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Story Student Success

Limitless Potential: The Power of a Growth Mindset in College

Hazel Kelly

Having the right mindset in learning can lead to greater opportunity and success. This is especially important at the CSU, where nearly one-third of students are the first in their families to attend college.

Two college students in class working together

Sonoma State student and Learning Community Mentor (LCM) ​ Jose Herrera-Martinez, provides support for a first-year student in a GE stretch geometry course. Photo courtesy of Sonoma State

 

​​​​​​​​​​Sometimes an obstacle to a student's success can start within their own mind—how they perceive their skills in a challenging subject, such as mathematics. Educators have discovered that fostering a growth mindset—or an attitude of facing challenges, knowing that abilities can be grown and improved—is a strategy that can help students overcome these obstacles.

“Research has shown that self-perception is a key factor in academic achievement and persistence," says Emily Magruder, Ph.D., director of the Institute for Teaching and Learning at the CSU Chancellor's Office. “These principles also apply to the instructors: growth mindset is about inclusion—about the belief that all students can grow, improve and succeed." 

Learn how innovative faculty across the CSU are incorporating the concept of growth mindset into their instruction and improving student success.

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Positive Math Mindsets

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“There will always be difficult coursework, but if I go in with the mentality that I can do this if I put in a little extra work, and get help from my peers and professors, I can succeed." 
—Jose Herrera-Martinez, first-generation Sonoma State junior majoring in criminology & justice, and a Learning Community Mentor (LCM) for the GE stretch geometry course he took as a freshman


​At Sonoma State University, faculty in the Department of Mathematics and Statistics are helping students de​velop a mathematical growth mindset in year-long entry-level math courses. “Many students arrive in college with a fixed idea of what math is and believe they are not good at math," says mathematics professor Brigitte Lahme, Ph.D. “We wanted to change those beliefs. We strongly believe that all students can succeed in math and our new courses incorporate active learning pedagogy and understanding through hands-on experience to help students develop a mathematical growth mindset and strong collaboration skills."   

Introduced in fall 2017, Sonoma State mathematics faculty embedded growth learning principles into four general education math courses stretched over two semesters (aka “stretch" course), with promising student outcomes. “Our pass rates are significantly higher doing these stretch courses than they were with the prior remedial courses," says Nick Dowdall, instructor and stretch program coordinator at Sonoma State.​

This strategy is especially critical because the CSU eliminated all developmental coursework systemwide beginning in fall 2018, allowing students to earn college credit for these entry-level classes, leading them one step closer to a college degree.​

Dowdall explains that it's not enough to simply establish the idea of growth mindset and then just go on with the semester. “It has to be part of the everyday experience in the classroom. The pedagogy has to be completely wrapped around the idea of instilling a growth mindset."​

I​nstead of lecture-format classes, instructors pose problems and the students collaborate in groups to develop solutions together. The act of working together and presenting to their peers helps students feel that they're growing and doing things they never thought they could do, Dowdall says. 

Dowdall explains that growth mindset “interventions" are another key element in their stretch courses. The interventions are activities that reinforce the principles. For example, students may watch a short video on growth mindset with their group, then create a poster illustrating their takeaways from the video. Student groups then present their findings to the class and display the posters throughout the semester. 


Ambassadors for Growth​​

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​“Operating with a growth mindset has taught me to change my thoughts about failure and welcome this long process of growth. Learning to adapt and turn around your self-doubt is constant work, but it greatly benefits students." —Morgan Griffin, CSU Bakersfield​ senior majoring in interdisciplinary studies with a concentration in psychology


Allison Evans, Ph.D., lecturer at CSU Bakersfield, is helping to create “heroes" for growth mindset on her campus. Dr. Evans created the Heroic Ambassadors Program in 2018 to bring effective social psychological strategies that help students cope with social and academic pressures.

“There are many barriers that students face in higher education. We want to be able to support the students to reach their full potential by building their resiliency and grit skills to meet these challenges," Evans says. 

The train-the-trainer style program focuses on three key lesson plans—​including one centered on growth mindset—from Phil Zimbardo's Heroic Imagination Project. The CSUB Heroic Ambassador trainees include faculty, staff and students from a variety of disciplines and offices, with a focus on those working with at-risk groups such as migrant students, Project Rebound, first-generation students and veteran students. After the ambassadors are trained, they each hold their own workshops for students in their affiliated groups on campus.​

“The professional development program encourages faculty, staff and students to be mindful in both the interaction and treatment of our students. A growth mindset is essential to support our students' academic success," says Evans, who was awarded a Faculty Innovation & Leadership Award from the CSU Chancellor's Office in August 2019 for her work on the program and other leadership activities.

In the spring of 2019, a team of Evans' psychology students and faculty parlayed their experiences from the Heroic Ambassador Program into a symposium presentation at the Western Psychological Association (WPA) Convention. CSUB student Morgan Griffin—and a teaching assistant for one of Evans' courses—co-presented a talk titled, “Imposter Syndrome and Mindsets: Turning Around Self-Doubt."

“Just by adding the word 'yet' to the end of a negative thought about yourself or your abilities will force you to shed a positive light on a tough situation or obstacle," says Griffin, a senior majoring in interdisciplinary studies with a concentration in psychology. 

A Feeling of Belonging​

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“…It wasn't that I couldn't take on the workload of a science major as a freshman, but rather that I let myself believe that I couldn't do it…Majoring in science is no joke; it takes hard work and dedication, but success is possible if you believe in yourself." —Julia, sophomore biology major, CSULB | Watch Julia's video testimonial 

​​Kris Slowinski, Ph.D., associate dean of the College of Natural Sciences and Mathematics (CNSM) at Cal State Long Beach, points to two key goals for growth mindset interventions with students: “Students should begin thinking about intelligence as changeable and malleable, rather than stable and fixed. And we want students to feel that they belong socially on campus. In this context, the growth mindset message is that 'if you feel like you don't belong, you are not alone' and 'if you feel this way, your experience will improve over time.'"

Dr. Slowinski explains that science and math classes are purposefully challenging for students. “They are likely to struggle with the material but this struggle is a normal and desired component of the learning process."

This Is My Story, part of the CNSM Resilience Project, features testimonial videos from science and math undergraduates detailing their challenges, successes and what they learned along the way. “The goal of this project is to show our current CNSM students that they are not alone in their struggles. It serves to remind our students that there are multiple paths toward recovery and resilience and their own path may one day serve as motivation for future students," says Valerie Bagley, CNSM coordinator of student support who leads the Resilience Project.

In addition to resources for CNSM students, the college also provides support for faculty to incorporate growth mindset in their teaching. In fall 2018, Slowinski organized a symposium on inclusive pedagogy and growth mindset which brought together faculty and staff from across the CSULB campus—about half of which were from non-STEM disciplines. Slowinski has also compiled a collection of resources on his blog Growth Mindset for STEM Success, including CSULB faculty examples of how a learning mindset can be embedded in course syllabi. 

Growth mindset is just one tool that faculty across the CSU are using to support student achievement as part of Graduation Initiative 2025​, the university-wide effort to improve graduation and retention rates for all students while eliminating opportunity and achievement gaps. 


​​​3 Tips for Introducing a Growth Mindset

While embedding growth mindset into the curriculum should be a holistic approach, Kris Slowinski, Ph.D., associate dean of the College of Natural Sciences and Mathematics (CNSM) at Cal State Long Beach, says there a few simple things anyone can do to begin introducing these principles into the student experience:

​​1. Understand that it's OK to fail. Tutoring sessions, supplemental instruction (SI) sessions and office hours are the perfect places for students to take risks and try a solution, even if it isn't correct. Through the struggle, the students learn exactly what they are doing wrong and this leads to improved understanding.

2. “Yet" is a powerful word. “For years, students have joked around by adding “yet" to the end of any sentence but they readily admit that it changes their outlook on what is possible," Dr. Slowinski says. “While studying particularly challenging material, they regularly say out loud: 'You don't know [the subject] YET, but you'll get there.' As cheesy as it sounds, it re-energizes the students and tends to end their frustration in a tough subject."

3. Show students they are not alone. Whether this is from course slides featuring professionals who look like them, or instructors sharing stories of their own personal struggles, there is no better way to show students they aren't alone than by sharing stories of those who have come before, Slowinski explains.