Helping Students Build a Growth Mindset

Plants growing in a garden

Discussing the difference between a fixed and growth mindset and how to foster our students' abilities to adapt and overcome challenges.

There is a difference between a fixed mindset and a growth mindset. As Carol Dweck explains, a fixed mindset assumes that our character, intelligence, and creative ability are static and cannot be changed. A growth mindset adopts the perspective that our intelligence, creativity, and character can change and grow over time. 

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These two views have a tremendous impact on teaching and learning.  If a teacher believes in a fixed mindset, then he or she is saying there is no potential for growth.  If a child is intelligent, they will continue to be so.  If a child is struggling, it’s because he or she just isn’t “smart enough”.  On the other hand, if you believe in a growth mindset, you believe that students may start with a certain amount of ability, but that can change over time with effort and persistence. 

What students believe also matters. Students with a fixed mindset typically avoid challenges, feel threatened by others’ successes, and give up easily.  They want to look smart and believe that working hard at a task means they are not smart. Students with a growth mindset believe they can learn and become better.  They embrace challenge, view effort as a positive part of learning, and persist through difficulties. A growth mindset is critical to a learning focused classroom.  Let’s look at two ways you can help your students develop a growth mindset.  

Growth Mindset: Emphasize Mastery and Learning

The first way to encourage a growth mindset is to emphasize mastery and learning rather than grades.  Particularly with older students, there is such a focus on “getting an A”, that the joy of learning is lost.  Or, students are so scared they won’t make a good grade, they give up before they start.

I believe strongly that students should have the opportunity to redo work they do not complete at a satisfactory level.  Too often, struggling learners do what they consider their best work, yet it is unacceptable.  At the primary grades, we use mastery learning, the concept that students continue to learn and demonstrate learning until we know they understand.  If you are already doing this, I urge you to continue.  But as students grow older, we tend to stop giving them multiple opportunities to show mastery.

The use of a “Not Yet” or “Incomplete” policy for projects and assignments shifts the emphasis to learning and allows students to revise and resubmit work until it is at an acceptable level. Requiring quality work, work that meets the teachers’ expectations, lets students know that the priority is learning, not simple completion of an assignment.  It also encourages a growth mindset.


Children climbing ladders to reach their potential with a growth mindset.


I had the opportunity to speak with Toni Eubank of the Southern Regional Education Board (SREB). As part of their comprehensive school reform model, SREB has long been a proponent of holding students to high expectations for completed work. She describes the model as Instant Credit Recovery for high school students, which can be adapted for lower grade levels.

This grading intervention practice requires that teachers rethink credit recovery completely. If it is okay for students to retake courses to meet standards, why is it not okay to retake tests that do not meet standards, revise essays, redo classwork and homework that do not meet standards? Why do we let students “off the hook” for learning and for completing work that meets the standards during our classes? Instead of sitting in classes throughout the semester or year putting forth little to no effort, doing little work, failing tests or turning in garbage instead of high-quality work, students must now be required to work as they go. This method truly reflects job-embedded skills and habits and better prepares students for college and careers. Instead of retaking courses and earning credit (often for seat time only) in our current credit recovery programs, students must now work while they go—sort of a “pay as you go” method. 


Eight Key Elements of the Instant Credit Recovery Model (Eubank, 2011)

1. Teachers no longer assign grades below a C.

2. Eliminate the use of zeros.

3. Late work is late, but it must be completed if teachers are to correctly determine if students know, understand, and are able to do whatever the verb within the standard calls for.

4. Students must be given extra help opportunities (required) to learn the information, skill, or concept to complete assignments.

5. Students must retake tests that they fail and redo all assignments they earn less than a C grade on.

6. Consequences change for students not having work ready to turn in on time.

7. Grading systems change from zeros or failing grades to “I’s” or some other form of non-grade.

8. A few students will still fail no matter what. The goal is to get MORE students to complete MORE assignments and assessments to the proficient level of the standard.


Growth Mindset: Reinforce Effort

A second strategy, reinforcing effort, is particularly critical for those students who do not understand the importance of their own efforts. In Classroom Instruction that Works, Robert Marzano and his co-authors make two important comments regarding students’ views about effort.


Research-Based Generalizations About Effort

o Not all students realize the importance of believing in effort.

o Students can learn to change their beliefs to an emphasis on effort.

(Marzano et al., 2001, p. 50)


This is positive news for teachers.  First, we’re not imagining it—students don’t realize they need to exert effort.  And second, we can help them change that belief.  Richard Curwin describes seven specific ways to encourage effort.


7 Ways to Encourage Effort

1. Never fail a student who tries, and never give the highest grades to one who doesn't.

2. Start with the positive.

3. See mistakes as learning opportunities, not failures.

4. Give do overs.

5. Give students the test before you start a unit.

6. Limit your corrections.

7. Do not compare students.


It’s also important to revisit the concept of praise as it relates to effort. We often use phrases such as:

  • It's all right. Maybe you're just one of those students who isn't good at math.
  • Bless your heart, you really mean well.
  • That's OK; you can be good at other things.

As Aneeta Rattan, Catherine Good, and Carol Dweck point out, these types of comments, however well-intentioned, reflect lower expectations.  Students quickly notice when we are not sincere, or when we try to make them feel better in an artificial manner.  We need to find authentic ways to affirm students’ efforts.

Growth Mindset: Conclusion

Students come to you with differing views of learning and intelligence.  Some believe they are fixed and can never improve.  Others have a growth-mindset, which considers intelligence and creativity as skills that can be improved upon over time and with effort.  As teachers, we must decide which approach to facilitate with our struggling learners, and then take specific actions to support that mindset. 



Blackburn, B. (2016). Motivating struggling learners:  10 strategies for student success.  New York:  Routledge.

Curwin, R. L. (2010). Meeting students where they live: Motivation in urban schools.  Alexandria, VA:  Association of Supervision and Curriculum Development.

Dweck, C. (2007).  Mindset:  The psychology of success.  New York:  Ballantine Books.

Eubank, T. SREB. Instant Credit Recovery Or Instant “Content” Recovery for Middle Grades: ICR Summary and Implementation Strategies (unpublished whitepaper). Accessed Jan 3, 2011.

Marzano, R. J., Pickering, D.J., & Pollock, J. E. (2001). Classroom instruction that    works.  Alexandria, Virginia:  Association for Supervision and Curriculum           Development.

Rattan, A., Good, C., & Dweck, C. (2012). It’s okay, not everyone can be good at math: instructors with an entity theory comfort (and demotivate) students. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology.