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5 Tips for Using Growth Mindset to Foster Motivation

My answer to teachers who ask me, “How do I motivate my students?” is simple. You can’t. Since motivation is an inherent personal choice, it is flawed logic to suppose that one individual can motivate another. We set ourselves up for failure when we attempt to take responsibility for the subjective aspirations of our students.

We can better serve our learners by asking, “How can I empower these students to motivate themselves?” This may seem like an argument in semantics, but a simple shift in focus can help free educators from the hand-wringing guilt of asking, “How in the world do I overcome all the travails my students face?” to a more realistic and achievable, “What can I do to encourage learners to persevere with tenacity and determination toward their goals?” Today’s most promising research on how to support effective self-motivation in students comes from Carol Dweck’s growth mindset theories.

Dweck initially studied attribution theory. She, along with others, found that how students view their success determines how likely they are to have self-efficacy. If they perceive their degree of success (or lack of it) is based on external factors (e.g., innate ability or talent, task difficulty, luck), they are likely to make fewer attempts, use less effort, and give up more easily. On the other hand, if they believe their achievements are grounded in internal factors (e.g. their efforts, choices, strategies), they tend to work harder, try longer, overcome greater obstacles, and recover more quickly from failed attempts. In other words, students who believe they have control over what happens to them are far more motivated than those who don’t. The belief that one can largely control her own destiny is the building block for growth mindset.

Unfortunately, the newfound popularity of the growth mindset movement has spawned misconceptions that are counter to the idea of promoting self-motivation. Some believe that growth mindset is all about telling students they are responsible for everything that happens to them and that working harder will solve all their problems. Some tell students that anyone can be anything they choose to be if they just want it badly enough. These concepts are not only misleading, they are counterproductive to the basic tenets of growth mindset theory.

Effective growth mindset strategies teach students they can get better at anything if they are willing to put in the effort and make appropriate choices. It teaches them even though there will always be circumstances they can’t control, they can always control their reactions, their efforts, and their choices. It focuses on feedback that is accurate and helpful towards improvement, and it minimizes labels, rationalizations, and excuses. Growth mindset does encourage hard work towards challenging obstacles, but the goal is not for students to be the best but rather to do their best.

Here are five tips for creating classrooms that promote growth mindset and build intrinsic motivation in students.

How Can Teachers Promote Growth Mindset for All Learners?

  1. Make a conscious effort to provide “wait time.”

Rather than having students compete for who is first with the right answer, teachers can ask deeper questions that require students to grapple with their responses. Sometimes certain students (e.g., introverts, English language learners, students with executive function challenges) need more time to think through their answers. They are more likely to stay engaged if they have a reasonable chance to deliberate and if their answers are valued as well as those of the faster responding students. Teachers can ask a thoughtfully worded question and request that no one raises a hand while they ponder the solution. After giving sufficient time for every student to think, teachers can lead a discussion incorporating various correct responses. The teacher could then ask, “Who totally missed that one? What thinking led you to your answer?” After a nonjudgmental dissection of the errant       thinking, the teacher could say, “I’m glad we got that cleared up. Look what you just learned from your mistakes. That’s how it’s done in real life.”

  1. Keep the emphasis on progress rather than scores.

Scores can limit learning more than help it. Students with high scores often think their learning is done. Students with low scores may feel, “What’s the use in trying?” Especially when beginning to teach new skills and knowledge teachers need to use formative assessments that give students information about how they can improve. Specific, authentic feedback is imperative to help students move towards mastery. Students should be challenged to answer the question, “How much more can you do (or do you know) now that you didn’t know before?” To keep        students self-motivated reminds them about how far they have come rather than focusing on how far they have to go.

  1. Make sure all learners have challenging work goals.

Whether they are high flyers, struggling students, or somewhere in between, students are inspired to work when attentive teachers ensure their challenges are just beyond their reach. When a student says, “I already know this,” or “We did this last year,” the best response is something like, “Well, that’s on me then. I apologize for underestimating your mastery. Let’s see if we can move the bar a bit so that you get a chance to learn something new today. After all, what’s the purpose of coming to class if you don’t leave here with more knowledge or skills than you brought in?” For students who are struggling, the teacher can say, “It looks like I’ve asked you to do something you’re not quite ready to do. Let’s back this up a notch and give you more practice on the lead up steps.”

  1. Incorporate the “Power of Yet” with students.

Many teachers use the term “yet” to dissuade students who have learned to be helpless. When students came into my science class proclaiming, “I don’t know anything about science, and I can’t do labs,” I smiled and said, “You can’t do labs yet.” Instead of allowing students to mire themselves in a bunch of “I can’t’s,” “I don’t know how’s,” or“I don’ like’s” teachers need to be quick to respond not only with the word “yet” but also the “attitude of yet.” We can point out that even experts at one time had no idea how to start but with effort, perseverance, and guidance they did it one step at a time. “Yet” conveys an attitude of hope and optimism. Motivation is fueled by both.

  1. Help to normalize the struggle.

Students need to understand that every worthwhile achievement comes from overcoming something that is initially difficult. Teachers need to verbalize their own struggles and encourage students to talk about what is hard for them, how they overcome obstacles, and how they feel after they accomplish something they’ve never done before. Students with a growth mindset value working hard, recovering from mistakes, and challenging themselves. They are self-motivated. Motivation is not something we do for our students, it is something we help them foster within themselves.

Written by

Debbie Silver is an award-winning educator with 30 years experience as a classroom teacher, professional development expert, and university professor. She has delighted audiences in 49 states, Canada, Mexico, Europe, Asia, and the Middle East with her insightful observations and astute ideas for helping assure every learner a reasonable chance at success. Debbie is the author of Fall Down 7 Times, Get Up 8: Teaching Kids to Succeed (Corwin, 2012) and co-author of Deliberate Optimism: Reclaiming the Joy in Education (Corwin, 2015) and Teaching Kids to Thrive: Essential Skills for Success (Corwin, April 2017).


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