Fostering Academic Mindsets

Consciously or not, students come to school with beliefs about who they are as learners. These beliefs are influenced by parents, peers, past classroom experiences, and the wider culture, and can either support or undermine school success  (Farrington, C.A. et al, 2012).

Academic mindsets are beliefs or ways of perceiving oneself in relation to learning, and they lay the groundwork for deep academic, social and emotional learning.


These four academic mindsets have a positive impact on persistence and school performance (Farrington et al, 2012):

  • I belong in this academic community. Students who feel a sense of belonging in their schools and classrooms demonstrate higher levels of competencies such as self-efficacy and intrinsic motivation.
  • My ability and competence grow with my effort.  As explained in Carol Dweck’s groundbreaking work on the subject, a “growth mindset” leads to the belief that we can improve with effort and new strategies, and that struggle is part of the process. These beliefs encourage students to practice and develop the social and emotional skills to stay motivated, set goals, and reflect on progress. By contrast, students (and adults) who see intelligence as “fixed” view struggle as a sign of inferiority and something to be avoided or disguised. For more on the work of Carol Dweck, follow this link to Mindset Works.
  • I can succeed at this. Believing that one can be successful leads to increased effort and engagement, creating a positive feedback loop between hard work, mastery, and increased self-efficacy beliefs.
  • This work has value for me. Learners are naturally motivated when they find a task compelling or see connections between the learning and their personal aspirations.

(Farrington et al., 2012)

How Teachers Shape Academic Mindsets

Teachers have strong influence over academic mindsets through instructional practices and creating environments that shape students’ motivation, engagement, and persistence  (Allensworth et al., 2018)

Some of the ways that teachers can positively influence academic mindsets are addressed in the Supportive Classroom Environment activity, including creating a sense of belonging and emotional safety. In addition, teachers can:

  • Set high expectations – Teachers can help students construct narratives of success by  nurturing a positive developmental relationship in which they support and challenge students (Cohen and Steele, 2002 et al in Farrington et al, 2012). A central way to do this is by setting high expectations.

Strategies that communicate high expectations for students:

  • Ask students to explain their thinking and provide evidence to engage students’ meta-cognition and communication skills.
  • Allow for productive struggle; provide guidance and support for students when they engage with challenging material without jumping in with the answers. This builds self-efficacy, an important social and emotional competency.
  • Check for understanding regularly and adjust instruction so that all students are engaged.
  • Provide clear examples of high-quality work and express confidence that students can perform to that standard (Osher & Kendziora, 2010).
  • Use specific feedback to drive improvement (Hattie & Gan, 2011).
  • Express genuine interest in student thinking, and set and model clear norms for  how the class will respond to mistakes.
  • Frame mistakes and struggle as an important part of learning – While we all struggle or fail sometimes, it is what we take these experiences to mean that determines how we feel about ourselves as learners (Kolb and Kolb, 2009). Do we view struggle as a sign of inadequacy, or an intrinsic part of the learning process? How teachers communicate the meaning of setbacks, struggle, and failure is critical to students’ mindsets.

Strategies that frame mistakes and struggles as part of the learning process:

  • Provide opportunities for students to correct errors and revise work.
  • Talk to students about mistakes or struggles you’ve made, and provide opportunities for them to reflect on their own mistakes or struggles.
  • Prioritize learning that refrains from one right answer, and look for multiple ways to get to a solution or answer.
  • Use parent-teacher conferences as an opportunity to frame growth mindset and mistakes as part of the learning process.
  • Use culturally responsive teaching practices and challenge stereotype threat – Stereotype threat refers to “being at risk of confirming…a negative stereotype about one’s social group” (Steele & Aronson, 1995 in Farrington et al., 2012). This can increase anxiety and make it more difficult to focus, leading to underperformance even when a student is prepared, especially for students who are from marginalized and/or stigmatized groups.

Strategies that support culturally responsive practices:

  • Have students complete brief writing exercises about what values are important to them and connect this to the learning (Cohen, Garcia, Purdue-Vaughns, Apfel, Brzustoski, 2009).
  • Make connections between instructional content and community and real-world issues.
  • Where developmentally appropriate, teach students directly about stereotype threat and discuss if/ how it has affected them. Ask students for thoughts on challenging stereotype threat in the classroom. Listen in a way that demonstrates curiosity and interest in the experiences of your students. This helps students develop the social and emotional skills  to deal with acculturative stress (Aronson & Williams 2004; Johns & Schmader 2004).
  • Help students to reflect on their experiences with stereotype threat in a way that promotes agency while acknowledging the reality of their challenges.
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