It has been said that our mindset shapes our reality. Henry Ford famously stated “whether you think you can, or you think you can’t – you’re right” – but what causes a person to believe that they can or cannot do something? Let’s consider a dramatic example. If your supervisor told you that you weren’t capably performing your job, would you vow to learn and improve, or would you quit? If you didn’t take it personally and vowed to improve after receiving negative feedback from a superior, it’s likely that you have a growth mindset. Some individuals seem to be blessed at birth with a growth mindset – but can a growth mindset be developed?
Pioneered by psychologist and Stanford professor, Carol Dweck, “a growth mindset is defined as a belief that construes intelligence as malleable and improvable” (Ng, 2018). The growth mindset has been studied for decades in relationship to academic, athletic and overall achievement. According to Dweck’s research “a growth mindset fosters a healthier attitude toward practice and learning, a hunger for feedback, a greater ability to deal with setbacks, and significantly better performance over time” (2016). Why is this so? Students with growth mindsets demonstrate grit and perseverance because they believe that with effort, they can succeed (high self-efficacy) and most importantly, they are unafraid to fail.
It’s no secret that mindset contributes to motivation, but according to Dweck, (2014) “subtle aspects of praise can have dramatic effects on students’ mindsets and resilience” (p. 6). This assertion highlights the fact that student mindset is often affected by the instructor or leader. Supervisors, professors, trainers and coaches alike can benefit from understanding and implementing growth mindset principles because it will help to maximize their learners’ potential and performance. This paper aims to explain the advantages of promoting a growth mindset and explore how instructors can do so in order to increase learner motivation and ultimately, success.
“Over the last two decades, Dweck has become one of the country’s best-known research psychologists by documenting the follies associated with thinking and talking about intelligence as a fixed trait” (Glenn, 2010). Dweck’s work set a new precedent for educational and psychological research in regard to mindset and motivation. “The key, she found, isn’t ability; it’s whether you look at ability as something inherent that needs to be demonstrated or as something that can be developed” (Krakovsky, 2017). Dweck has found that by improving students’ mindsets, their motivation and ability to achieve also improved. “More precisely, students who believed their intelligence could be developed (a growth mindset) outperformed those who believed their intelligence was fixed (a fixed mindset)” (Dweck, 2015).
Since Dweck released her book Mindset, The New Psychology of Success in 2006, many have attempted to recreate and/or implement her research. For example, Dr. Stacey Keown & Dr. Brian Bourke studied third and fourth graders in order “to explore individual mindsets of elementary students and determine the extent to which mindsets reflect fixed or growth perspectives” (2017, p. 1). Keown & Bourke point out early on that mindset is shaped by parental/adult factors. They also allude to instructors as agents for positive change in students’ lives. They ultimately conclude that “the school setting plays a substantial role in creating growth or fixed mindsets in students, especially in a lower-SES area due to the consistency of supportive adults” (2017, p. 57).
Self-efficacy has been shown to play a major role in motivation and mindset. “Overall, students with higher self-efficacy perform better than students with low self-efficacy” (Keller, 2010, p. 146). Self-efficacy, the belief in one’s own ability to achieve/succeed, is innately linked with the growth mindset. With this being said, it only makes sense that many researchers use self-efficacy and self-confidence as measures of motivation and likelihood of success. In her article, Who’s Afraid of Math? Turns Out, Lots of Students; One district is trying to help students fight the idea they are bad at math, Sarah Schwartz details a pilot program implemented in an 8th grade classroom in Maryland. The program was designed “to counteract students’ fears that they don’t have what it takes to succeed in math class, and it’s built on the insight that children can have strong emotions around academics and those emotions can sabotage learning” (2020). Just as high self-efficacy can improve motivation and learning, low self-efficacy can lead to demotivation and lack of progress. This article was published in May 2020 and the study is ongoing – but Schwartz points out anecdotally that self-confidence and emotional attachment to a topic matters.
Towards a Growth Mindset Culture in the Classroom: Implementation of a Lesson-Integrated Mindset Training begins by acknowledging the benefit of a growth mindset in learners. “Whether students want to learn depends on whether they believe that they can learn: those who believe that abilities improve with practice (growth mindset) tend to show higher motivation than those who believe that abilities are unchangeable (fixed mindset)” (Zeeb, Helene, et al. 2020). With this being said, the authors conducted a growth mindset intervention in 7th grade physics classrooms. Two identical physics classes were taught by the same instructor. The only difference was that one of the classes received a training at the beginning of the course about growth mindset. However, the growth mindset intervention presented mixed results: “we registered a positive and stable effect on students’ beliefs about abilities towards growth mindsets. However, there was no effect on their self-beliefs. Regarding motivation, the training was successful insofar as it buffered the demotivation that occurred without training” (Zeeb, Helene, et al. 2020).
The literature surrounding growth mindset is based mainly off of Carol Dweck’s foundational research and assertions. Dweck herself is still learning and writing about growth mindset, years after she established the concept, but she is now joined by many other prominent psychologists, educators and social scientists who are exploring growth mindset implications in the classroom and beyond. Although the research on growth mindset has been conducted in various scenarios and ways, there are a few conceptual similarities that overlap in the literature review. The importance of self-efficacy in relation to motivation and mindset is recurrently mentioned. Two of the studies above show that explaining the growth mindset (hence instilling self-confidence) is especially crucial when introducing new subjects commonly viewed as difficult (STEM, for example). Teaching about the science behind the growth mindset (neuroplasticity) is also recurrently mentioned and encouraged. Last but not least, the literature makes it clear that the instructor and/or instructional designer play an immense role in promoting a growth mindset. Although the research also explains that promoting a growth mindset is not a straightforward process, there are measures instructors and instructional designers can take if they wish to try.
Practical Recommendations for Instructors and Instructional Designers
Much of the research on the growth mindset regarding motivation has been done in the academic setting. However, it behooves instructors everywhere to promote a growth mindset throughout instruction. Instructional designers and instructors can do so in various ways. First and foremost, if you are meeting with learners in person or over video-chat, embody the growth mindset. Never back down from a challenge or avoid failure. Express yourself as a life-long learner and emphasize progress over perfection. Stokoe and Burke write that “we have the power to assist in developing real potential, increasing brain power and making a huge difference to the life chances of all pupils…As educators we can demonstrate ourselves as incremental learners and as effective role models. It is essential that we show our students that we believe their intelligence is not fixed” (2013). Although instructional design plays a major role in growth mindset interventions, no ID can completely compensate for poor leadership/in-person instruction.
Of course, in addition to acting as role models, instructors must also be effective (and sometimes hands-off) facilitators. This comes down to asking open-ended questions, providing varied opportunities for exploration, and giving honest yet positive feedback. “Effective teachers (Bain, 2004) create a learning environment that engages students in higher-order activities of comparing, applying, and evaluating” (Lumpkin, 2020). According to Bain, McGuire & McGuire, teachers can foster learning by guiding students in learning how to learn” (2014). This is an important distinction that requires acknowledgment when designing or implementing a course. The teacher’s duty, articulated McTighe and Wiggins (2013), is to help instigate learning by introducing important theories, concepts, and ideas to help students construct knowledge. This constructivist focus on critical thinking is rooted in metacognition and Bloom’s Taxonomy. “Bloom’s (1956) taxonomy has motivated and guided teachers worldwide to design curricular objectives and assessments (Krathwohl, 2002)” (Lumpkin, 2020).
In Lumpkin’s article Metacognition and its Contribution to Student Learning Introduction, she compares metacognition (the process of thinking about thinking) to the growth mindset. To summarize, she declares that the more one understands cognitive processes and the science behind them, the better one will learn. With this being said, Lumpkin recommends that instructors teach students about the neuroplasticity of the mind, so that they fully comprehend and believe that their ability and intellect are ever-changing. This notion is also supported by Betsy Ng, who found that “there is a distinctive neuroscientific interplay between growth mindset and intrinsic motivation” (2018). Ng concludes with the assertion that explaining and promoting the growth mindset to learners can have dramatic effects on their intrinsic motivation to learn.
Since 2006, Dweck has revisited her work (and the works of others) in regard to growth mindset and motivation. One of Dweck’s recent proclamations is that “a growth mindset isn’t just about effort. Perhaps the most common misconception is simply equating the growth mindset with effort. Certainly, effort is key for students’ achievement, but it’s not the only thing” (2015). Dweck wants to ensure that instructors everywhere do not just praise based on effort. Although it’s important to recognize effort, it is equally as important to recognize the ultimate goal of the growth mindset: learning. If learning is not occurring effectively, it then becomes necessary to identify solutions for progression. Instead of providing a participation award, instructional designers must offer multiple options and modalities for their learners, and instructors cannot ignore effort that yields no headway.
Although the research regarding the relationship between motivation and growth mindset is still evolving, recommendations based on the current research have been made clear. In order to encourage a growth mindset (and therefore motivation/performance) in learners, instructors and instructional designers should:
- Embody the growth mindset themselves by embracing failure and challenges
- Encourage students to persevere & step out of their comfort zone
- Facilitate opportunities for higher-level thinking and exploration
- Explain the science behind the growth mindset
- Provide positive, honest feedback
- Offer avenues for solutions and back-up plans
It’s safe to say that growth mindsets can and should be fostered in various instructional settings. Whether you are an elementary school teacher, a corporate trainer, a coach or a college professor, the growth mindset is inextricably linked to learner motivation. Growth mindsets have been shown to correspond with high levels of self-efficacy, self-confidence, mental calmness, resiliency and the willingness to learn. Not all students come equipped with a growth mindset – but through motivation-based instructional design and/or an instructor that leads by example, it is possible to instill new and improved mindsets. Various instructional strategies can assist in fostering a growth mindset. Praising effort, providing honest feedback, proving topic relevance, teaching the value of challenge, and encouraging metacognition are just a few of the research-based recommendations for instructors and ID’s.
Due to the abstract nature of mindset and motivation, there is no guaranteed, tried-and-true approach to encouraging a growth mindset within instruction. With this being said, the current research does indicate a vast potential for increased motivation through growth mindset intervention. As an instructor or instructional designer – why not give it a shot? A mindset is like a lens that one can wear, or take off, anywhere they go. If nothing else, promoting a growth mindset using the tactics above can lessen any demotivating factors in the learners’ lives. The best-case-scenario? Changing the way someone views themselves and the entire world.
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