Mindsets of Successful Students

Think back to when you were a student. Was there a subject you particularly struggled with? Did it make you feel like you would never understand the topic? What thoughts and feelings did you experience during the classes or during a test? It has been thoroughly documented that a student’s beliefs about their own abilities can evoke emotions that may ultimately impact and influence their success in the classroom. Students’ mindsets and their beliefs or perceptions about intelligence and ability affect their cognitive functions and learning.1, 2 For example, while many students overcome obstacles with an inherent appetite for challenge, others view challenges and setbacks as personal threats and do whatever they can to remove themselves from this discomfort. While it may be difficult to manage an unmotivated student, it is not difficult to understand why a student who has experienced consistent failure would feel such a way toward learning. You may have already heard about growth mindset but research has identified four key mindsets.3
  • Growth Mindset: Belief that intelligence is malleable and effort will lead to increased competence.
  • Belonging Mindset: Belief that one belongs at school.
  • Purpose and Relevance Mindset: Belief in the value of the work.
  • A sense of self-efficacy and the ability to succeed.
Growth Mindset
Students with a growth mindset believe that intelligence is malleable and that they can improve their skills through effort, trying new strategies, and seeking help. In contrast, students with a fixed mindset believe that intelligence is fixed at birth and cannot be developed. Students who hold a growth mindset focus on learning goals, are more willing to take on challenges, and rebound more easily from negative feedback and failures compared to students with a fixed mindset.3 But you may be asking yourself, Can a mindset be changed? Can a growth mindset be taught? Can students with a fixed mindset develop a growth mindset? The answer to all these questions is yes. You just need to know how to do it. The research on growth mindset interventions has revealed that it is easy to implement them poorly. In some cases, poor implementation has led to educators having a “false growth mindset” in which they simply equated effort with a growth mindset. The result was that educators would praise effort even when the effort was ineffective.1 On the other hand, in a large study of 7,686 students at a public university, a growth mindset intervention reduced the achievement gap in GPA between White and Latino/a freshman by 72%.4  The key here is teaching educators how to properly change and foster a student’s mindset. The most powerful ally for a growth mindset is equipping a student to succeed at learning, which entails learning how to learn effectively. Specifically, students need strategies and guidance so that they can make progress towards their goals. So, how can you change a student’s mindset? There are many easy and applicable tips but some of them include conveying to students that performance can be improved with added effort or the use of different strategies.
Belonging Mindset
The belonging mindset differs from a growth mindset because it is a by-product of the school and classroom environment instead of a skill to be developed. It is important to classroom teaching because students with a belonging mindset are able to be their authentic self. As a result, they feel like they fit in and trust both their teachers and peers. This means their cognitive energy is available for learning, as attention is no longer bifurcated between academics and social threat, but instead focused primarily on the task at hand. Those who have a belonging mindset are receptive to feedback and likely to persist in the face of a challenge. In contrast, repeated worries about belonging or lack thereof can result in a detachment from a particular setting such as school.  Studies have shown that students who self-reported a strong sense of belonging performed better academically. For example, one study that surveyed over half a million students at one thousand schools found that students who reported high feelings of belonging earned higher standardized test scores, demonstrated consistent attendance, and experienced minimal disciplinary events.5 It is important to note that the school’s policies, practices and norms play a substantial role in shaping a student’s belonging mindset. However, a single educator can have a profound impact within and outside of the walls of their classroom.  Once again there are many ways in which educators can create a classroom climate that nurtures belonging. Some of them are: promoting inclusion by examining practices with an equity lens, and looking for simple ways to signal belonging, such as appropriate eye contact and using accurate pronunciations of students’ names.
Purpose and Relevance Mindset
During our years as students we most likely asked ourselves “When am I ever going to use this?”. Maybe even more times than we would like to admit. Educators who promote a purpose and relevance mindset address this question, but they let the students themselves provide an answer. The purpose and relevance mindset indicates that students who are able to identify the purpose of school work, including seeing its relevance to life beyond the walls of the school building, are more likely to engage with material, persevere through monotonous tasks and disregard distraction. This begs the question: What do students find purpose in? One possible answer, although not the only one, is relevance. As a result we can think of two possible types of tasks. Firstly, we have tasks that are believed to benefit oneself. The other type are tasks that make a positive impact in the lives of others or a challenge facing the world today. Either type of task will help foster a student’s purpose mindset.


  1. Dweck, C. S. (2008). Mindsets and math/science achievement. Carnegie Corp. of New York–Institute for Advanced Study Commission on Mathematics and Science Education.
  2. American Psychological Association (2015). Top 20 principles from psychology for preK–12 teaching and learning. http://www.apa.org/ed/schools/cpse/top-twenty-principles.pdf
  3. Darling-Hammond, L., & Cook-Harvey, C. M. (2018). Educating the whole child: Improving school climate to support student success. Learning Policy Institute.
  4. Broda, M., Yun, J., Schneider, B., Yeager, D. S., Walton, G. M., & Diemer, M. (2018). Reducing inequality in academic success for incoming college students: A randomized trial of growth mindset and belonging interventions. Journal of Research on Educational Effectiveness, 11(3), 317-338.)
  5. Hennessey, J. (2018). Mindsets and the learning environment: Understanding the impact of “psychologically wise” classroom practices on student achievement. Mindset Scholars Network, 1-4.)

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