Mindsets and Math: Ideas for Helping Nurture Growth

Author: Susan Hemphill, Education Specialist: Secondary Mathematics

Are you good at math? Do you believe you can learn math? These are central questions in ongoing research into how our beliefs shape our learning. Through getting to know what our students currently believe about how they learn and teaching them learning is a continuous process, we can help students understand that achievement in math is not a set ability but something that can be changed over time.

Dweck (2008) categorizes people into two groups: those with growth mindsets and those with fixed mindsets. People with a fixed mindset believe that you are only capable of a certain, set level of knowledge. Once one reaches this level, one can learn no more. If you find your students saying I’m not good at math and no one in my family is either, this may be a sign of a fixed mindset. People with a growth mindset believe that they can learn anything given time and effort. It is no surprise that students with a growth mindset are at an advantage.

So how do we nurture the growth mindset in the classroom?

A simple way to get started is to reflect on how you give your students positive feedback. Dweck recommends focusing on the processes students use in their learning. By focusing on strategies, efforts and choices, we promote the idea that learning is a path that is different for everyone. So while it might seem positive to say, “Wow! Excellent grade on that assignment,” rephrasing it as, “Nice work on that assignment. Your efforts show me you are learning new things every day!” would remind students the learning doesn’t have an end. Grades often provide unintended fixed mindset feedback. The 100% shows all is perfect and there are no mistakes and the student gets a boost in their beliefs about their abilities, but what about when something more challenging comes along? While perfect papers can be celebrated, think about what messages you are giving the students. What if you said, “It looks like I did not challenge you in your learning!” Similarly,,the student who earns a 60 receives feedback that can seemingly indicate that they aren’t able to learn the material that was graded. By getting kids to look at less than perfect work and inspecting their errors, you are encouraging students to understand this is not a final judgement on their abilities and they can still learn and grow.

Boaler (2015) has also researched learning math and mindsets and has found many strategies to help students succeed in math — even if they believe they can’t. Her Youcubed website shares various resources for teachers, parents and students. The website features ideas and information on getting kids to embrace the challenges in math. One of the videos of a classroom shows a poster that says, “Mistakes are expected, respected and inspected!” Boaler also suggests we adjust our classroom norms to promote the growth mindset to build a classroom community of math learners.


Boaler, J. (2015). Mathematical mindsets: Unleashing students’ potential through creative math, inspiring messages, and innovative teaching. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass & Pfeiffer Imprints.

Dweck, C. (2006). Mindset: The new psychology of success. New York: Random House.

Inspiring Students to Math Success and a Growth Mindset. (n.d.). Retrieved November 11, 2015, from https://www.youcubed.org

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