Learning Mindsets for Math Need Learning Behaviors for Math

One of the seminal pieces of growth mindset research occurred when researchers Lisa Blackwell and Carol Dweck developed and verified an intervention that shifted the trajectories of struggling middle school math students in New York City. In that study, the researchers taught two different versions of a workshop to these under-performing students. One version included lessons about how the brain learns and grows smarter with effort, along with study strategies. The second version, delivered to the control group, included general information about the brain and the same study strategy information. The students who received the growth mindset message improved their grades, and were rated by their teachers as showing more positive motivation to learn, while their peers who did not learn that message continued to show declining grades and low motivation. The study strategies alone weren't enough to improve their performance. Students need to know how to get better, and they need to believe that exercising those skills will pay off.

Fast forward ten years to 2017, and it's clear that growth mindset has taken hold. Educators have embraced the need to develop the belief in students (and their teachers) that learning, and particularly learning math, is possible. You can find guidance on teaching students about how the brain is like a muscle, how to give growth mindset feedback, and how to create a mindset culture. But in all the enthusiasm to foster growth mindset beliefs, have we neglected the learning behaviors that enable students to turn those beliefs into results?

Give feedback like you're giving advice

student at blackboard

Growth mindset and related learning beliefs increase the motivation to learn and the willingness to seek out challenges and persist in overcoming obstacles. For persistence to be effective, though, students need to have strategies for what to do when they're stuck. Encouraging them to "try again" or "try harder" can actually increase frustration if the student has already earnestly tried multiple times. As Carol Dweck and other mindset experts have repeatedly reminded us: it isn't about effort; it's about effective effort.

If we want our students to become successful, independent math learners we need to give them guidance on how to learn, along with the beliefs that the learning is possible and worth doing. So when a student is stuck on a math problem or successfully overcomes a hurdle, I suggest giving feedback like you're giving specific advice that another student could follow. "You're so smart" is obviously not helpful advice. "Try again," while focusing on effort, also isn't very helpful. Do you mean try the same thing I just tried several times…again? We need to be specific. For example,

  • when a student is successful, highlight the specific steps that led to success. "I like the way you drew a picture of the problem to help you understand what it was about before you jumped into trying to solve it."
  • when a student is unsuccessful, guide her to resources to help her resolve the issue on her own. "There's a link to some worked examples of similar problems. And Ariel did something interesting with bar models to help her tackle the problem. Maybe she can walk you through her thinking."

Teach how to learn math along with the content

You don't have to wait for feedback opportunities to develop productive learning behaviors and habits. You can do it proactively. Leverage the Standards of Mathematical Practice. These eight standards capture the kind of math-specific learning actions—using appropriate tools, persevering, reflecting on reasoning, building models—that mindset beliefs are designed to drive. They represent how we want students to behave as math learners.

To instill these practices into student learning behavior, you'll need appropriate tasks that require students to employ them. Students will need to see when and how to use them, and they'll need practice, as we all do, with any skill we desire to hone. Illustrative Mathematics offers examples and models by grade level.

Sustaining a growth mindset for math is a lot easier when you have ways to move your learning forward.

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