I Think I Can

Helping Our Students Believe They Can Improve

Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck developed the concept of “mindsets” as she studied the varying ways people cope with failure. Dweck was startled and intrigued by children who found failures to be stimulating opportunities for learning—challenges rather than embarrassing defeats. They relished feedback, as it gave them information to help them improve. Dweck calls this perspective, this conviction that “human qualities, such as intellectual skills, [CAN] be cultivated through effort,” a “growth mindset.”  A person with a “fixed” mindset, on the other hand, believes that ability and intelligence are immutable. Dweck discovered that people with fixed mindsets tend to shy away from challenge, since they perceive struggle and failure as signs of low ability. They may be uncomfortable with corrective feedback, and quickly grow discouraged by difficult tasks. Since deep learning requires sustained effortful thinking, students who avoid challenges miss out on essential opportunities for growth and development.

Dweck and her team were able to observe how mindsets affected neural activity when they brought participants to a lab and monitored their brains as they attempted to answer difficult questions and got feedback. Participants with fixed mindsets only paid attention to feedback related to their ability; they wanted to know whether their answers were correct, but they ignored information that could help them improve, including the correct answer when they’d gotten it wrong. In contrast, people with growth mindsets focused on feedback that could help them learn. “Only for them was learning a priority,” Dweck concluded. These surprising findings may help us understand why students often don’t use the feedback we take such pains to provide. They also show that if we want students to learn from our feedback, and to embrace error and struggle, we need to cultivate growth mindsets through our classes.

Dweck and her team found that students’ fixed mindsets could in fact be shifted, increasing their motivation and achievement: “When students learned through a structured program that they could ‘grow their brains’ and increase their intellectual abilities, they did better.” Faculty shape students’ learning and development, so it’s important for us be aware of the research on mindsets and avoid reinforcing fixed ones. Our beliefs about intelligence and ability can affect our students’ achievement, so we have to resist categorizing students in terms of static intelligence or ability. For example, talking about “the smart kids” or “the A students,” versus the others (even amongst ourselves), can reinforce fixed mindsets. Instead, it’s essential that we communicate confidence that students can meet high standards through effort and growth.

Here are a few of the many other things we can do to cultivate growth mindsets:

  • Teach students about mindsets. You can assign this excerpt from Dweck’s book orthis video, and have students think about or discuss their own mindsets and how their beliefs about ability affect their habits and attitudes.
  • Establish an environment where errors are a normal part of the learning process. Students are embarrassed to ask questions and make mistakes, so we need to welcome their exploration. You can also model the growth mindset by sharing your own struggles and how you overcame them.
  • Design your course so that students experience effort leading to growth.
    • Provide opportunities to revise papers, earn back points on quizzes, or improve projects.
    • Create low-stakes assignments in which students must read feedback carefully and make a plan to use it to improve.
    • Be explicit about how you expect assignments (and feedback) to help students grow specific abilities through multiple attempts.
  • Help students monitor their own learning and growth through reflection on their progress. If they find that they aren’t growing as much as they hoped, encourage them to assess their strategies and make a new plan to improve.

If you’d like some help designing a Mindset module on Canvas, or writing prompts that can help students reflect on their growth, please get in touch at pro-teaching@fsu.edu. We look forward to working with you.


Student Consultants

If you’d like feedback on how your class is going, and you’d like a student’s perspective, you can now invite our trained student consultants to visit your class and gather data. There are multiple options:

-Informal evaluation: The student consultants can come to one of your classes to interview students about how well they are learning and how they perceive the class. The interview usually takes around 20 minutes. The student consultant then compiles the student responses into a report and meets with you to discuss the results.

-Observer/Note-taker: The student consultant records in writing what happened in your class (e.g., chronology of classroom activities; time spent in questioning, board work, small group discussion; and so on). If you wish, they can use the COPUS. The student consultant describes rather than evaluates, and meets with you to present and discuss the report.

-Primed student: Prior to class, you inform the student consultant what he or she should watch for. Examples: How often do certain students respond? Are the students discussing course material among themselves? What seems difficult for the students? What are the students in the back rows of the class doing? The student consultant writes his or her observations in a report to share with you.

To schedule a visit by a student consultant, contact Fabrizio Fornara at ffornara@fsu.edu.

Students in Need:

Did you know that FSU has a food pantry for students in need? The Dean of Students Food for Thought Pantry requests donations. They especially need these items:  Canned meat (tuna, chicken), pasta, pasta sauce, cereal/oatmeal single packs, granola bars, canned soups, rice, beans, mac and cheese, peanut butter, and instant potatoes.

You can drop off donations at University Center A, 4100, Monday – Friday, 8:00am-5:00pm. If you call 850-644-2428 when you arrive, they can send someone down to help you bring the food in to the office. The food pantry also has a wish list on amazon so you can have your donations delivered. At checkout, just select the “Dean of Students Department – Food Pantry’s Gift Registry Address” for shipping.