TEACHING AT PITT: Growth mindset and its implications in teaching


Are you familiar with the term growth mindset? If not, you are missing out on something that can impact your students’ learning.

Renowned Stanford University psychologist Carol Dweck discovered through years of research the idea of mindset, which explains why intelligence and talent do not guarantee success. This factor also can predict motivation and achievement (Dweck, 2007).

People who have a fixed mindset believe their intelligence or talent are immutable traits. Thus, they assume talented individuals are born with their natural gifts and therefore tend to downplay the role of practice and effort in their endeavors. In fact, people with a fixed mindset might perceive that having to make an effort is evidence that they have less natural intelligence and ability, which may make them avoid new challenges.

At the same time, individuals with a fixed mindset tend to regard negative feedback as a threat to their self-perceptions of their own natural ability (Dweck, 1999; Mangels, Butterfield, Lamb, Good, & Dweck, 2006). Underlying the fixed mindset is a desire to prove they are naturally smart, so they gravitate toward tasks that they are already good at without the risk of revealing their perceived deficits (Dweck, 1999).

Conversely, people with a growth mindset believe they can improve incrementally with effort. They tend to regard negative feedback as a challenge to improve (Mangels et al., 2006) and view learning as a gradual process, which makes them smarter (Dweck, 1999). They are likely to practice more and make progress (Mangels et al., 2006) because they see effort as necessary to improve learning.

As an instructor, you can foster a growth mindset in your students. For example, you can introduce deliberate mindset training such as watching a video about how brains work and taking Dweck’s (1999) mindset scale. However, this is only the beginning of the process. Mindset training is most effective when used in tandem with teaching practices that cultivate a growth mindset. The following are some suggestions for you to consider:

  1. Establish high standards

Set your standards high (but with reasonable expectations) and communicate to students how they can reach these standards step by step.

  1. Scaffold and incrementally chunk information

Provide enough support when students learn something new. Present new information in logical chunks that are not overwhelming. Without scaffolding, students will not be able to reach high academic standards. 

  1. Design a curriculum that encourages growth

Your curriculum should contain opportunities for students to make mistakes and fail. Students need to recognize failures are inevitable and can be a sign of improvement. Low stakes quizzes and assignments can allow students to fail and learn from mistakes or misunderstanding of the course content without grave consequences. Sharing your own struggles in learning the subject matter also is helpful.

  1. Make your teaching student-centered

Lecture-based classes are teacher-centered in that students are passive receivers of knowledge. In such classes, little time is allotted to checking students’ understanding. On the other hand, a student-centered classroom allows students to take a more active role in exploration, practice and testing hypotheses. By monitoring student practice, you have an opportunity to gauge their understanding, which informs you on how to adjust your teaching, lesson content and pace. Less teacher talk will help shape a class that is dialogical, helping you find out students’ prior knowledge, backgrounds, concerns, and questions.

5. Offer specific, meaningful praise on both effort and results

Praise should be meaningful and specific. General praise such as “Excellent work!” doesn’t really convey why students’ work is excellent. Specific praise makes more explicit connections between the positive outcomes that result from good effort. For instance, “I see you put effort into revising this essay. Your writing now expresses your thoughts precisely and coherently. Great work!” As this example shows, growth mindset is not only about effort (Dweck, 2015), so we should avoid praising effort alone.

The peril of praising only effort is that it may mislead students to believe as long as they have tried, the results do not matter. But results do matter; so do not hesitate to let students know when their performance is unsatisfactory. At the same time, tell them how they can improve, which brings us to the next point about effective feedback.

6. Effective feedback contains three elements

Effective feedback can be verbal and written. Either way, it should communicate what students achieved and what they can do to improve. Effective feedback should contain three elements: a general comment or score that evaluates an assignment; where you see growth and improvement (strength); and what can be improved (growth). For instance, you can say, “You tried to solve this problem twice. You are closer to getting an answer because you came up with two more steps compared to your first try. Now, analyze this part of the problem and see if you can get something different. I think you can do it!” Adding something similar to “I think you can do it” can help students build self-confidence.  

7. Provide opportunities for revision

In a curriculum that fosters a growth mindset, opportunities for practice are paramount. For instance, you can allow two or more submittals of the same assignment so that students can revise based on feedback. It is critical to give timely constructive feedback before students have a chance to revise their works.

Meiyi Song is an Instructional Designer, Teaching and Learning Consultant at Pitt's Teaching and Learning Center.


Dweck, C. S. (1999). Self-theories: Their role in motivation, personality, and development.

Dweck, C. S. (2007). The perils and promises of praise. Educational Leadership, 65(2), 34-39.

Dweck, C. S. (2015, September 22). Carol Dweck revisits the growth mindset. Education Week.

Mangels, J. A., Butterfield, B., Lamb, J., Good, C., & Dweck, C. S. (2006). Why do beliefs about intelligence influence learning success? A social cognitive neuroscience model. Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, 1(2), 75–86.