Tips for encouraging a mastery orientation and helping students overcome challenges
Show students that mistakes are part of the learning process and help them work through challenges in a way that encourages self-compassion and promotes a sense of belonging. When students have a growth mindset—the belief that intelligence is not a fixed trait, but one that can be improved—they respond better to challenges and failures and have higher academic performance (Burnette et al., 2013; Dweck, 2006). Equally important, when students perceive that their instructors believe they can improve, students feel a greater sense of belonging, are more engaged, and perform better (Canning et al. 2019; Muenks et al., 2020).
To learn about strategies that WashU instructors are using to support belonging and growth mindset, check out our Faculty Spotlights and to find out about related research at WashU see our Research Spotlight.
- Have activities and assignments that enable students to use their prior knowledge and strengths.
- Focus on mastery and create a class structure that rewards growth. Examples:
- Use low-stakes formative assessments (e.g., quizzes, brief papers) where students can get feedback before larger summative assessments (e.g., exams, final paper).
- Create opportunities for students to submit corrections on homework, quizzes, or exams.
- Ask students to make revisions based on feedback for assignments and projects.
- Avoid grading exams or other assignments based on a normal distribution (i.e., “curving”).
- Create support for gaining self-regulated learning skills that will help students overcome challenges and persist toward goals. Examples:
- Share information about effective goal setting and have activities where students set goals, create specific plans, and monitor their progress. Examples: weekly action plan, writing plan.
- Use assignments that help students reflect on their learning process to identify what they are doing well, where to improve, and how to use course and university resources.
- Scaffold larger, more complex assignments.
- Explain ways that you encourage growth and mastery through your course design and policies. Example: “This course is designed around the concept that learning is gradual and often involves errors before successful demonstration of knowledge and skills. There will often be low-stakes opportunities to practice before higher-stakes assessments.”
- Include relevant university, disciplinary, and academic skills resources and highlight how these are helpful for your course. The CTL’s syllabus template has descriptions of university resources.
- Talk to students about how to approach your course and provide resources. Examples:
- Talk about resources from your syllabus in a way that will prevent students from feeling that using them means they are less well equipped to succeed than their peers. Send the message that, “successful students seek help, and these are the pathways to help in my course” (Lang, 2020, pg. 185).
- Provide a list of curated advice from previous students. Include advice that emphasizes the challenges in the course and talks about seeking help to overcome those.
Throughout the Semester
- Highlight progress made so far. Example: Discuss improving across multiple paper drafts or exams.
- Talk to students about overcoming unhealthy social comparisons and about perfectionism versus healthy striving in the context of your course.
- Show students that it is okay to not understand concepts right away and to get things wrong. Examples: 1) Check understanding in class with a “muddiest point” prompt. 2) If a student contributes an answer that is incorrect, don’t dismiss it. Help identify where it went wrong and then consider at least one way to get the correct answer.
- Give “Wise” feedback on student work.
- Use exams and other assignments as teaching tools, rather than the end of learning. Examples:
- Go over parts of an exam or assignment and discuss areas of common struggle, what these mistakes mean for thinking and learning, and how they connect to new learning.
- Provide students with feedback on assignments, and discuss how to use feedback to improve.
- Talk about how you have grown your knowledge and skills over time through practice. If comfortable to you, consider sharing about a time when you struggled, failed, or made mistakes in an academic or work context, and how you moved through that challenge.
- During difficult times, create opportunities for students to practice self-compassion about their schoolwork, such as within a homework assignment or briefly during class.
- When students show negative thinking connected to cognitive distortions, you can help them reframe by asking them to write realistic statements about what is possible. Examples:
- “I’m just not good at this.” → “Facing difficulties is a normal part of learning, just because this is hard doesn’t mean I can’t do it.”
- “I know I’m going to fail.” → “I can’t know yet how I will do, I can only try my best to prepare and seek out help.”
- “I worked hard, and I still failed. I am not meant for this.” → “I did poorly on one exam, but now I know what to expect and will use new strategies next time.”
When a Student is Struggling
What can you do if a student is struggling to understand a concept or if they fail an exam or assignment?
- Consider different approaches for students who do poorly despite exerting great effort and students who are less engaged.
- Listen to the student’s perspective and avoid minimizing their concerns (e.g., don’t say “This is usually pretty easy” or “This should be straightforward”).
- Help normalize struggle as a common part of academics that can be overcome. Example: “Past students who had difficulty with this told me that _____ helped them improve.”
- Work with the student to identify specific areas of struggle and 2-3 strategies for improvement.
- Encourage students to check back in and consider reaching out to follow up.
Burnette, J. L., O’Boyle, E. H., VanEpps, E. M., Pollack, J. M., & Finkel, E. J. (2013). Mind-sets matter: A meta-analytic review of implicit theories and self regulation. Psychological Bulletin, 139(3), 655–701. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0029531
Canning, E. A., Muenks, K., Green, D. J., & Murphy, M. C. (2019). STEM faculty who believe ability is fixed have larger racial achievement gaps and inspire less student motivation in their classes. Science Advances, 5(2), eaau4734. https://doi.org/10.1126/sciadv.aau4734
Dweck, C. S. (2006). Mindset: The new psychology of success. New York, NY: Random House.
Muenks, K., Canning, E. A., LaCosse, J., Green, D. J., Zirkel, S., Garcia, J. A., & Murphy, M. C. (2020). Does my professor think my ability can change? Students’ perceptions of their STEM professors’ mindset beliefs predict their psychological vulnerability, engagement, and performance in class. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 149(11), 2119. https://doi.org/10.1037/xge0000763