Creating a Positive Learning Environment: Mindset

Overview

Teaching: 20 min
Exercises: 20 min
Questions
  • How does mindset influence learning?

  • How should we praise our learners?

  • How should we talk about errors?

  • What are successful habits of lifelong learners?

Objectives
  • Explain the difference between fixed and growth mindset and its implications for classroom performance.

  • Develop strategies for giving effort-based and improvement-based praise.

  • Respond positively to learner errors.

  • Model habits of lifelong learners.

The Importance of Mindset

Do you believe that you’re just not good at math? Or maybe you’re not artistic? Not good at sports? If any of these sound like you, you probably have a fixed mindset when it comes to mathematical, artistic and/or athletic ability.

Carol Dweck, now a professor of Psychology at Stanford University, has conducted decades of research focused on understanding people’s attitudes towards ability, our beliefs about whether ability is ingrained or developed, and how those beliefs affect our perseverence in learning. She’s discovered that, in any given area, people tend to have either a fixed mindset - believing that someone’s ability in that area is intrinsic, you’re either born with it or you’re not - or a growth mindset - believing that, with enough effort, almost anyone can learn almost anything. (She’s written a very accessible popularized summary of her findings. There’s also a short summary available.)

People with a fixed mindset tend to avoid effort and to give up when faced with failure or challenge. They also tend to take fewer risks, be less likely to take an opportunity to learn something new and to feel best about themselves when they perform flawlessly. In contrast, people with a growth mindset tend to actively seek challenges and to work harder when faced with failure. They regularly take risks and take advantage of opportunities for learning new skills. In fact, initial difficulties in a topic make them more interested and motivated to learn!

People who believe that ability is intrinsic view every situation as a test. A failure indicates that they don’t have the natural ability they need to succeed. Thus, students with a fixed-mindset will decrease their study time after receiving a poor exam score, because they see this score as a judgement that they aren’t good at that subject and shouldn’t waste their time trying. In the same situation, a growth-mindset student will increase the amount of time that they study, seeing the poor score as an indication that they need to try harder to improve in that area.

Their attitude towards failure leads fixed-mindset people to avoid situations where they will be required to perform. They will not volunteer to answer questions in class or to demonstrate a sports technique to their team. This tendency prevents fixed-mindset people from using opportunities to practice and receive feedback, which, as we’ve discussed, is essential to learning.

What’s Your Mindset?

You can learn about your own mindset by taking the official mindset self-assessment. Keep in mind that your mindset may differ in different areas. For example, you might have a fixed mindset with respect to artistic ability, but a growth mindset with respect to computing skill.

If you’re comfortable sharing, put your “score” in the Etherpad. How does it compare with others?

This exercise should take about 5 minutes.

If you recognize aspects of the fixed mindset in yourself, don’t panic! Like everything else, a growth mindset can be learned. We’re going to talk about some strategies that will help you promote a growth mindset in your learners and yourself.

Praise Influences Mindset

The way in which we praise learners has an important impact on their mindset development. Carol Dweck’s research investigated three types of praise: performance-based, effort-based and improvement-based, and looked at how these types of praise influence learner’s mindsets.

We’re most used to hearing performance-based praise. This sort of praise focuses on outcomes and implies that the outcome (for example, getting a correct answer) is the most important part of the task. It is often (but not always) combined with language that explicitly or implicitly supports the “intrinsic” model of competence. For example, “You did a great job! You must be very smart.”

Effort-based praise focuses on the learner’s hard work. For example, “You did a good job, you must have worked very hard.” Exposing learners frequently to this type of praise helps them to transition from a fixed mindset to a growth mindset by changing their perception of effort. For fixed-mindset people, if something doesn’t come easy to you, it means that you don’t have natural ability and shouldn’t bother. People with a growth mindset are much more likely to persevere in the face of challenge and accomplish their goals.

Improvement-based praise is related to praise based on effort, but explicitly draws a learner’s attention to the progress they’ve made. For example, “You’re doing so much better at this than last time, you must have worked very hard.” This helps reinforce a growth-mindset by highlighting our ability to improve with effort.

Choosing our Praises

Since we’re so used to being praised for our performance, it can be challenging to change the way we praise our learners. Which of these are examples of performance-based, effort-based, or improvement-based praise?

  • I like the way you tried a couple of different strategies to solve that problem.
  • You’re getting really good at that. Keep up the hard work!
  • You’re really talented.
  • That was a hard problem. You didn’t get the right answer, but look at how much you learned trying to solve it!

Solution

  • Effort-based.
  • Improvement-based.
  • Performance-based.
  • Improvement-based.

Errors are Essential to Learning

The typos are the pedagogy.
— Emily Jane McTavish

One of the barriers to learning is avoidance of making errors. Errors are associated with negative emotions, which leads to learners being fearful of making them. Error framing encourages learners to understand that making errors provides valuable learning opportunities instead of having negative consequences. For example, the Language Acquisition Made Practical (LAMP) system for learning language encourages learners to develop phrases and try them in a variety of social situations with native speakers. By being willing to make mistakes, LAMP learners receive useful feedback from native speakers in real-world social situations. Error framing has shown to be useful in learning complex tasks such as programming. In one study, Steele-Johnson showed that error framing showed positive effects on metacognition and self-efficacy.

How can we incorporate error framing into our lessons? We need to reduce the negative emotions associated with errors, instead casting errors as a “natural part of learning”. Sharing experiences of learning from errors can encourage learners to adopt a growth-mindset. Associating improvement-based praise with errors can also encourage positive emotions associated with making errors in learning. Finally, the use of live coding as the focus for teaching allows for instructors to model how errors can be positively framed and the process for overcoming them.

Helping Learners Learn From Mistakes

A learner at your workshop asks for your help with an exercise and shows you their attempt at solving it. You see they’ve made an error that shows they misunderstand something fundamental about the lesson (for example, in the shell lesson, they forgot to put a space between ls and the name of the directory they are looking at). What would you say to the learner?

In the Etherpad, describe the error your learner has made and how you would respond.

This exercise and discussion should take about 5 minutes.

Perseverance Predicts Success

Angela Duckworth, a Psychology professor from University of Pennsylvania, suggests that something called grit is an essential trait in learning. Grit can be defined as perseverance and passion in the face of difficulty towards a defined long term goal. Learners with grit are willing to fail in their pursuit if they feel that it gets them closer to their goal. Learning and recovering from failure is an essential skill in many fields. Learners with grit have shown to have a higher degree of success later on in life. However, grit is not an innate trait; there is much evidence that suggests that grit is a trait that can be learned and instilled in learners.

There are many ways we can help our learners attain grit.

How Are You Gritty?

A previous exercise asked you to think of a time when learning something was difficult for you, or you made a mistake that seemed silly or embarassing.

How did you motivate yourself to continue learning? How did it feel to persist in the face of challenge? How do you feel now about your capabilities in this area?

In the Etherpad, describe how you could use this story to illustrate the importance of grit for your learners.

This exercise should take about 5 minutes.

Habits of Lifelong Learners

Surviving the job market nowadays requires the ability to be a lifelong learner, in order to learn and adapt to new skills that may be required by employers. Many of these positions can be described as Knowledge Work, work that requires “non-routine” problem solving. Knowledge workers need to be capable of what Cal Newport calls “deep work”: defined as the “ability to focus intensely on cognitively demanding tasks”.

Lifelong learning arises from those who have the growth mindset. Both grit and curiosity have been identified as success factors in lifelong learning. Often, the process of learning is a difficult journey. By modeling “gritty” behavior and how it has helped us achieve long-term goals, we can foster a “learn-it-all” rather than a “know-it-all” attitude in learners.

Emphasizing the role of help-seeking behavior in the lifelong learning process is important, as it is a critical skill of lifelong learners. Encouraging learners to seek help can be difficult when societal norms view seeking help as “stigmatizing, self-threatening behavior”. This view of asking help as a stigma can be especially prevalent in male learners. Because of this, we need to reframe help-seeking behavior as a positive behavior to cope with difficulties. Part of this reframing can be modeled by instructors emphasizing that they are also lifelong learners and by admitting the limits of their knowledge. Emphasizing that one’s cohort is a powerful source of help is important to establishing a positive learning community.

Key Points

  • Growth mindset and grit promote learning by making effort a positive thing.

  • Presenting errors as essential to the learning process helps learners learn from their mistakes.

  • Successful lifelong learners aren’t embarassed to ask for help.