Teachers often use words of praise to motivate their students. But saying “Great job!” or “You must be smart at this!” may not have the positive effect that teachers hope to communicate.
Research shows that there are forms of praise that may reinforce a student's belief that he or she is either “smart” or “dumb”. That belief in a fixed or static intelligence may prevent a student from trying or persisting at a task. A student may either think “If I am already smart, I don't need to work hard,” or “If I am dumb, I won't be able to learn.”
So, how can teachers intentionally change the ways students think about their own intelligence? Teachers can encourage students, even low-performing, high-needs students, to engage and achieve by helping them to develop a growth mindset.
Carol Dweck's Growth Mindset Research
The concept of a growth mindset was first suggested by Carol Dweck, a Lewis and Virginia Eaton Professor of Psychology at Stanford University. Her book, Mindset: The New Psychology of Success (2007) is based on her research with students that suggests that teachers can help develop what is called a growth mindset in order to improve student academic performance.
In multiple studies, Dweck noticed the difference in a students' performance when they believed that their intelligence was static versus students who believed that their intelligence could be developed. If students believed in a static intelligence, they exhibited such a strong desire to look smart that they tried to avoid challenges. They would give up easily, and they ignored helpful criticism. These students also tended not to expend efforts on tasks they saw as fruitless. Finally, these students felt threatened by the success of other students.
In contrast, students who felt that intelligence can be developed exhibited a desire to embrace challenges and to demonstrate persistence. These students accepted helpful criticism and learned from advice. They also were inspired by the success of others.
Dweck's research saw teachers as agents of change in having students move from fixed to growth mindsets. She advocated that teachers work intentionally to move students from a belief that they are “smart” or “dumb” to being motivated instead to “work hard” and “show effort." As simple as it sounds, the way teachers praise students can be critical in helping students make this transition.
Before Dweck, for example, standard phrases of praise that teachers might use with their students would sound like, "I told you that you were smart," or "You are such a good student!"
With Dweck's research, teachers who want students to develop a growth mindset should praise student efforts using a variety of different phrases or questions. These are suggested phrases or questions that can allow students to feel accomplished at any point in a task or assignment:
- You kept working and concentrated
- How did you do that?
- You studied and your improvement shows this!
- What do you plan to do next?
- Are you pleased with what you did?
Teachers can contact parents to provide them information to support a student's growth mindset. This communication (report cards, notes home, e-mail, etc.) can give parents a better understanding of the attitudes that students should have as they develop a growth mindset. This information can alert a parent to a student's curiosity, optimism, persistence, or social intelligence as it relates to academic performance.
For example, teachers can update parents using statements such as:
- Student completed what she began
- Student tried very hard despite some initial failure
- Student stayed motivated, even when things didn't go well
- Student approached new tasks with excitement and energy
- Student asked questions that showed he or she had a desire to learn
- Student adapted to changing social situations
Growth Mindsets and the Achievement Gap
Improving academic performance of high needs students is a common goal for schools and districts. The U.S. Department of Education defines high needs students as those who are at risk of educational failure or otherwise in need of special assistance and support. The criteria for high needs (any one or combination of the following) include students who:
- Are living in poverty
- Attend high-minority schools (as defined in the Race to the Top application)
- Are far below grade level
- Have left school before receiving a regular high school diploma
- Are at risk of not graduating with a diploma on time
- Are homeless
- Are in foster care
- Have been incarcerated
- Have disabilities
- Are English learners
High-needs students in a school or district are often placed in a demographic subgroup for purposes of comparing their academic performance with those of other students. Standardized tests used by states and districts can measure the differences in the performance between a high needs subgroup within a school and the statewide average performance or a state's highest achieving subgroups, especially in the subject areas of reading/language arts and mathematics.
The standardized assessments required by each state are used to evaluate school and district performance. Any difference in the average score between student groups, such as regular education students and high needs students, measured by standardized assessments is used to identify what is called the achievement gap in a school or district.
Comparing the data on student performance for regular education and subgroups allows schools and districts a way to determine if they are meeting the needs of all students. In meeting these needs, a targeted strategy of helping students to develop a growth mindset may minimize the achievement gap.
Growth Mindset in Secondary Schools
Starting to develop a student's growth mindset early in a student's academic career, during pre-school, kindergarten, and the elementary school grades can have long-lasting effects. But using the growth mindset approach within the structure of secondary schools (grades 7-12) may be more complicated.
Many secondary schools are structured in ways that may isolate students into different academic levels. For already high performing students, many middle and high schools may offer pre-advanced placement, honors, and advanced placement (AP) courses. There may be international baccalaureate (IB) courses or other early college credit experiences. These offerings may inadvertently contribute to what Dweck discovered in her research, that students have already adopted a fixed mindset - the belief that they are either “smart” and able to take high-level coursework or they are “dumb” and there is no way to change their academic path.
There are also some secondary schools that may engage in tracking, a practice that intentionally separates students by academic ability. In tracking students may be separated in all subjects or in a few classes using classifications such as above average, normal, or below average. High needs students may fall disproportionately in the lower ability classes. To counter the effects of tracking, teachers can try employing growth mindset strategies to motivate all students, including high needs students, to take on challenges and persist in what may seem difficult tasks. Moving students from a belief in the limits of intelligence can counter the argument for tracking by increasing academic achievement for all students, including high needs subgroups.
Manipulating Ideas on Intelligence
Teachers who encourage students to take academic risks may find themselves listening to students more as students express their frustrations and their successes in meeting academic challenges. Questions such as "Tell me about it" or "Show me more" and "Let's see what you did" can be used to encourage students to see efforts as a path to achievement and also give them a sense of control.
Developing a growth mindset can happen at any grade level, as Dweck's research has shown that student ideas about intelligence can be manipulated in schools by educators in order to have a positive impact on academic achievement.