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Talking About a Growth Mindset Isn’t Enough. Here’s What Makes a Difference for Students (Opinion)

How can I use grading policies to encourage a growth mindset?

Give students opportunities to be rewarded for demonstrating learning and improvement. Here’s something I wrote about the topic for Character Lab as a Tip of the Week:

Unlike most students in my introductory chemistry class in college, I wasn’t a freshman on the premedical track. I was a senior studying philosophy and psychology. Eager to expand my mind—I’d been developing a growth mindset over a few years—I took the course thinking it would be a good challenge.

And it was. Though the work was rigorous, the professor emphasized that anybody could master chemistry—that it wasn’t reserved only for the “naturally gifted.” I became even more excited about the idea of understanding the building blocks of the universe.

Unfortunately, the class was structured like many other science courses. Grades were based almost entirely on a few exams (with median scores regularly in the 60 percent to 70 percent range), and there were no opportunities to be rewarded for demonstrating learning and improvement. For example, students couldn’t revise and resubmit homework assignments for partial credit.

With dogged hard work, I managed to get an A-minus in the course. But the experience wasn’t what I had wanted. My focus quickly shifted away from learning and purely toward performance, with the end result that much of my initial enthusiasm waned.

In recent research, my colleagues and I found that having a growth mindset isn’t enough to overcome the messages sent by performance-centric settings. Teenagers read descriptions of different types of courses and reported how likely they would be to choose challenging coursework that would push the bounds of their learning. When classroom policies didn’t reward improvement, even the students who reported having a strong growth mindset were unlikely to take on the challenging coursework. And, like my experience in chemistry, this was still the case when the teacher clearly and consistently expressed that all students could improve and ultimately master the material.

Don’t believe talking passionately about learning is enough to inspire students. That message can fail if there aren’t tangible opportunities for kids to demonstrate and be rewarded for their improvement.

Do emphasize growth in both what you say and what you do. Let students retake exams for partial credit. Allow them to turn in early drafts of essays for feedback, then give them suggestions for how to revise. When you show through your actions that improvement is the highest-priority goal, it can spark young people’s enthusiasm to show off the fruits of their learning.

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