7 Strategies to Help Students Adopt a Growth Mindset in Your Writing Course

By Joe ForeJoe Fore

Professor Fore is a CTE Faculty Fellow and Co-Director of the Legal Research and Writing Program
at the University of Virginia School of Law. This blog post is adapted from a piece originally written for

Virginia Lawyer Magazine, where Professor Fore has a regular column devoted to legal writing.

 

The difficulty of writing-intensive courses and the sting of honest feedback can leave students questioning their ability as writers and dissuade them from continuing to improve their writing. But we can work to avoid this outcome by helping our students develop a "growth mindset" about their learning. By encouraging students to adopt the right mindset in our courses, we can help them thrive and motivate them to keep challenging themselves well after the semester ends.

A "growth mindset" is the belief that our abilities are malleable and that we can gain knowledge and improve our skills over time with hard work and focused effort. The growth mindset (correctly) sees the brain as an adaptable body part that responds to challenges—just like a muscle that gets stronger through strenuous exercise (Yeager et al., 2019). The opposite is a "fixed mindset"—the belief that our intelligence and abilities are largely innate and can’t be changed much, no matter how hard we try (Dweck, 2016).

 

Why mindsets matter

Students with growth mindsets tend to have better academic outcomes than those with fixed mindsets. Why? For one thing, growth-minded students are more willing to challenge themselves and take academic risks, since they see challenges as steppingstones to new skills and knowledge. These students are also better able to overcome setbacks and failure because they believe they’ll eventually succeed through learning and hard work (Adams-Schoen, 2014; Bishop, 2018).  By contrast, students with fixed mindsets avoid trying new things for fear of failing and are more likely to give up when they face an obstacle (Dweck, 2010).

Growth mindsets can be particularly valuable for students from disadvantaged socioeconomic backgrounds, as well as first-year college students, who are facing considerable changes in their academic and personal lives (Claro, 2016; Kostange, 2016).

Importantly for writing courses (and writing-course instructors), students’ mindsets can affect their receptiveness to feedback and critique. Because students who adopt a fixed mindset about writing often view writing ability as innate, they tend to either (a) ignore constructive criticism (since they don’t think it can actually help them improve), or (b) take the critiques as personal attacks on their intelligence (since writing is, in their view, tied to their inherent abilities) (Adams-Schoen, 2014). Growth-minded students, on the other hand, see instructor criticism and feedback as valuable information that they can use to improve next time (Bishop, 2018).

Unfortunately, students’ prior academic experiences may have steered them into fixed mindsets about their writing. Students who struggled with writing in high school or in earlier college courses may have internalized the idea that they’re naturally—and inescapably—"bad writers." By contrast, students who performed well in prior courses may have come to think of themselves as “good writers” with little more to learn.

The good news is that you can meaningfully impact your students’ mindset. There are many things you can do—before the semester, early in the course, and throughout the course—to help students adopt a growth mindset in your writing course; here are 7 ideas:

 

Click image to view infographic
Growth Mindset in Writing Course Infographic

Before the Semester

1. Course design: more practice, less grading.

The growth mindset emphasizes learning as a long-term, incremental process of growth and development. Graded assignments, of course, tend to focus students on just the opposite: their immediate exam score and "getting the answer right." Grading—especially early in the semester—also reinforces a fixed mindset by labeling students at one particular time as "good" or "bad" at a particular task—a label that they might carry with them for the rest of the semester (and beyond) (Bishop, 2016).

So in designing your course, give students more low-stakes opportunities to struggle, fail, and grow without the fear of a stigmatizing grade—especially early on (Dark, 1999). For writing assignments that must be graded, consider having students turn in an ungraded first draft to receive feedback, then resubmit a final, graded assignment. The interim, ungraded step will encourage students to focus on gradual growth and long-term improvement. And from an instructor standpoint, the ability to see how students improve their work in response to feedback allows you to praise their growth and progress and not just the absolute quality of their work (more about that later, in idea #6).

 

Early in the Semester

2. Talk about growth mindsets.

One direct way to help students develop a growth mindset is simply to talk about the concept of fixed vs. growth mindsets: what they are and how they can affect academic performance (Bishop, 2018; Kostange, 2016). A 2019 study published in Nature found that showing ninth grade students less than one hour of information about the brain’s malleability and potential for growth led lower-performing students to earn higher grades and made all students more likely to enroll in more advanced math courses (Yeager et al.).

Here are some resources you could discuss or pass along to your students:

 

3. Explain your expectations, methods, and motivations.

As we’ve seen above, students with fixed mindsets may be afraid of experiencing failure and ready to interpret constructive critiques as personal slights. To help head off these negative thoughts and inspire a more growth-oriented mindset, it’s helpful to give your students four messages at the start of the semester:

  • You have high standards for their performance. Communicating high expectations is a well-known way to let students know you want to see them achieve. But if students are unsure about their ability to meet your expectations, it could leave them anxious about the challenges they’ll face in your course (Dark, 1999). That’s where the other three messages come in.  
  • You’re confident in their ability to meet those standards. Once students know you’re confident that they can grow and learn, they’re more likely to adopt that mindset, too (Godsil et al., 2017).
  • The course is designed to challenge them to help them grow. By acknowledging that we intend for students to struggle, at times—not as a standalone goal, but as a necessary part of learning—we can reduce their fear of failure. It’s also valuable to explain exactly how your teaching methods and curriculum are intended to challenge them and help them build specific skills to meet your expectations (Bishop, 2018).
  • You’re here to help. This message helps create a common cause and lets your students know that your curriculum and feedback come from a genuine desire to see them succeed. With that understanding, students will be less likely to take your critiques personally and more likely to apply your feedback to future writing projects.

 

4. Share your growth story.

One way to show students that writing can be improved through work and dedication is to tell them how you did it. No one starts out as a fantastic writer—not even those of us who teach it for a living. To be sure, some of us have more natural ability or come to college or graduate school with greater training. But all of us grew from our experiences—our successes and, just as importantly, our failures (Bishop, 2018).

So tell students about the times you struggled in college, graduate school, or early in your career. Share your mistakes and how you learned from them. Share your writing shortcomings and how you improved them (Adams-Schoen, 2014). It will help your students see that their own difficulties aren’t unique; they’re normal, and they’re opportunities to learn and grow.

One potential exercise: use an excerpt from some of your previous writing as an example for them to edit. I’ve occasionally given my law students a portion of a real-world court filing that I wrote as a young lawyer and tell them it’s an opportunity to edit a "real-life" legal document. But I don’t tell them who wrote it (younger me). Only after they (and I) have pointed out the numerous flaws do I reveal its true source.

 

Throughout the Course

5. Show students that even experienced writers struggle.

Another important lesson students need to learn about writing is that it’s always hard, even for those of us who do it—and teach it—for a living. Many students probably assume that their instructors just sit down and effortlessly crank out emails, articles, class materials, and presentations. But we all know that’s not the case. Sure, writing gets easier with experience. But writing well is never easy. (The late Justice Antonin Scalia—who sometimes taught writing courses in his early years as a law professor at UVA—said that he wanted his students to learn two essential things about writing: (1) "that there is an immense difference between writing and good writing" and (2) "that it takes time and sweat to convert the former into the later" (Adams, 2008).)

Students need to know that most writing starts as half-baked ideas and terrible first drafts, followed by constant and careful revision. So share drafting processes that encourage freer writing in the initial stages, followed by iterative editing rounds (Lamott, 2005).

You can also let students see your writing process. All of us are working on an article, dissertation, blog post, or grant proposal of one kind or another; show students how your own work evolves and improves through the editing process. There are many ways you could incorporate this into your class, such as:

  • Take some photos of your marked-up drafts, your crossed-out and tossed-out sentences, paragraphs, and sections and pop them into your PowerPoint slides.
  • Create a video of you completing a writing or editing task that’s like one they’re doing in class. Talk students through your process and your feelings as you do the work. 

The idea is to show students that it takes time and effort for everyone to write well—but the struggle eventually pays off. That will help your own students stick with it when they’re struggling through their own writing projects.

 

6. Frame feedback in terms of growth.

Embrace the "power of yet" (Kostange, 2016, pp. 18-19). The growth mindset rests on the idea that students can develop their skills—even if they don’t possess them yet. So it’s important that our feedback reflects the idea that having gaps in knowledge or skills isn't a permanent state; it’s a stage in their growth journey. For example, if a student expresses a sentiment like, “I’m just not good at this,” encourage them to add the word "yet" to the end of the sentence (Bishop, 2018; Dweck, 2015). They haven’t mastered the skill yet—but they can.

Praise process and improvement, not just results. Because the growth mindset prioritizes the process of learning, rather than the results, our feedback should praise not only the quality of writing in the assignment, but also students’ "attitude, effort, and improvement over time" (Bishop, 2018, p. 995).

At the same time, though, growth mindsets aren’t just about praising effort. Indeed, if students put in the wrong kind of work and don’t improve, they might be particularly dismayed, since they were led to believe that mere hard work would guarantee success (Dweck, 2015). Instead, "[i]t’s critical to reward not just effort but learning and progress, and to emphasize the processes that yield these things, such as seeking help from others, trying new strategies, and capitalizing on setbacks to move forward effectively" (Dweck, 2016).

A comment on a less-than-stellar student paper like, "Great job on this! You tried your best!" sends the wrong message: that sub-par work is OK, so long as we work hard for it. A better approach would be to remind the student of the potential for growth and prompt them to think of ways to refine their processes, like this: "I know this is difficult, but our goal is to improve a little each time. What’s something different you can try next time?" (Dweck, 2015).

 

7. Offer chances for self-reflection.

The kind of development embodied by the growth mindset requires constant reflection and evaluation. So it’s important to give your students time to look back on their own learning. Here are some potentially useful types of reflective tasks:

  • Have students analyze their performance on an individual assignment. You might ask students to compare their writing to a model answer that you’ve provided. From there, students could be asked to (a) identify specific areas where they could improve and (b) concrete steps they can take to make that happen (Kostange, 2016).
  • Have students take a longer view of their growth over time. You could have students compare their latest piece of writing with an earlier project or draft and note areas of improvement and areas that they’re still struggling with. This allows students to (hopefully) see for themselves areas where they’ve grown throughout the course—that the methods you laid out at the start of the semester and their purposeful effort really are paying off.
  • Have students assess their feelings. You might also ask students to reflect on their feelings during and after writing. By having students identify the feelings that they had—especially those of discomfort or frustration—students will be able to better recognize and manage those feelings next time. And for students who struggled on an assignment, dealing with those emotions as part of the reflection process is an important way to cement the lessons for the future (Bishop, 2018).

 

 

This post is part of a series by Joe Fore on writing pedagogy. Read his next post "Striking the Right Tone in Written Feedback."

 

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