Growth mindset: The little engine that made it!

Five college students sitting together at a table in the library studying

Maybe it’s the end of a long week when you read this, or it’s Sunday and you’re not feeling motivated for work on Monday. You’re feeling like The Little Engine that CouldNot! Many of our students feel the same way about their classes; maybe it’s just one class, or perhaps it’s all of them and their college plans. There is a lot of research and discussion right now about underprepared students and mindset, motivation, habits, and the soft skills — and their effect on student success. It’s easy to read and agree with the importance of student success, but it’s far more difficult to determine just what and how to implement to facilitate growth mindsets. Those with a “fixed mindset” believe that abilities are mostly innate and interpret failure as the lack of necessary basic abilities, while those with a “growth mindset” believe that they can acquire any given ability provided they invest enough effort.

First, Maslow’s hierarchy of course reflects that the basic survival needs must be met before we can think about self-reflection and self-growth. In some cases, the extensive needs of our students might mean advising them to take fewer classes so they can focus on life needs, family dynamics, jobs, etc. It could mean some “tough love” in advising. It could also mean campus staff reallocating resources to services such as tutoring, counseling, day care services, and more.

If the “survival needs” are addressed, we then need to identify what “habits” we want to cultivate on our campus, and in our classrooms to support a growth mindset. What can we do, first of all, to refuel ourselves? If your engine is out of steam, it’s difficult to motivate others to move along. What encourages you?

Maybe some good books are enticing; I’d look at Learning and Leading with Habits of Mind by Arthur Costa and Carol Dweck’s Mindset. I’d toss in an article or two about GRIT and the Conley Readiness Index, too. Maybe it’s a workshop or online seminar with a motivating speaker. Perhaps it’s time to interact with like-minded peers and do some brainstorming. Remember The Little Engine That Could? He started small and slow, but made it up the mountain. You can make a change even on a small scale and move forward.

What are some habits to think about cultivating in our own lives and then in those of our students? They may be summarized differently depending on the author, but they include focusing on:

  • Persistence or grit
  • Reflective decision making
  • Emotional Intelligence (EI) skills
  • Adaptive thinking
  • Love of learning
  • Meta-cognition skills
  • Questioning & problem solving skills
  • Communication skills
  • Creativity & brainstorming

Let’s assume you have done some reading or met and discussed some ideas with colleagues. Now you have a list in front of you and aren’t quite sure how to prioritize; Costa suggests using a scale to rank topics like those above. Use “A: already doing it, P: a good possibility, M: a MUST: implement now, and U: unlikely: it’s not going to fly around here.”

Some things might sound great, but not be feasible due to human and fiscal resources or existing structures. However, there are practical suggestions in articles and books such as those shared earlier in the article. Here are a few:

  • Embed the idea of mindset into your tutoring program.
  • Ask successful students, “what does it take to be successful in this class,” and then share the results on the discussion board; ask current students to comment.
  • If you use cooperative learning activities in your classroom, embed and review the “habits of mind” you are looking for, such as persistence or creativity, on your rubric and activity description.
  • Be careful with praise; every word sends a message. Dweck’s book contrasts different phrasing choices and the impact of “mindset messages” that say, “You are developing, and I am interested in your development.”
  • Consider the idea of productive struggle in your classroom; failure can be ok if we’re learning from it.

There are lots of practical ideas in Dweck’s book; keep in mind it’s not a switch we can flip and then students move magically from “fixed” to “growth” mindsets. In my mind, it’s a scale where we strive to be more flexible and stretch ourselves to stand outside our comfort zone just a little bit. A great place to start is to test your own mindset. When we believe — and our students believe — that hard work and a good attitude can change performance, we can become successful.

By the way, Jo Boaler with Carol Dweck published a book about math and student mindset: Mathematical Mindsets: Unleashing Students’ Potential through Creative Math, Inspiring Messages and Innovative Teaching in 2015. That’s next on my list. 🙂

About the author
Diane Hollister

Diane Hollister

Diane Hollister has been teaching college courses since 1992. In June 2015, she resigned from her full-time position at Reading Area Community College in Reading, Pennsylvania, where all the math courses have undergone some level of redesign. She still teaches online there and now is part of Pearson’s Efficacy team, helping instructors to implement programs and strategies that bolster student success.

She is intrigued by neurobiological research and learning theory, and she was quick to adopt adaptive learning as a new tool in her courses. Not only does she strive to help her students succeed, but Diane enjoys the collaboration with her peers. She has taught a variety of courses and loves learning how new technology and resources can help students be more successful.