, it could be had with a DonorsChoose grant.  There is also a $60 Educators kit, which is a bit pricey, but perhaps your school would want to add it to their educator’s library.  There is a ‘free resources‘ section that asks you to register with an email.  There are a bunch of mindset related online assessments you can use, and a bunch of useful documents (like this one).

What might be most helpful to figure out how to start would be to pick one thing and try it, and then share it with other educators who can learn from your approach.  Are you planning on implementing any of these Mindset ideas in your classroom this year?  What do you plan on doing?  Share your ideas in the comments.


Carol Dweck’s Mindset and My Teaching


Goal for 2014: Being A Totally Different Teacher


  1. Laura Jenkins

    Thanks for sharing! I’ll be careful what feedback I give my students this year!!

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