George Lucas Educational Foundation
Growth Mindset

Helping Struggling Students Build a Growth Mindset

Veteran researchers present five strategies—like maintaining success files and allowing choice—to help struggling students develop a positive attitude needed for success.
A stylized illustration showing students’ minds as they talk to each other
A stylized illustration showing students’ minds as they talk to each other
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As researchers and teacher educators, we have found that a gift many effective educators give struggling students is a practical and optimistic mindset coupled with strategies that help them learn successfully. Over the last two decades, we have supported teachers in teaching students about their brilliant brains and in showing students strategies to support positive outlooks about their learning capabilities.

Our research aligns well with Carol Dweck’s work on growth mindset, or acting on the belief that abilities can be developed through dedication and hard work. In a previous post, we discussed the importance of growth mindset for teachers.

Now we turn to the benefits of helping students who find school difficult maintain a positive mindset as they persist in the sometimes hard work required for learning. When failures mount, it’s easy to give up. A positive mindset focuses on the gains that are possible when students persevere through learning challenges. Here are five strategies to help struggling students develop a growth mindset.

Encouraging Optimism About Learning

This outlook helps struggling students become more motivated, alert, and ready to learn, so that neurotransmitters that enable learning can be released. Many students who have learning challenges become pessimistic about school and lose hope that they can make academic progress. These teaching strategies help reinforce how useful it can be to develop a state of practical optimism:

  • Model practical optimism and point out examples of this approach in action; for example, say, “We knew this would be a tough project, but we stuck with it and worked hard. Just look at what we’ve accomplished!”
  • Share examples of how you have overcome learning obstacles. It’s helpful for struggling students to realize that everyone occasionally faces learning challenges.
  • Share stories that illustrate the benefits of practical optimism.
  • Maintain a positive learning atmosphere by posing questions such as “What was the best thing that happened today?” 

In previous posts, we’ve discussed cultivating practical optimism in the classroom and in schools generally.

Teaching Students to Learn More Effectively

When struggling students learn how to “drive their brains” through the use of cognitive strategies, they’re more likely to be able to learn and think at higher levels. Teachers often tell us they need strategies for helping students learn how to increase their attention. Our post “Strategies for Getting and Keeping the Brain’s Attention” offers tried-and-true strategies to support teachers with this common classroom issue. And Edutopia’s “Resources on Learning and the Brain” features other easy-to-use strategies for assisting students to learn more effectively.

Maintaining Success Files

A success file is a continually updated collection that provides ready evidence to help students internalize and remember their learning successes. Here is one way to use this strategy:

  1. Give every student a folder to use as a success file.
  2. Ask students to write the word success on their file and/or draw a picture that represents success for them.
  3. Every day, when possible, ask students to add to their folders examples of successful learning, such as tasks completed, examples of learning gains, and assignments that support their personal definitions of success.
  4. At the start of each school day or class, remind students to look through their success file. The more students can reconnect to their previous achievements, the more positive their mindsets can become and the more successful they’ll be in the long run.

Using Growth Assessments

Growth assessments is the term we use for formative assessments that help guide student learning and monitor progress. Students with learning challenges benefit when teachers check in often and provide additional instruction and feedback when necessary. Growth assessments help students identify their strengths and areas of weakness that need further practice and reinforcement, and may include class discussions, interviews with individual students, consultations on drafts of work, and observations of how students are applying what they’ve learned. Students may use self-assessments such as journal entries and personal checklists so they can be prompted to monitor their progress. Keeping track of their growth, including learning challenges they have overcome, helps to foster a growth mindset.

Letting Students Choose

When students can choose topics of personal interest to study or make the subject of a learning project, they are more likely to maintain interest and motivation. Giving students choices also underscores that they are in charge of their learning.

One of the greatest thrills for teachers is to see the light bulb switch on for struggling students as they learn something new and internalize the belief that through effort and the use of sound strategies they can keep growing their skills and knowledge.

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Donna Wilson, Ph.D.'s picture
Donna Wilson, Ph.D.
Author of Positively Smarter, Smarter Teacher Leadership, Developer of Graduate Programs in Brain-Based Teaching, and Professional Developer

Tania,

Please clarify your comment and link. I don't see the connection.

Thank you.

Donna

Robert Nemcko's picture

Thanks for sharing this article. A growth mindset is one of the most important aspects of education that teachers need to work on with their students for their achievement. I have been shifting my focus to doing a lot more formative assessments through conferencing with the students when possible. We go through their portfolios together to find areas where they have shown success as well as areas they need to keep working on. We discuss goals to improve and strategies that can be implemented to achieve at a higher level. Since I have started doing this with my students, I have noticed a significant boost in motivation and all around better attitudes towards learning and putting forth effort. Like you said, you begin to see the light bulb go on, and this is so refreshing for myself as a teacher, but so much more for the students that begin to see that they can succeed. I love the idea of success files that are based on the students' definition of success. I think I will try to apply this idea with my students. Do you have any recommendations for keeping students interested in their success files and maintain them for the duration of the school year? I often see students lose interest quickly with new ideas, and for a success file to be truly meaningful, the effort needs to be sustained.

Thanks,
Robbie

Donna Wilson, Ph.D.'s picture
Donna Wilson, Ph.D.
Author of Positively Smarter, Smarter Teacher Leadership, Developer of Graduate Programs in Brain-Based Teaching, and Professional Developer

Hi Robbie,

We are delighted to see you are interested in this popular strategy! You are right on to work toward success over a sustained period with the 'Success Files.' A key is for the files to feature your relationship with each child, rather than on the folder itself. So, actually the files are a concrete way for you, the teacher, to be in conversation with students about their successes. Another powerful way to use this strategy is for you to facilitate student sharing of some of their successes with their parents.

I hope this helps!

All the best to you, Donna

Robert Nemcko's picture

Hi Donna,
Thanks for the advice. You are 100% correct to state that teachers need to be in conversation with students about their successes, and I really like the idea of creating opportunities for students to share their successes with each other, their teachers and parents.
I am currently starting a project with my students for developing a growth mindset. The project is based on the Big Ideas video series produced by Class Dojo, which are aimed at students. The series also provides lesson ideas and discussion questions. Here is a link to the series: https://ideas.classdojo.com/
I think that this is such an important topic for our students to understand and work on.

Robbie

Donna Wilson, Ph.D.'s picture
Donna Wilson, Ph.D.
Author of Positively Smarter, Smarter Teacher Leadership, Developer of Graduate Programs in Brain-Based Teaching, and Professional Developer

Thank you, Robert. All the best with your project!

Donna

Michelle Coelho's picture

I love the idea of sharing examples of 'famous' people who struggled. So often students feel alone with their struggles and internalize feelings of worthlessness. I will definitely use that idea in my class. Success files are similar to displaying student work but better. I put all their work on my walls, which is limited, so selecting the 'special' pieces of work would allow me to showcase their favorites. A Growth Mindset is a great way to inspire students to work through their struggles. One way I help my students to stay positive and focused is a Goals poster. The poster has a goal and personal steps along the way to reach that goal. My students personalized their poster using a football theme. For example, my student drew a giant goal post and surrounded it with small footballs. The goal post represented the main goal and the footballs represented the steps he needed to take to get there. The idea being that we are focused and positive about accomplishing our goals. Also, reminding my students that everyone has their own timing and the goal is personal to them.
Thanks for sharing your ideas!

ekatebini's picture
ekatebini
I am excited about research in education!

I cannot wait until growth mindset is more widely acknowledged. This is an example of pervasive research teachers are exposed to, yet parents are left in the dark, unless they themselves want to commit to reading research. I would love to create a TV show of easily accessible, digestible information about development and education. I think it would speed up the way important information about education would be spread to the general public!

Donna Wilson, Ph.D.'s picture
Donna Wilson, Ph.D.
Author of Positively Smarter, Smarter Teacher Leadership, Developer of Graduate Programs in Brain-Based Teaching, and Professional Developer

Hi Michelle,

Thank you for your thoughtful post! I really like your idea of a 'Goals poster' as a structure your students can enjoy using. In particular, your commenting on the power of individual goals and personal steps for each student to achieve her/his goal. I agree that the struggling of famous people is a great topic of study for a number of reasons including the isolation you mention that some students feel. Additionally, I also appreciate that many famous people who have overcome struggles provide good role models for youth. I look forward to reading how you use these tools and more e.g. Success Files!

All the best to you!!!!!

Donna

Donna Wilson, Ph.D.'s picture
Donna Wilson, Ph.D.
Author of Positively Smarter, Smarter Teacher Leadership, Developer of Graduate Programs in Brain-Based Teaching, and Professional Developer

Greeting ekatebini,

Thank you for your comment! We too think that it is a very fascinating time to be an educator and to share research from psychology, education, and emerging educational neuroscience!!!!

All best to you!!!!!

Donna

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