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Motivate Your Students With Growth Mindset Theory

"People just don't change all that much."

"Math is harder for girls."

"No one likes me."

These statements are examples of a "fixed mindset," as opposed to the "growth mindset," which is the belief in the human capacity to change. This idea that humans aren't born a certain way, locked into certain behaviors and fixed capabilities, was pioneered by Stanford researcher and psychologist Dr. Carol Dweck. The theory holds that intelligence is malleable and can grow, and we can improve and increase our brain's capacity to learn and to solve problems.

Related to the growth mindset theory is neuroplasticity; the understanding that "experiences are able to change our brains, and that our brain's structure and capacity are not fixed." Our brains are trainable, and highly focused activities help keep the brain in good shape and actually change the physical structure of the brain. Essentially, the brain is a muscle that grows with exercise.

What Does This Mean for Students?

Believing that the brain can be trained and that people can grow and change helps kids see more potential in themselves and other people. Research suggests that "believing in the human capacity to change is linked to less depression, better health, and greater achievement."

In one psychology research study, teens who learned about the growth mindset in relation to bullying were more resilient to social stress. They learned that no one was stuck in the role of aggressor or victim, and that bullies could change. This helped them to not feel overwhelmed or stressed when they got ignored or felt shy. Seven months later, these students were even getting better grades.

Believing in the possibility of change can help teens avoid a sense of failure and cope with anxiety over peer conflict and peer exclusion. "Research also indicates that believing personalities can change can lower aggression and retaliatory behavior." Some of the social benefits of a growth mindset are improved peer relationships, increased empathy and increased cooperation.

Growth Mindset and STEM

There is an air of exclusivity about pursuing science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) that is reinforced by statements like "Not everyone can do it." Even when offered as a reassurance — "It's OK, not everyone can do difficult math." — the result is that it may make students less inclined to try.

A national study published in Frontiers in Psychology showed that students who believed that most people can learn to be good at math were more likely to major in math-intensive fields at the college level. Students who believed that math is too difficult shunned math-intensive fields. In the study, "beliefs still mattered even after statistically correcting for some other factors such as demographics and science coursework." The study paid particular attention to the influence of gender stereotyping on perceptions of ability.

Positive Thinking Alone Doesn't Fix Everything

Dr. Dweck's research showed that mindset interventions worked much better for low-achieving students. Average or high-achieving students didn't get as much of an academic boost. David Dockterman, a lecturer at the Harvard School of Education, cautions that "growth mindset by itself doesn't have much of an effect on academic outcomes. But it might make the other stuff work. You're really looking for the right combination of stuff for the right students." A growth mindset is one way to encourage students to tackle new challenges and value hard work over innate abilities.

Learn more about the UW-Superior online MS Ed. in Instruction program.


US News & World Report: Low-Cost Mindset Interventions Show Promise

Learn Fast: What Is Neuroplasticity and How Does It Impact Education?

Greater Good Magazine: Tips for Helping Kids Adopt a Growth Mindset

U.S. News & World Report: Fostering a Growth Mindset Is Key to Teaching STEM

Frontiers in Psychology: Perceived Mathematical Ability Under Challenge

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