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Growth Mind-Set

Tomorrow's Teaching and Learning

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The key is the belief that we can grow our brain by hard work and persistence. Making mistakes and figuring out where we went wrong and trying again and again until we solve a problem is how we grow our brain.



The posting below looks at how to use growth mindset interventions to facilitate student learning.It is from Chapter 10 Growth Mind-Set,in the book, Bandwidth Recovery; Helping Students Reclaim Cognitive Resources Lost to Poverty, Racism, and Social Marginalization, by Cia Verschelden. Published by Stylus Publishing, LLC 22883 Quicksilver Drive Sterling, Virginia 20166-2102. © 2017 by Stylus Publishing, LLC. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.


Rick Reis



Tomorrow’s Teaching and Learning

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Growth Mind-Set


One simple intervention involves informing students of Carol Dweck’s two theories of intelligence: incremental and entity. The former sees intelligence as malleable – the brain grows with new learning – whereas the latter sees intelligence as fixed (Moore & Shaughnessy, 2012). Dweck also referred to the former perspective as a growth mind-setand the latter as a fixed mind-set. Table 10.1 shows some of the beliefs of people who are operating from the two mind-sets. 

The key is the belief that we can grow our brain by hard work and persistence. Making mistakes and figuring out where we went wrong and trying again and again until we solve a problem is how we grow our brain. Having a growth mind-set changes the conversation from “I’m not smart enough” and “I’m not college material” to “Give me challenges and give me support and I’ll keep trying until I reach my learning goal.” 

Connecting this concept to stereotype threat, J. Aronson, Fried, and Good (2001) pointed out that students who were worried about confirming a negative stereotype might choose undemanding tasks on which they will surely succeed, especially when these tasks were evaluative, and they tended to devalue ability domains in which they might perform poorly. 

We suspect the negative ability stereotypes may derive part of their power to undermine intellectual performance and motivation precisely because they imply a self-threatening and inalterable deficiency – a fixed lack of intelligence. (p. 116) 

J. Aronson and colleagues’ (2001) idea was that one way to help students avoid responding to stereotype threat by focusing on performance was to convince them that their intelligence is expandable, that they can grow their brain by hard work and persistence. In one study, these researchers taught Black and White students about the expandability of intelligence and had them write about the concept to middle school students. Students in a control group wrote “pen pal” letters, and another group didn’t write letters. Both Black and White students in the growth mind-set group had significantly higher academic year GPAs than students in either of the control groups. Black, but not White, students in this group reported increased engagements and identification with school. The articulation of the growth mind-set through the writing task seems key, as students produce a persuasive argument, they may themselves be internalizing the message more deeply (Tough, 2014). 


Table 10.1.  Growth Mind-Set Beliefs and Fixed Mind-Set Beliefs 

Growth Mind-Set Beliefs

Fixed Mind-Set Beliefs

People can change how “smart” they are by learning new things and growing their brains.

People are born as smart as they’ll ever be; intelligence is a fixed quality. 

With hard work and effort, anyone can learn and do just about anything.

Hard work and effort are futile; if a person is not good at something, that’s just the way it is. 

No matter how smart people seem, they can still learn and improve their knowledge and skills.

Even really smart people can’t get any smarter; it’s just the way they were born.

People may seem to have certain characteristics, but they can change them with hard work and effort. 

You’re a certain kind of person, and you can’t change that.

The smartest people work really hard, studying and practicing, so they can grow their brains and improve their skills. 

Only people who aren’t very smart or skilled have to work really hard, like doing homework or practicing music or sports.

It’s in facing new challenges and learning new things that the most growth happens in our brains.

Challenges are just frustrating and defeating; it’s better to stick with the things for which you have natural talent. 

The most important thing is to learn and grow; mistakes are just part of the process.

If a person tries something new and fails, people will know he or she is not smart. 

Only if people give each other constructive feedback about their work can we know where we need to improve and work to do it.

People shouldn’t criticize others; it just makes them feel bad about themselves, and, anyway, they can’t help it if they make mistakes.

Note. Adapted from Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, by C. Dweck, 2006, New York, NY: Ballantine Books. 


Good, Aronson, and Inzlicht (2003) examined these issues in a study with four groups of seventh graders. To the first group, they provided information about the expandability of the brain with mental work and to a second group they provided assurance that learning difficulties were normal in transition times but that they decrease as students settle into their new environment. A third group got a combination of these two messages, and a fourth group, the control group, got a neutral anti-drug use message. The measures were scores on standardized math and reading tests. In the growth mind-set condition, all students’ scores increased on the math test, but the increase was more pronounced in the female students, which is consistent with what we know about the effects of stereotype threat. The gender gap in math scores disappeared when students got the nonpejorative message about learning difficulties and when they received the growth mind-set message. Students who heard the growth mind-set message had higher reading scores compared to students in the control group. This makes sense, as 80% of the students were Black or Hispanic and so were likely to have experienced stereotype threat in this domain. 

Blackwell, Trzesniewski, and Dweck (2007) conducted eight weekly workshops with seventh-grade Black and Hispanic students, teaching study skills and the concept of the growth mind-set as a way to motivate them to work hard and not give up in response to setbacks. Students were taught that our brain grows with challenge and effort, which encouraged them to keep trying even if they didn’t succeed the first time. A control group of students was taught only study skills in similar workshops. At the end of the academic year, the students in the control group showed a decline in math grades, which was the norm at this school, but the students in the growth mind-set group had significantly improved math grades (by 0.30 grade points). 

Instructors who want to communicate an emphasis on a growth mind-set need to be clear that it’s not about the grade but about the quality of the learning. The reality for most of us in higher education is that we are responsible for giving students grades based on their performance. Other factors may influence the grade, such as effort, contribution to group learning, attendance in class, improvement over time, and so on. Ultimately, however, course grades should reflect a student’s grasp of the learning outcomes for the course. The students demonstrate this grasp through assignments, exams, projects, and other graded activities. Williams (2013), in talking about increasing motivation by fostering a growth mind-set, asked, “Are students given an opportunity to make up for initially low performance by putting in extra effort or figuring out how to better solve a problem?” 

To apply the idea of giving students the chance to make up for early low performance and to maintain the focus on learning and persistence throughout the semester, some instructors use the following method. The instructor gives three exams, which each cover specific knowledge or application of knowledge, and a comprehensive final. The final consists of items from each of the three groups covered by the earlier exams. If a student does better on any of these groups of questions than she did on the original exam, the instructor substitutes the score on the final on that group of questions for the original exam score. What is communicated with this practice is that what matters is that the student has mastered the content by the end of the semester; there is no penalty for the earlier failure, so the student is motivated to keep learning throughout the entire semester. The concept of basing a grade on a student’s best work rather than on an average of all the work done over a semester is called “standards-based” grading. Grades are expressions of the achievement of learning goals only; the question is the extent to which the student has demonstrated mastery of each of the learning goals, no matter when that demonstration happens. Townsley (2014) explained standards-based grading in detail, which includes many chances for students to demonstrate learning, including revisions and redos, and students are given multiple opportunities to practice the standard independently and in class with others. Well-articulated learning goals are given to students at the outset so that expectations are clear. 


To help students “grow” their brain, we can assign them neurobic exercises, with guided reflection. Neurobics (neuron + aerobics) are stretching exercises to increase oxygen and give our brain’s neurons more life by experiencing or participating in some new activity, situation, or event. According to Jim Watson (1988), who created the original version of the assignment, when we stretch our mind, it never returns to its previous shape. Research has indicated that taxing the brain (making it “sweat”) with unfamiliar exercises can improve our ability to learn, remember, and solve problems. After a very short lecture on Dweck’s mind-sets, I required students in a first-year orientation class to complete four neurobic exercises over the semester. (See assignment in Appendix 10A.) Their reflections showed some trivial and some significant learning and, more important, suggested that most of them discovered that taking a risk was worth it for the new experience and insights. Some students did adventurous (to them) things such as staying up all night to see the stars and the sunrise, eating alone in a restaurant, or talking to three people they didn’t know each day for a week. Other students tried changing to healthier habits such as drinking water instead of soda for a week, walking instead of skateboarding, or going to a yoga class with a friend. Many of their reflections were about how nervous they were or how they didn’t think they could do the thing and then that they could do it and how good that felt. It was like they were actually feeling their brain growing, and they liked that sensation. 

Not Yet” Versus “Not” Feedback

To help us give students the kind of feedback that encourages a growth mind-set, Dweck (2014, video) talked about the difference between the messages in “not” and “not yet.” Feedback that indicates to students that they can achieve the learning outcome with more effort (knowledge, experience, focus) is more productive than the kind of feedback that says, “You’re not good enough.” Instructors can give students second tries, frequent specific feedback, and consistent support, practices that seem to be especially effective for first-generation and nonmajority students. Williams, Paunesk, Haley, and Sohl-Dickstein (2013) found that the kind of feedback to students made significant differences in learning outcomes in online classes. They found that the most important emphasis for producing measurably improved outcomes was that intelligence is malleable; for example, “Remember, the more you practice the smarter you become!” 

Self-Esteem Versus Self-Efficacy 

In a seminar in Glasgow in 2008 (Centre for Confidence, 2008), Carol Dweck reminded us of the difference between self-concept or self-esteem and self-efficacy. Sometimes students seem to have a positive self-concept, meaning that they think they are smart and show outward confidence. As a result of going to an elite school or being a member of a certain group or from childhood messages about ability or performance, some students have what Dweck called an “empty self-belief” (Centre for Confidence, 2008, p. 2) of confidence and superiority. She related this to a fixed mind-set that is about feeling good about yourself, often by comparing yourself with the low achievement of others. What is important, she said, for a growth mind-set is to have the courage and determination to make mistakes and work to correct them. She said that self-efficacy, which is necessary for ongoing academic achievement, comes from mastery of problems through persistence, not from self-esteem. This might sound strange to some of us who have been told that we want to make students feel good about themselves by giving them positive feedback. What students need is honest and constructive feedback accompanied by assurances that they can reach their learning goals with effort and practice. 

Christopher O’Neal (2014), from the UCLA Griffin School of Medicine, pointed out, “Negative self-efficacy equals lower academic performance, lower degrees of optimism, poorer health, higher stress, and higher attrition” (Prezi slide 20). He suggested the following four strategies to build self-efficacy in our students: 

1.     Seeing a peer succeed at a task

2.     Using verbal persuasion and affirmations 

3.     Reducing stress and anxiety 

4.     Using collaborative, conceptual, and creative pedagogies (Prezi slides 26-29) 



Aronson, J., Fried, C.B., & Good, C. (2001). Reducing the effects of stereotype threat on African American college students by shaping theories of intelligence. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 38, 113-125. 

Blackwell, L.S., Trzesniewski, K.H., & Dweck, C.S. (2007). Theories of intelligence predict achievement across an adolescent transition: A longitudinal study and an intervention. Child Development, 78(1), 246-263. 

Centre for Confidence. (2008, 18 September). Carol Dweck Seminar: Creating Confident Individuals. Glasgow, Scotland. 

Dweck, C. (2014, November). The power of believing that you can improve. TEDXNorrkoping. Retrieved from

Good, C., Aronson, J., & Inzlicht, M. (2003). Improving adolescents’ standardized test performance: An intervention to reduce the effects of stereotype threat. Applied Developmental Psychology, 24, 645-662.  

Moore, T.-L. M. B., & Shaughnessy, M.F. (2012). Carol Dweck’s views on achievement and intelligence: Implications for education. Research Journal in Organizational Psychology and Educational Studies, 1(3), 174-184. 

O’Neal, C. (2014, July 28). Helping faculty free students from the misconceptions that chain them. Retrieved from

Tough, P. (2014, May 15). Who gets to graduate? The New York Times Magazine. Retrieved from

Townsley, M. (2014, November 11). What is the difference between standards-based grading (or reporting) and competency-based education? Retrieved from

Watson, J.R. (1988). Neurobics. Retrieved from

Williams, J.J., Pauneski, D., Haley, B., & Sohl-Dickstein, J. (2013). Measurably increasing motivation in MOOCs. In Proceedings of the 1st Workshop on Massive Open Online Courses at the 16th Annual Conference on Artificial Intelligence in Education, Memphis, TN.