Many instructors have observed variability in students’ motivation to learn and grow. How can we, as educators, enable engagement, persistence, and improved performance in the classroom? In other words, can we foster greater motivation?
Positive academic mindsets motivate students to learn
Mindset science has uncovered actionable insights into the academic behaviors of students. What students believe about themselves and their capabilities tremendously influences their learning motivation.[i] Beliefs are called mindsets when they filter how we make sense of the world and ourselves. Mindsets act on our choice of goals and goal-pursuit behaviors, which significantly affect our lives. As instructors, it is crucial to recognize that individual mindsets are not fixed—they are malleable and can be changed.
Students’ academic mindsets directly impact their behavior and achievement in your classroom.[ii] Findings from ongoing research show that academic mindsets substantially impact students’ perseverance, academic behaviors, and learning outcomes.[iii] Moreover, there is considerable evidence that changing teachers’ instructional practices could improve students’ mindsets.[iv]
Four positive mindset beliefs and how to support them
Four characteristics of positive academic mindsets have been identified and are presented from a college student’s point of view.[v] We’ve provided several examples used by instructors in traditional, blended, or online classrooms to help shift these beliefs and engender greater degrees of self-efficacy in students. We hope these suggestions spark your creative approaches to strengthening student mindsets.
- I belong in this academic community.
Entering classes and meeting teammates for the first time can be stressful. Students look for acceptance-affording cues. When students feel accepted, they form a belief about belonging, leading to their choices to engage and persist.
Communicating to students that they belong in your classroom sets the table for success.
- Begin your class with more than just icebreakers. The goal for ensuring a belief in belonging is to build rapport between you and your students and encourage a sense of community.
- Use a polling system to solicit adjectives each student would use to describe their feelings as they begin a class. Undoubtedly, you will find words like nervous, concerned, or even scared. Speak to those directly and let everyone know these emotions are normal. So framed, students’ uneasiness about belonging is likelier to be short-lived.
Remember that students often enter new learning experiences believing they are not up to the challenge. As an instructor, think about ways to communicate sincerely, from day one, that this is not the case—you belong here and we are on this journey together.
2. My ability and competence grow with my effort.
The human brain is like a muscle, capable of becoming stronger and more agile. When students internalize this growth mindset, they are more likely to expend effort to develop skills beyond their comfort zone. They seek challenges and better overcome setbacks.
Every student learns at a different pace. As an instructor, it is up to you to act like a coach, helping them move to the next level.
- Talk about their capacity to grow their competencies and how you have seen students of every ilk achieve great things in your time together. Paint a picture of growing skills and abilities.
- Encourage dialog among all students rather than asking discrete questions and hoping one or two students engage. Invite students to talk about the class, the challenges, and the solutions in their own words; ask them to talk to each other as they would in social environments and groups. Dialog brings out knowledge that students hold, sometimes unconsciously. Surprised by their own contributions, students grow more competent and confident.
- Monitor the level of learning students demonstrate. Look for opportunities to shift learning moments to those who may not typically jump to demonstrate a skill or ability. For example, you will quickly identify students eager to speak up, lead presentations, or organize a project. Look for students who do not typically engage—and encourage them to demonstrate their expertise.
As you can see from these examples, encouraging student growth requires instructors to continuously monitor student development and almost, on-the-fly, challenge each to the next level. You need to be keenly aware of where everyone is on the journey.
3. I can succeed at this.
Students are infinitely capable of learning but rely on predictable learning environments. When the path to success is clear, students engage and apply effort. Self-regulation is fostered when students feel the instructor can be counted on to guide them through a learning challenge. In mindset practice, we often encourage trying out different approaches. Here are several you may consider.
- Use milestones to provide structure and help students see a learning process; milestones set expectations for the timely development of skills and project deliverables.
- Before and after milestones, find ways to discuss the group’s collective understanding of the concepts and processes you are teaching. An easy way to do this is to hand out a note card and ask everyone to write down a few words describing their thoughts anonymously. Collect the cards and use them to facilitate a brief discussion. The impact of this real-time conversation will allay student fears and build their confidence.
- Emphasize learning as an iterative process. Turn mistakes and misunderstandings into learning moments. Encourage revision throughout the learning experience, and shift grades to the end of a project.
Students will gain confidence when you praise the process—regularly discuss what the group is doing and how they collectively develop a successful project. Build recognition in every student that this learning journey has a powerful ending, achieved using frameworks and processes that ensure success.
4.This work has value to me.
The belief that an academic challenge has personal relevance turns a need for self-identity into goals and behaviors that move students toward becoming their desired future selves. In other words, students need to recognize that what they are learning has a bearing on their personal and professional lives.
One of the easiest ways to grow your students’ motivation is to tie their learning experience to their future.
- Allow students to gravitate to different types of knowledge. Help them use the information appropriately for themselves and the future life they envision.
- Rather than talking about learning objectives, talk about the capabilities the learning produces.
- Help students envision how those capabilities build confidence and professionalism. Relate how former students tell of solving problems in their work lives by applying concepts and processes learned in class. Being better informed puts them at ease to make connections at work or at social events; these connections generate opportunities for continued growth and more choices for themselves and their families.
Remember, learners become motivated when they see information, learning, and future success are connected. Focus on communicating this in your teaching approaches.
With insights into the four beliefs, your instructional practices can help students choose learning goals and academic behaviors that lead to their success. Instructors can build class environments and rapport, resulting in greater student motivation to learn and succeed. The instructional practices presented here are meant to encourage your further reflection on opportunities to increase student motivation. Try some out. Develop other approaches of your own. It is all about experimenting and finding opportunities to shift those student mindsets.
Deborah Brownstein is professor emeritus of marketing at Plymouth State University. Dr. Brownstein brings research of student mindsets into instructional design to foster student engagement in learning through dialogue and collaboration.
Jonathan Dapra is is the Rosenblum Endowed Professor of Business at Plymouth State University. Dr. Dapra’s research interests and instructional design experience include student engagement, learning motivation, and classroom assessment techniques. Website: www.jonathandapra.com
[i] Dweck, Carol (2006). Mindset, The New Psychology of Success: How we can learn to fulfill our potential. Ballantine Books. Updated Edition (December 26, 2007).
[ii] Farrington, C.A., Roderick, M., Allensworth, E., Nagaoka, J., Keyes, T.S., Johnson, D.W., & Beechum, N.O. (2012). Teaching adolescents to become learners. The role of noncognitive factors in shaping school performance: A critical literature review. Chicago: University of Chicago Consortium on Chicago School Research.
[iv]Farrington, C.A., Roderick, M., Allensworth, E., Nagaoka, J., Keyes, T.S., Johnson, D.W., & Beechum, N.O. (2012).