Student mental mindset

by Stephen L. Chew, Samford University

Student Example

A student is required to take calculus for her economics major. The student dreads it because her past negative experiences with math have convinced her that she hates studying math and she has little math ability.

Description of the Challenge

Mental mindset refers to the students’ attitudes, beliefs, and expectations about a course or subject (Chew, 2014). Mental mindset encompasses the teacher, course, topic, pedagogy, method of assessment, and beliefs about the likelihood of their success in the course through their own efforts. Students come into a class with pre-conceived notions of how valuable the course will be to them, how important the course is compared to other courses they are taking, how hard the course will be for them, and what is a reasonable workload for the course. For example, Cahill, et al., (2018) found that student attitudes towards physics predicted student learning across different topics, courses, teaching styles, and assessments, even after controlling for prior knowledge.  De Corte, Verschaffel, and Depaepe (2008) explored the false and negative beliefs about math held by fifth-graders, and found that improvements in classroom culture improved both math learning and math beliefs.

Dweck and colleagues have explored the impact of implicit theories of intelligence on learning (Yeager & Dweck, 2012; Yeager, et al., 2019). Implicit theories fall along a spectrum.  At one extreme are entity or fixed theories, which hold that intelligence or ability is set and unchangeable through personal effort. Students with fixed mindsets see effort as a sign of weakness and they avoid challenges because failure cannot be overcome through effort. A fixed mindset undermines resilience in the face of setbacks. On the other end of the spectrum are incremental or growth mindsets. Students with growth mindsets see intellectual ability as a malleable trait that can be cultivated and enhanced through personal effort. Students with growth mindsets are more likely to embrace intellectual challenges as opportunities to learn and grow, and they are more likely to be resilient in the face of setbacks. Growth or incremental mindset is likely related to the concept of academic self-efficacy (Zimmerman, 2000), which refers to students’ belief in their own capability to learn. Academic self-efficacy is strongly linked to learning and motivation.


Teachers must be aware of student mindsets in the classes they teach. From the first day, teachers should highlight the value and importance of the class to students, for their majors, or their careers, or simply to help understand issues they may encounter. Even if students did sign up for this course because it met a general educational requirement, and it was the only one not meeting at 8:00 am, and their buddy was already enrolled, this is going to be a valuable course that the students would have wanted to take anyway.

There is good evidence that a negative or counterproductive mindset can be corrected through targeted interventions or effective pedagogy. Yeager, et al. (2016) discusses how to design interventions for improving fixed student mindset. Active learning strategies that enhance student achievement improve academic self-efficacy (Ballen, Wieman, Salehi, Searle, & Zamudio, 2017). Formative assessments can promote both growth mindset and academic self-efficacy (Yin, et al., 2008). DeCorte, et al., (2008) found that changing classroom culture to improve student support and sense of belongingness brought about an improved mindset toward math in fifth-grade students. Mindset is related to the challenges of misconceptions and to student fear and mistrust. Much more research needs to be carried out in how to improve mental mindset.

Recommended Reading

  • The PERTS (Project for Education Research that Scales) Lab is a coalition of educational researchers committed to translating research into scalable educational innovations. Their website ( has an extensive collection resources, articles, and blogs about mindset.
  • An extensive literature review on so-called noncognitive factors and their impact on learning by Farrington, Roderick, Allen­sworth, Nagaoka, Keyes, Johnson, and Beechum, (2012) includes a discussion of mindset.


Ballen, C. J., Wieman, C., Salehi, S., Searle, J. B., & Zamudio, K. R. (2017). Enhancing Diversity in Undergraduate Science: Self-Efficacy Drives Performance Gains with Active Learning. CBE – Life Sciences Education, 16. Retrieved from

Cahill, M. J., McDaniel, M. A., Frey, R. F., Hynes, K. M., Repice, M., Zhao, J., & Trousil,. R. (2018). Understanding the relationship between student attitudes and student learning. Physical Review Physics Education Research, 14, 010107-1-010107-16.

Chew, S. L. (2014). Helping students to get the most Out of studying. In V. A. Benassi, C. E. Overson, & C. M. Hakala (Eds.). Applying science of learning in education: Infusing psychological science into the curriculum. Retrieved from the Society for the Teaching of Psychology web site:

De Corte, E., Verschaffel, L., & Depaepe, F. (2008). Unraveling the relationship between students’ mathematics-related beliefs and the classroom culture. European Psychologist, 13, 24–36.

Farrington, C., Roderick, M., Allen­sworth, E., Nagaoka, J., Keyes, T., Johnson D., & Beechum, N. (2012). Teaching Adolescents to Become Learners. The Role of Noncognitive Factors in Shaping School Performance: A Critical Literature Review. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Consortium on Chicago School Research. Retrieved from

Yeager, D. S. & Dweck, C. S. (2012). Mindsets that promote resilience: When students believe that personal characteristics can be developed. Educational Psychologist, 47, 302–314. doi: 10.1080/00461520.2012.722805

Yeager, D. S., Hanselman, P., Walton, G. M., Murray, J. S., Crosnoe, R., Muller, C., … Dweck, C. S. (2019). A national experiment reveals where a growth mindset improves achievement. Nature, 573, 364–369.

Yeager, D. S., Romero, C., Paunesku, D., Hulleman, C. S., Schneider, B., Hinojosa, C., … Dweck, C. S. (2016). Using design thinking to improve psychological interventions: The case of the growth mindset during the transition to high school. Journal of Educational Psychology, 108, 374–391. doi:

Yin, Y., Shavelson, R. J., Ayala, C. C., Ruiz-Primo, M. A., Brandon, P. R., Furtak, E. M., … Young, D. B. (2008). On the impact of formative assessment on student motivation, achievement, and conceptual change. Applied Measurement in Education, 21, 335–359. doi: