This is part of a series called, Ask a Psychologist at Education Week
July 22, 2020 – Jamie Carroll and David Yeager
Question: Why do my students think I am punishing them when I assign challenging homework?
We know that students with a growth mindset—they believe they can improve their academic abilities with time and effort—persist longer and ultimately can earn better grades than those who believe that intelligence is fixed and they can’t do much to change it.
But even students with growth mindsets won’t succeed if their classroom isn’t set up so they can learn and grow. Recent research shows that the mindset cultures teachers create in their classrooms directly affect students’ motivation, learning, and performance.
Here are three suggestions from teachers on how they put the research into practice during distance learning:
Use a buddy system. Mario, a math teacher, creates a community of learners in his class to make students feel more connected and accountable to each other. If a student misses an online learning session, their class buddies check in and encourage them to come back.
Set up breakout rooms. Sandra set aside time for students to connect with each other in online breakout rooms, so they could share learning strategies and develop their understanding together. Some students are more likely to ask questions from a peer than a teacher.
Make mistakes common. Others use the “My Favorite Mistake” practice: When giving back assignments or tests, they showcase and praise common mistakes that show students’ thinking. Then, they help students to understand and solve the problem correctly.
Just as important: Teachers should tell students why they engage in those practices and communicate how difficult concepts, homework, and critical feedback will help them learn and grow. They can say things like, “I assign these practice problems so you can practice what you have learned, identify parts you don’t yet fully understand, and then try new strategies to understand those parts.”
Otherwise, students may think, “Maybe my teacher assigned that homework because she doesn’t think we are smart” or “Homework is just busy work” and feel unengaged. Some students who draw these conclusions—such as Black or Hispanic students who already face negative stereotypes about their academic abilities—may feel like teachers are judging their capacity to learn. For these students, these conclusions are even more important: Growth-mindset teachers significantly increase equity in academic outcomes.
Students around the country are suffering from significant inequalities and struggling to stay engaged in distance learning. By creating growth-mindset cultures, teachers can support and sustain the motivation and performance of students from all backgrounds.