Focus on the Process to Support the Growth Mindset of Students

Silhouette of head with different objects floating overhead

Dweck (2009) identified students’ beliefs about learning as their mindsets. Those who underestimate their ability to learn may have a fixed mindset, while those who believe that they can learn by establishing attainable goals and applying effort to learn have a growth mindset. Students with a growth mindset want to know the right answer. They want to be corrected; their ego isn’t tied to learning. They don’t mind revealing what they do not know. They understand that learning takes effort, and they enjoy it. Those with a fixed mindset don’t pay attention to corrective feedback; they don’t want to put forth effort to learn. Instead, they believe that learning shouldn’t take any effort because it’s tied to their intelligence. It shouldn’t be difficult if they’re intelligent; their ego influences how they learn.

It would be helpful for educators to explain the difference between the two mindsets to students and share the research findings. Perhaps students could use a learning style inventory to understand their mindset. Then they could reflect on how to make changes (self-regulate) to a growth mindset if they fall into the fixed mindset category. More importantly, educators need to learn how to provide feedback on student performance so as not to endanger a learner’s growth mindset. For example, praising a student for being smart doesn’t build their self-esteem. Instead, students must acquire self-esteem from their own effort and from overcoming struggles. Therefore, educators should praise persistence, acknowledge struggles, and identify students’ selection of challenging material/tasks. Focus on the process not the product when providing feedback.

Whatever mindset a person has will mold their motivation to learn (Dweck). A person’s personal belief of their ability to complete a task is explained in the the self-determination theory posited by Deci and Ryan. According to Deci, this theory states that personal control and autonomy (willingness, volition, endorsement of activity) affect your motivation to learn.  There is intrinsic and extrinsic motivation. Deci explained how extrinsic motivation can hinder the motivation to learn. For example, if you pay students for something they already enjoy doing intrinsically, this could cause them to rely on the extrinsic payment. If the extrinsic reward is removed, the student may become unmotivated to do the same task. This is because with extrinsic rewards, the learner does not maintain control nor autonomy of their learning. The extrinsic motivation is coerced. However, Deci explained how some extrinsically motivating events can become internalized as intrinsic. For example, helping the teacher with cleaning the classroom to earn a reward becomes something the student realizes is important for the good of the class.

Deci, E. What is self-determination theory? [Presentation]. Retrieved from Social PsyClips

Dweck, C. (2009). Developing Growth Mindsets: How Praise Can Harm, and How To Use it Well. [Presentation]. Paper presented at the Scottish Learning Festival, Glasgow. Retrieved from
This article was written by Sandra Rogers

Understanding A Learner’s Misunderstanding

Fish and fish-like animals and people
Fish is Fish, written & illustrated by Leo Lionni (1970); Published by Penguin Random House


In Fish is Fish ©, Lionni tells the story of two friends, a fish and a tadpole, who grow up together in a pond. When the tadpole becomes a frog, he’s able to hop out of the pond and discover land.  Upon return, he describes to the fish the wondrous things he has seen. The fish imagines these things based on his prior knowledge and understanding of the world.  Hence, birds are fish with wings, cows are fish with udders, and people are fish in clothing, and so forth. With an inability to imagine a very different reality, the fish simply superimposes the new on the old.

This story illustrates the impact of a learner’s prior knowledge on new information. Generally, the learner is unaware of their misunderstandings. Bransford, Brown, and Cocking (1999) found a solid research base to support tapping into a learner’s prior knowledge. Learners’ preconceived notions remain unchanged if their initial understanding is not engaged by the instructor.  In fact, even if students learn new information about a concept for a test, they may still revert to their original understanding when transferring it to real world applications. For example, in a 1983 study by Wandersee, students prior knowledge on animal food needs biased their understanding of the primary source of food in green plants.  Elementary and college students held the misconception that soil was the plants’ food even though many had received instruction on photosynthesis. Bransford et al. suggested that educators find ways to make a learner’s thinking visible in order to address these misconceptions.

Second, a learner’s belief system is tied to their experiences and culture. Sometimes in order to make sense of something new, one needs to see it associated to something known within their culture. Bransford et al. give the example of storytelling, which is an important component of some cultures. This can be associated with the language arts curriculum as a skill. An educator needs to have an understanding of the learners’ cultural background to aid sense-making. Generally, second language educators understand the importance of valuing a learner’s cultural background. Their specific training on the nature of language (linguistics) describes how culture is inextricably tied to language. Therefore, it’s important to use many examples and nonexamples in teaching new concepts. These should be open for discussion to allow learners to make connections to their understandings. In this way, the student introduces their own culture versus the good-willed but misinformed teachers’ understanding of culture not her own.

Third, it’s important to understand the economic, physical, political, linguistic, ethno-cultural, and social environmental barriers to learning new concepts. In my opinion, the fish-is-fish phenomenon occurs with learners whose systems include one or a combination of the following: monolingualism, racial homogeneity, geographic isolation, closed systems (those that exist without need from outside systems), economic hardships, and political isolation. This list is only cursory.

I  encountered various environmental barriers when using food to discuss nutrition in the elementary classroom in East Los Angeles. A school grant provided fresh fruits and vegetables with nutrition lessons weekly to a classroom. The day I introduced blueberries became more of a discussion on the fruit than on its nutritional values. The high cost of this fruit, coupled with it not being a part of the ethnic foods generally sold or purchased in the area, made blueberries an oddity. As one can imagine, students were more interested in tasting it than hearing about it. How could I appropriately describe the taste of a blueberry to someone who has never eaten one? The nutrition program’s lesson time frame for eating the fruit was generally on day three; of course, I didn’t stick to the plan. However, in some instances, the fruit was shipped still green, so that it would ripen according to the right day of the lesson plan.


Your blogger,

Sandra Rogers

P.S. I received permission from Random House to use this copyrighted illustration for this single blog post!

Blog Challenge: How can counter-conditioning be used to reduce test anxiety?

Dear Readers,
This is my first blog challenge! Your ideas can be formal or informal, for online or face-to-face instruction, for a real testing situation or an imaginary one.  Think like an entrepreneur for the educational market.  For example, I love Wired magazine’s competition, “Found”, where they ask what the world will look like in the future.  (See to see the future of wrist watches.)
You can 1) add your ideas as comments below, 2) email me with a complete blog post as,  or 3) write a post addressing the challenge on your own blog, as is protocol for such challenges.  With your permission, I’ll then link your blog posts to this one.  Anyone can participate—students, teachers, parents, entrepreneurs, etc.
I’m currently taking an educational psychology graduate course and learned about behaviorism.  In my idea below I used the idea of counter-conditioning and setting events to imagine a nonthreatening test center.  I’ve provided my ideas on providing counter-conditioning to extinguish learners’ test anxiety.
Challenge: Provide your ideas on how counter-conditioning could be used to reduce test anxiety.

Sandra Rogers: I’d like to set up simulated math tests in a computer lab to lessen math anxiety.  For example, we could use low-stakes, color-coded, leveled tests akin to SRA Reading Kit for pen and paper tests. (Some of you are too young to have used these leveled readers with self-testing but something about it was extrinsically motivating).   Perhaps Pearson’s MyMathLab computer testing software that adjusts to the individual’s abilities and challenges them at the i+1 level.  The lab could allow eating and drinking during the testing situations…maybe even a smoking test room for students who believe this could benefit their outcomes!  The lab décor could be more inviting with art on the wall.  The test-taking situation would have options beyond the normal desk & chair formality: the ability to stand while testing, or comfortable sofas for lounging, and space to allow for movement (perhaps some exercise bikes formatted with computer screens)!  Of course, we wouldn’t want too much as to be distracting.  This lab would allow for math test practice in a positive climate with threshold activities in an environment incompatible to a stressful situation.  I’d like an university to set up a research study with this idea in mind  to see if it’d be beneficial to students with test-anxiety.


Thanks in advance for your participation in this blog challenge.