Laura Varlas

Improving Motivation and Achievement Through a Growth Mindset

What turns kids off to learning? Carol Dweck, Stanford researcher and author of the book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, says how students think of themselves as learners creates mental environments that nurture or stifle effort when approaching different tasks. These psychological environments, or mindsets, are shaped by messages students receive from adults, peers, and themselves. Through her research, Dweck has uncovered two types of mindsets—fixed and growth—and three rules about how fixed and growth mindsets cue motivation, effort, and response to setbacks.

Look Smart versus Learn

For students with fixed mindsets, says Dweck, their motivation is to look smart at all costs. Fixed mindset students care a lot about grades but are at a loss if their natural ability doesn't get them high marks. For students with growth mindsets, their guiding light is to learn at all costs. This means that they pay attention to deep learning processes, not grades. If grades don't match their effort, then they try harder and focus on improving weaknesses.

Ease versus Effort

Fixed mindset students believe their natural talent affords easy achievement, while growth mindset students know they must work hard to meet their goals. When the going gets tough, fixed mindset kids bail. "They go to the edge of where their natural talent will take them, and then they drop it and find something new," noted Dweck. This phenomenon can play out with beginning teachers, added Dweck. If we promote the idea that teaching is innate, and not something that is developed over a career and with support, we will continue to lose bright new teachers, she warned.

It's All About Me versus It's All About Learning

When fixed mindset students hit a setback, it's all about them and their ability. To cope, they will try to hide mistakes and deficiencies, further alienating them from help. For growth mindset students, setbacks are all about learning. They capitalize on mistakes and confront their weaknesses. Dweck showed a brain scan of two brains encountering a mistake. The "fixed" brain was cool with inactivity, essentially taking flight. The "growth" brain was lit up with activity—engaged in detecting, processing, and correcting the error. "We want students to have that red hot brain," observed Dweck.

The Perils of Praise

The inconvenient truth, said Dweck, is that often the things we do to motivate kids contribute to their disengagement. In particular, our language sends messages to kids about what we value. Praising intelligence communicates that this is something fixed in a student, and it's what we care most about, said Dweck

Instead, Dweck recommends praising

  • Effort, struggle, persistence despite setbacks
  • Strategies, choices
  • Choosing difficult tasks
  • Learning, improving

The good news is that growth mindsets can be taught. Dweck has led several studies that demonstrate mindset interventions work, and her website,, includes literature and tools to support this mission.

Demotivated students are turned off because they are afraid of effort and difficulty—it makes them feel dumb. We've stoked this fear by praising students lavishly when they do something easily, telling them smart means doing something quickly and easily, explained Dweck. Growth mindsets help students to be resilient in the face of difficulty. "Those are the times our brains are forming new connections, and that's how you get smarter."

Comments (2)

Renu Malya

October 28, 2013

I am not sure about the whole thing seems bit confusing to me.Wanted to know how could a life coach help me towards personal mastery and balance in life.

Laura Mettler

April 24, 2014

It is interesting that the author points out the importance of praising effort, struggle, and persistence despite setbacks.

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