Expert Corner: Grow Students’ Mindset with Gizmos

Following up on the webinar Dr. Amanda Gonczi did for us recently, we had a few questions for her about her research on growth mindset and how using Gizmos can help.

What is mindset?

In education, “mindset” describes whether a person believes certain traits, skills, or abilities are innate, or if traits are acquired through effort and experience. The term “growth-minded” refers to people that believe a certain trait is flexible and can be improved upon. “Fixed-minded” refers to people who believe a trait is innate and not easily changed — even with great effort.

Carol Dweck popularized the concept of mindsets in her books and made decades of research findings understandable to the average person. Dweck’s conceptualization of mindsets emerged from dozens of studies seeking to explain differences in people’s goals and behavior in challenging situations. Much of her early work examined people’s beliefs about general intelligence or “smartness.” Dweck and her colleagues consistently found that students with a fixed intelligence mindset were much less likely to attempt to solve novel problems than those with a growth intelligence mindset.

Why is it better to have a growth mindset?

“I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” — Thomas Edison

People who have a fixed mindset share certain characteristics with one another. They are more prone to avoid academic risk, respond strongly and negatively to failure and difficulty, and tend to be lower achieving.

People with a growth mindset are more likely to take academic risk. For instance, taking an advanced course in a subject area they have not previously exceled in. Although growth-minded individuals may experience the same setbacks as fixed minded students, their emotional response is more moderate and not crippling. In fact, difficulty and imperfect performance provides a growth-minded student insight into what they need to keep working on. This is very different from fixed-minded individuals, who take difficulty as an indicator of what they are not and never will be good at, and therefore should not waste time on.

Growth-minded individuals tend to have greater overall academic achievement than their fixed-minded counterparts. Believing they can improve, they persevere.

Does growth mindset help students do better in science?

Mindset matters in science classes! In order to do well, students need to believe they can do and understand science.

At the University of Virginia, we’re doing research examining students’ beliefs about their academic abilities in science – specifically Chemistry. Our preliminary findings show a relationship between mindset and final test scores in our undergraduate Chemistry course. As we expected, students with a fixed mindset about their Chemistry-related abilities had lower achievement than their more growth-minded counterparts at the end of the course. When fixed-minded students get frustrated and give up more easily, they don’t have a chance to develop a deep understanding of concepts and processes.

Can mindsets really change?

Yes, mindset is malleable. People’s beliefs are strongly dictated by what they hear and read. So science teachers through verbal and written interactions have the power to promote growth mindsets in their students. This is important because when growth-mindsets are cultivated, achievement is greater.

When students are growth-minded about their ability to understand and do science through inquiry (the way scientists actually do it!), they learn the content better and earn higher test scores. Thus, science teachers need to help students believe they can indeed do science.

How can Gizmos help teach growth mindset?

Using simulations like Gizmos in the science classroom is a great way to promote a growth mindset. Research shows that simulations allow students to engage in scientific inquiry by overcoming traditional obstacles. For example, with a simulation, students don’t have to worry about breaking equipment. Using a simulation, students can also conduct far more trials than would be possible with physical materials. Students can also pause a simulation, allowing them to engage in analytical thinking and improve upon their inquiry skills.

Throughout a growth mindset lesson, teachers need to praise students’ engagement in scientific thinking and behaviors, including productive collaboration. Teachers should acknowledge when students have accurate science understandings, but emphasize that the process they went through to arrive at the idea is more important than the end result. Teachers should also stress that science is not a matter of “getting it” or “not getting it.” Both understanding and doing science are skills that students can improve at, and simulations like Gizmos are great for developing these skills.

Simulations allow teachers opportunities to recognize and praise growth in students’ scientific practices. As students have opportunities to analyze data they will improve at it — but only if they’re trying. So as soon as teachers see effort and positive growth, they should point it out and not be afraid to say, “You are becoming a better scientist!”

Do you have any advice for how teachers can encourage students with a fixed mindset to change?

Many students, especially girls, have negative fixed mindsets about whether or not they’re “good” at science. Unless negative student beliefs are changed, the best instruction will only benefit a subset of students. Educators need to make an effort to alter these beliefs. The earlier and more regularly we address student mindsets in science the easier it will be to engage a greater percent of students and encourage learning in science.

One great thing about Gizmos is that they include Lesson Materials that teachers can modify. In one computer programming study, a brief growth mindset message was added to the top of student lab sheets. This simple intervention actually resulted in higher grades for students who had the messages versus those that didn’t. Thus, teachers can edit the student worksheets to add brief growth-minded messages such as, “With hard work and effort you can improve your ability to do and understand science. Scientists are not born — they are made.”

In addition to adding some general growth mindset messages to worksheets, teachers should also think about writing a comment on student work that promotes a growth mindset. This written feedback can be more personal and a response to what the teacher notices in terms of the development of scientific thinking and understanding that has been achieved through persistence and hard work.

As a researcher, I have found evidence that Gizmos and their supporting curriculum materials can benefit student learning and can excite students. But they also present an opportunity to teach a growth science mindset when teachers focus on the scientific processes and not final answers.

Additional resources Dr. Gonczi recommends on growth mindset:

  • Boaler, J. & Dweck, C.  (2016).  Mathematical mindsets: Unleashing students’ potential through creative math, inspiring messages and innovative teaching. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass
  • Ricci, M. C.  (2013).  Mindsets in the classroom:  Building a culture of success and student achievement in schools.  Waco, TX: Prufrock Press, Inc.
  • Schoenfeld, A. H.  (2011).  How we think:  A theory of goal-oriented decision making and its educational applications. New York, NY: Taylor and Francis.

Amanda Gonczi headshot Growth Mindset EducatorDr. Amanda Gonczi, a former science educator, is currently conducting science education research as a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the University of Virginia.