Have you thought about mindsets in your classroom? Look at the six statements below and think about to what extent you agree or disagree with them:
- Your intelligence is something very basic about you that you can’t change very much.
- You are a certain kind of person and there is not much that can be done to really change that.
- Truly smart people do not need to try hard.
- You can always change basic things about the kind of person you are.
- I appreciate when people, parents, coaches, or teachers, give me feedback about my performance.
- No matter how much intelligence you have, you can always change it quite a bit.
The statements above are adapted from Carol Dweck’s 2006 book titled Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. If you found yourself agreeing with the first three statements and disagreeing with items four through six, you may have more of what Dweck calls a fixed mindset. A professor of psychology at Stanford University, Dweck states that people are a mixture of two mindsets regarding how they perceive new skills or talents. First, individuals who believe abilities, talents, and skills can be improved possess a growth mindset, while those who think talents and skills are primarily innate have a fixed mindset. In the context of education, researchers have noted the positive and negative effects teachers’ mindsets can have on learner outcomes.
For instance, a team of researchers led by Katherine Muenks in the United States published four studies in the Journal of Experimental Psychology discussing how students’ perceptions of their professor’s mindset influence psychological vulnerability (i.e., predispositions to psychological problems), engagement, and performance in the class. The results of their studies, as well as others, suggested that students both enjoy the course and are more engaged when they believe faculty have confidence in students’ abilities to improve (a growth mindset). Although one may argue teachers generally have students’ best interests in mind, there may be situations where words or actions are inadvertently cultivating a fixed mindset in the classroom and dampening learning outcomes.
Therefore, the following paragraphs briefly examine the concept of the Cues Hypothesis as a contextual antecedent to why teachers are so important in forming student mindsets and then explore practical steps educators can take to better ensure a growth mindset.
The fundamental idea behind the Cue Hypothesis is straightforward: people are typically looking at situational signals in their environment to assess what is appreciated there. One of the most significant signals is what individuals in positions of power value. These cues can be conveyed verbally and non-verbally through feedback and evaluation or in cues generated by the physical environment. In the classroom, the teachers are in the default position of power. Even the implicit beliefs we hold about student mindset have been shown to affect both positive and negative learning outcomes. Therefore, being aware of what we represent in the classroom is essential when it comes to the language we use and the concepts we reinforce when we interact with students. The items below are what Lou and Noels (2019) call the “Language-mindset meaning system,” which the authors describe as important factors in fostering growth mindsets in ourselves and our students in the SLA classroom:
- Attribution: What causes different learning outcomes?
- Effort Beliefs: What is the meaning of effort?
- Achievement Goals: What are your goals for your learning activities?
- Failures/mistakes: What does a failure/mistake mean?
- Self-regulation in the face of adversity: What do you do when dealing with setbacks?
- Emotional tendency in the face of adversity: How do you feel when doing challenging tasks?
With this system in mind, what actions can we take to promote a growth mindset in our students and the overall culture of our classroom? First, the most straightforward step is discussing the growth and fixed mindset at the beginning of the semester. The questions above in the language-mindset meaning system framework may be great questions to pose to students, depending on their language level. For lower-level students, translating these questions into students’ native language and letting them voice their beliefs could also help shape a positive mindset in the classroom and double as an ice-breaking activity. Likewise, a bilingual written statement in response to these questions by the teacher would make the teacher’s beliefs even clearer to students. Explicitly addressing learner perceptions is similar to a successful intervention I discussed in our Think Tank on the Social Brain focusing on language anxiety and can act as a foundation for changing how students view learning, especially if, once established, this foundation is repeatedly referred to as the semester progresses.
Understandably, explicitly addressing mindset in the classroom may not be an option, due to time factors or language ability. However, there are still ways to demonstrate growth mindset beliefs. For instance, while going through the syllabus in the first class, communicate that everybody can learn and improve their abilities, and that mistakes/questions are a welcome part of the learning process in the course. Avoid statements that are disguised as comforting but actually promote a fixed mindset, such as “not everyone is good at grammar” or “some people just can’t memorize words well” when talking with students. These may lead to the belief that their ability to learn a language is innately less than others’ and, over time, progress to more maladaptive learning strategies (e.g., learned helplessness) in the face of future challenges.
Furthermore, research into practical feedback tools and other mindset intervention methods addresses a few strategies for praising effort, depending on the situation. First, if students succeed with an endeavor, try to praise specific behaviors related to their efforts, such as time management or the particular strategy they implemented. However, in situations where students have failed despite their best efforts, focus on what opportunities these failures bring for learning and suggest new strategies for learning. If situations arise where students have thrived without much effort, offer more challenging tasks or another skill to develop. It might also be helpful to have them take helping roles in the classroom. However, when students neither succeed nor show evidence of effort, it may take more time to investigate what obstacles are stopping them and what options might be more appealing to them. In all cases, it is vital to praise hard work when there is clear evidence of progress and remind students of past obstacles they have overcome. In the classroom, tracking student progress can be done by taking short-hand notes while students perform group-work (I like to use the student roster for this) or outside of class in the feedback we provide on assignments. Regardless of how it is applied, it is important that we are conscious of what our feedback shows is valued in our students’ learning.
An additional strategy can also be implemented during group activities. Students should know you are paying attention to their behavior throughout an activity. Stress the importance of how they complete the task rather than the end goal. Therefore, remind students of what is valued during activities, for example, listening and respecting each other’s input, asking questions, and learning from mistakes. Take notes as students work on their task and, in the end, provide some comments on what good behavior you saw and what areas you think could be improved. Again, this is a chance to further reinforce the values you set-up earlier in the semester if you did an activity or other intervention to explicitly address mindset.
In summary, the Cue Hypothesis suggests that students rely on teachers for a large part of how they assess their competence during our courses, and the cues that teachers present about mindset have been shown to influence students’ learning outcomes. It should also be noted that fixed/growth mindsets are not as simple as possessing one or the other. People fall on the continuum between the two concepts. Their exact position can be changed over time and depends on the subject being discussed (e.g., mathematics versus language learning). However, what we can take from the research is that when teachers provide cues to support a growth mindset in the classroom, this can influence a variety of positive learning outcomes.
Alessandro Grimaldi earned his graduate degree in Organizational Psychology from the University of Liverpool and is currently a Lecturer at Reitaku University. He has practiced evidence-based coaching for the past two years, focusing primarily on the education sector. His research focuses on educator professional development to influence better learning outcomes for the classroom.