Addressing Students’ Beliefs about Learning – Crystal Tse


What might be some of the things that are going on inside these students’ minds in this photo? One of them might be asking themselves, “Am I smart enough? Do I belong here? Will my professor think I’m competent?”

As instructors we often focus on content: what content to include in our classes, and how to best deliver this content. However, one important factor that is less discussed in teaching is students’ beliefs and mindsets—their identities, insecurities, and beliefs about intelligence—which can enter the classroom with them and affect their learning before learning has even begun. In this post, I want to talk about people’s beliefs about intelligence and their own abilities, which have been studied by social psychologists for the past few decades.

Growth vs. Fixed mindsets

If your student excelled on a test, would you commend them for their effort, or praise them for being smart?

Research by psychologist Carol Dweck shows that people can have fixed or growth mindsets. People who have fixed mindsets tend to believe that intelligence and ability are fixed, and that people cannot change how smart they are. In contrast, people who have growth mindsets believe that intelligence and ability can change, and that anyone can improve their performance through effort.

The empirical evidence on this concept shows the positive effects of holding a growth mindset, especially in learning contexts. In their research, Dweck and colleagues found that elementary-school aged children who were praised for “being smart” after completing reasoning problems tended to have a fixed mindset about intelligence. These children had performance goals—wanting to show others that they are smart—and after failure at a challenging problem were less motivated, persisted less, enjoyed the task less, and performed worse compared to children who were praised for “putting in a lot of effort.” These children instead tended to have a growth mindset about intelligence. They held mastery goals—wanting to become skilled and seeing failure as learning opportunities. The positive effects of having a growth mindset have also been shown to extend to grades and achievement later in life.

Students may come into the classroom with fixed mindsets about their intelligence and abilities, and encouraging students to think of intelligence as plastic and fluid is one way that may help with their motivation and learning.

Stereotype Threat

There is a persistent problem in education in which there are large group differences in academic performance, such as women performing worse on some university math and engineering tests than men, or some groups of minority students performing worse in academics compared with White students—even when they have the same high school grades. Extensive research conducted at universities over the past 20 years, however, show that these differences in test scores are not because some groups have less ability than others.

An important factor is a psychological threat in the classroom environment called stereotype threat: being concerned that one’s own behaviour could be interpreted by other people as confirming a negative stereotype, which can undermine the performance of people from stereotyped groups. Have you ever felt under pressure in a high-stress situation that made you “choke” in your performance in school, or in another area that was important to you, like sports? This is similar to when a person feels stressed while writing a test—it makes it hard for them to concentrate on answering the questions right because they are so anxious. This happens to everyone, but for women in math for example, they have the extra pressure of knowing that they are stereotyped as being inferior in math ability.

Psychologist Claude Steele pioneered this work (which has since been replicated in over 300 experiments) and showed in the classic study that Black students underperformed on a verbal ability test compared with White students, but only when they were placed under high stereotype threat: being reminded of their race (and the negative stereotype that their group does not do well in academics). When this extra pressure from stereotype threat was removed, however, Black students did just as well as White students.

Students may have identities, insecurities about themselves, or negative stereotypes about their group that may lead to this extra pressure when they are completing an exam, interacting with their classmates, or presenting in front of class. This extra pressure and anxiety can hinder their performance.

Practical Strategies

In light of some of the beliefs students may have about their own abilities or about intelligence in general, psychologists and instructors have come up with strategies that can encourage a growth mindset or lessen students’ fears about their abilities. Instructors can:

  • help foster an environment where students feel comfortable making mistakes. For example, instructors can share their learning experiences and failures with their students.
  • acknowledge students’ effort when providing feedback.
  • talk about stress and anxiety with students as something that is normal, temporary, and can be overcome over time.
  • communicate to students that they have high standards for them, and assure them that they can meet these standards.
  • provide opportunities for students to reflect on their development and how far they have come.
  • provide opportunities for students to make connections with each other, such as group work and study groups.
  • give anonymous surveys to students at the beginning of or throughout the term asking about their concerns, and teach to those concerns.

Students’ fears and insecurities about their abilities, and how they conceptualize intelligence and the process of learning can hold them back from learning and performing the best they can. However, instructors can help address these problematic beliefs with an awareness of these issues, and by letting students know they are on their side.