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By Joe 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).
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:
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).
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:
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.
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:
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:
Adams, E. A. (2008, August 9). Scalia: Legal Writing Doesn’t Exist. ABA Journal. https://www.abajournal.com/news/article/scalia_legal_writing_doesnt_exist
Adams-Schoen, S. J. (2014). Of Old Dogs and New Tricks - Can Law Schools Really Fix Students' Fixed Mindsets? 9 Legal Writing: J. Legal Writing Inst. 3, Touro Law Center Legal Studies Research Paper Series No. 15-20. https://ssrn.com/abstract=2463853
Bishop, K. (2018). Framing Failure in the Legal Classroom: Techniques for Encouraging Growth and Resilience. 70 Ark. L. Rev. https://scholarship.law.unc.edu/working_papers/2/
Claro, S., Paunesku, D., & Dweck, C. S. (2016). Growth mindset tempers the effects of poverty on academic achievement. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 113(31), 8664-8668. https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1608207113
Dark, O. C. (1999). Principle 6: Good Practice Communicates High Expectations, Journal of Legal Education, 49(3), 441-447. https://www.jstor.org/stable/42893611
Dweck, C. (2010). Even Geniuses Work Hard. Educational Leadership, 66(1), 16-20. https://www.ascd.org/el/articles/even-geniuses-work-hard
Dweck, C. (2015, September 22). Carol Dweck Revisits the “Growth Mindset.” Education Week. https://www.edweek.org/leadership/opinion-carol-dweck-revisits-the-growth-mindset/2015/09
Dweck, C. (2016, January 13). What Having a “Growth Mindset” Really Means. Harvard Business Review. https://hbr.org/2016/01/what-having-a-growth-mindset-actually-means
Godsil, R. D., Tropp, L. R., Phillip, A. G., powell, j. a., & MacFarlane, J. (2017). The Science of Equality in Education: The Impact of Implicit Bias, Racial Anxiety, and Stereotype Threat on Student Outcomes. Perception Institute. https://perception.org/publications/soe-education/
Kostange, R. (2016). Developing Growth Mindset Through Reflective Writing. Journal of Student Success and Retention, 3(1). http://www.jossr.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/04/KostangeArticle-3.pdf
Lamott, A. Shitty First Drafts. (2005). In P. Eschholz, A. Rosa, A., & C. Virginia, Language Awareness: Readings for College Writers (9th ed., pp. 93-96). Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s. https://wrd.as.uky.edu/sites/default/files/1-Shitty%20First%20Drafts.pdf
Yeager, D. S., Hanselman, P., Walton, G.M., et al. (2019). A national experiment reveals where a growth mindset improves achievement. Nature, 573, 364–369. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41586-019-1466-y
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