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Dr. Spencer Kagan

A Dozen Tools to Foster Growth Mindset and Prevent Learned Helplessness

Spencer's Thinkpad

A Dozen Tools to Foster Growth Mindset and Prevent Learned Helplessness

Dr. Spencer Kagan

To cite this article: Kagan, S. A Dozen Tools to Foster Growth Mindset and Prevent Learned Helplessness. Kagan Online Magazine, Issue #57. San Clemente, CA: Kagan Publishing. www.KaganOnline.com

Why do some students persist in the face of setbacks and excel in school, while others give up easily, disengage, and suffer academically? There are two theories that explain the difference between your high achievers and your at-risk students even more than does the difference in their intellectual abilities. The theories are Growth Mindset and Learned Helplessness. Growth Mindset and Learned Helplessness predict who will be resilient and who will give up. Understanding and applying these two theories allows us to foster growth mindset and to prevent learned helplessness.

Every teacher can increase student growth and achievement by becoming well versed in these two theories and how to apply them. Research based on these two theories demonstrates students' beliefs about intelligence and student experiences with failure have a profound impact on how hard students try in school and ultimately how well they perform. In this article, we explore these two theories. In addition to closely examining each theory, we will see how these seemingly unrelated theories are intricately intertwined and we examine a dozen research-based tools you can use to help your students develop a growth mindset and prevent learned helplessness. For a preview of the tools we will examine, see box: Growth Mindset Tools.

Growth Mindset Tools
  1. Teach Neuroplasticity
  2. Have Students Advocate Growth Mindset
  3. Promote Growth-Mindset Language
  4. Allow Make-Up Tests and Assignments
  5. Praise Effort, Not IQ
  6. Teach Perseverance
  7. Have Students Practice Growth Mindset Self-Talk
  8. Display Growth Mindset Posters
  9. Teach Students to Dispute Pessimism
  10. Force Performance
  11. Immunize Against Helplessness
  12. Teach with Growth-Mindset Kagan Structures

Understanding these two theories and using these simple tools can set you on a path to fostering in your students a growth mindset and avoiding their slipping into helplessness. Changing your students' beliefs about their own efficacy and how they handle setbacks means the difference between school success and school failure. It can even mean the difference between personal happiness and despair.

Mindset and Helplessness:
Apparent Differences

Whether a student has a growth vs. a fixed mindset depends on their belief about the nature of intelligence.1 Whether a student develops learned helplessness depends on their reinforcement history.2 Because learned helplessness is a function of reinforcement history in contrast to a fixed mindset which depends on belief about the nature of intelligence, at first examination it would seem these two constructs are quite different. Learned helplessness is based on the type of reinforcement a person has experienced; fixed mindset is based on an explicit or implicit belief in the nature of intelligence. One theory is cognitive; the other theory behavioral. Mindset is a function of beliefs; helplessness is a function of reinforcement. As we will see, learned helplessness is observed in in rats, fish, and cockroaches. Certainly it cannot be argued fixed mindset is the same as helplessness—cockroaches almost certainly do not have beliefs about the nature of intelligence! Nevertheless, after we overview each theory we will discover the two theories are joined at the hip.

Fixed vs. Growth Mindset

The concept of a fixed vs. growth mindset was developed by Carol Dweck.3 She observed that when students were given problems too difficult to solve, some gave up easily and some persisted. Those who gave up easily had a fixed mindset. They believed intelligence was a given quantity and their inability to solve the problems indicated they were not smart enough. Those who persisted in the face of difficulty had a growth mindset. They believed intelligence could be developed with effort and so persisted in the face of difficulty. A student with a fixed mindset believes intelligence is immutable; a person with a growth mindset believes that with effort intelligence can be increased. From these two different beliefs about the nature of intelligence flow a number of differences in behavior, as pictured in the illustration, Fixed vs. Growth Mindset: Self-Fulfilling Prophecies.

Students with a fixed mindset are primarily concerned with performance goals, appearing smart. They are involved in social comparisons and want to look smart and look smarter than others. Those with a growth mindset are primarily concerned with learning goals, getting smart. Given these different goals, those with a fixed mindset avoid challenges and give up easily in the face of a challenge because they don't want to fail at a task that can be viewed as a reflection of their intelligence. In short, they don't want to appear dumb; their primary concern is appearing smart. In contrast, those with a growth mindset approach challenges and persist in the face of difficulty. They look forward to challenges, knowing it is from difficult problems that you learn. Their primary concern is getting smarter. Avoiding learning opportunities and giving up easily in the face of difficulty leads those with a fixed mindset to have a static IQ whereas approaching and persisting in challenges leads those with a growth mindset to develop their IQ. In short, both a fixed and a growth mindset are self-fulfilling prophecies.

"Whether you think you can, or think you can't – You're right."
—Henry Ford

Learned Helplessness

Learned helplessness was a serendipitous discovery by Martin Seligman and Steven Maier.4 They observed that most dogs behaved in a strange way following receiving inescapable shocks. When the dogs that received inescapable shocks were placed in a situation in which they could easily avoid shocks by simply moving, two thirds of the dogs would lay down and take shock after shock. In contrast, almost all dogs that had not received the inescapable shocks very readily moved to a safe area to avoid the shocks. Seligman and his co-workers discovered the helplessness paradigm holds true with cats, rats, fish, birds, mice, primates, and even cockroaches.5 Learned helplessness frequently results when animals are placed in situations in which their efforts cannot influence their outcomes.

Learned helplessness has been replicated in humans.6 In an experiment analogous to the initial experiment with dogs, people were given an apparatus that had a red spring-loaded button and were instructed they could do something to turn off a loud annoying sound.7 Half the participants were in a helpless situation because button pushing could not turn off the noise; the other half could use the button to turn off the annoying noise. In the second phase of the experiment participants were put in a situation in which they could learn to turn off an annoying whooshing sound simply by sliding the lid of a box. About two-thirds of individuals who had the helplessness experience in the first phase of the experiment simply sat without trying to turn off the aversive noise. Those who had not had the helplessness experience readily learned to turn off the annoying sound. Conclusion: A learned helplessness experience causes many people to quit trying—not just in the helplessness situation, but also in situations in which they could control their outcomes if they would only try!

The impact of uncontrollable outcomes for humans depends, however, on how people interpret the cause of the uncontrollability.8 There are three dimensions to consider: Is the outcome Stable or Unstable; and Internal or External; Global or Specific? What a student believes is the cause of their helplessness in a given situation determines if the impact will be enduring and devastating or just temporary and with little impact. This becomes clear by examples. Let's consider possible attributions a student might make as to the reason he has failed a math test:

Stable: "I will never be good at math."
Unstable: "I had a cold on test day."

Internal: "I am not smart."
External: "The teacher made a lousy test."

Global: "This will give me a bad grade, and that means I won't go to a good college. My life is ruined."
Specific: "This is just one test in one subject."

These attributions can combine in a variety of different ways, with different results. To take just two contrasting sets of attributions:

Stable, Internal, Global: "I will never be intelligent and that will affect everything."
Unstable, External, Specific: "I was exhausted because I was up all night with my sick dog, but it wont make much difference; I can do a make-up test."

Clearly stable, internal, and global attributions for failure are a prescription for helplessness and decreased future effort. In contrast, unstable, external, and specific attributions for failure would likely lead to optimism and enhanced effort. Thus it is not just a negative experience that determines helplessness, but rather the attributions one makes as to the cause of the negative experience.

Mindset and Helplessness: Joined at the Hip

Although a fixed mindset results from one's belief about the nature of intelligence and learned helplessness results from situations in which one's efforts do not impact on one's outcomes, an examination of the theory and research in these two fields reveals a fixed mindset is a special case of learned helplessness.

Picture two students, one with a growth mindset and one with a fixed mindset. Imagine further that the students both face initial failures or difficulties in a learning task and attribute the setback to not being smart enough to meet the requirements of the task. The student with a growth mindset believes she or he can become smarter with effort, so persists at the task: "I am not yet smart enough to solve this problem, but with effort I will get smarter." The student with a fixed mindset also interprets the initial failure as a reflection of insufficient intelligence, but believes one cannot get smarter through effort. So the fixed mindset student sees no reason to persist at the task. In fact, the student sees a good reason to give up — persisting will only further reveal a lack of intelligence. Essentially, once the student with a fixed mindset interprets initial setbacks as a reflection of lack of sufficient intelligence, the student is in a situation of helplessness: “I am not smart enough for this task, and I can’t get smarter.” Thus, in the face of initial setbacks attributed to lack of sufficient intelligence, students with a growth mindset persist whereas students with a fixed mindset are in the same situation as students who have acquired learned helplessness: Both believe effort will not impact on outcomes, so there is no use in trying. In the face of setbacks attributed to insufficient intelligence, a fixed mindset belief system results in the experience of helplessness.

Support for the conclusion that a fixed mindset is a special case of helplessness comes from research studies examining the behavior of helpless and fixed mindset students. Students with a fixed mindset behave in the same way as those with learned helplessness: Both groups give up in the face of failure, exert less effort toward achievement, and perform more poorly academically.

Response to Failure

Students with fixed mindset and learned helplessness give up in the face of failure.

Mindset and Response to Failure. To measure a fixed vs. growth mindset, experimenters assess how much students agree or disagree with statements that reflect a belief that intelligence is either fixed or malleable. For example, they are tested in how much they agree with statements like:

Fixed Mindset: "You have a certain amount of intelligence, and you really can't do much to change it."
Growth Mindset: "You can always greatly change how intelligent you are."

A number of studies reveal that following failures students with a growth mindset improve more than students with a fixed mindset.9 Growth mindset students approach errors as a learning opportunity. They deeply process where they went wrong; they want to learn from their mistakes. In contrast, those with a fixed mindset treat errors as a negative reflection on their intelligence, and spend less time processing the error. If you believe intelligence is fixed, there is less motivation to attempt to learn from your errors.

Helplessness and Response to Failure. Helpless students respond to failure in the same way as those with a fixed mindset. To measure helplessness, experimenters categorize students as helpless or mastery-oriented based on their explanatory style—how they explain their outcomes. Students are administered a forced-choice questionnaire in which they choose the cause of their outcomes across a variety of situations.10 For each item they can choose a cause they can control (Mastery-Oriented), or a cause that is out of their control (Helpless). Sample explanatory style items:

If a teacher passes you to the next grade, is it
A. Because she likes you or
B. Because you worked hard

Suppose you did well in a test in school, is it
A. Because you studied hard, or
B. Because the test was easy

Helpless and Mastery-Oriented students respond to failure very differently. In an extremely revealing study, students were divided at the medium. Those who more often chose causes out of their control were labeled Helpless; those who more often chose causes they control were labeled Mastery-Oriented. The students were then given a series of discrimination tasks and their verbal and behavioral responses were recorded following successes and failures.11

Following failures, helpless students deteriorated in the use of successful strategies; in effect they gave up. In contrast most Mastery-Oriented students either continued to use successful strategies or improved. See graph: Responses to Failures of Helpless and Mastery Students

The response to failures is remarkably different for the Helpless and Mastery-Oriented students. The most frequent response for Helpless students following failures is to give up and begin using non-adaptive strategies. That was the least frequent response for Mastery-Oriented students who most often either maintained or improved their efforts. Following failures, none of the Helpless students were resilient; none improved their attempts to problem solve and very few maintained their prior level of performance. The failure experience was devastating—after failures they could not solve the problems they had easily solved before! Among the Mastery-Oriented students the most common response was to be resilient. That is, they maintained their performance. Following failures their performance more often improved than deteriorated. A failure led them to try harder. This finding was replicated in two additional studies.12

The verbal statements of Helpless students following failures reflected their having stopped trying. They said things like, "I'm getting confused" and "I never did have a good rememory [sic]." In contrast the mastery-oriented students did not reflect on their failures, rather they focused on searching for a way to improve. They said things like, "I should slow down and try to figure this out" and "The harder it gets the harder I need to try." Following a series of failures the helpless students gave excuses for their failures; the mastery-oriented students verbalized ways to perform better. One group sought to blame external factors; the other sought solutions.

Academic Achievement

Both fixed mindset and learned helplessness students perform poorly academically compared to growth mindset and mastery-oriented students.

Mindset and Achievement. Having a growth vs. fixed mindset predicts academic achievement. In a clear demonstration of that relation, the math achievement of students entering junior high was tracked for two years.13 At entry the students were asked just six questions, three that endorsed a fixed mindset and three that endorsed a growth mindset. If a student agreed with statements like "You have a certain amount of intelligence, and you really can't do much to change it," the student was considered to have a fixed mindset. If the student agreed with statements like, "You can always greatly change how intelligent you are," the student was considered to have a growth mindset.

Although students had similar math achievement scores at entry to junior high, students with a growth mindset steadily improved over the next two years whereas those with a fixed mindset declined in math achievement. See graph: Mindset Predicts Math Achievement.

Helplessness and Achievement. A number of studies reveal helpless students perform poorly in school. A study followed elementary school children for a two-year period. Ratings of helplessness in year one predicted poor performance on an objective achievement test in year two.14

Researchers use the term "Optimist" as the opposite of "Helpless." Whereas Helpless students believe their failures are due to stable, internal factors they cannot control, Optimists believe failures are temporary and controllable. College freshman students at Virginia Tech were assessed on optimism. High optimism was associated with better grades. Student level of optimism was a better predictor of their first semester grades than was the SAT test, which is highly correlated with IQ and which is designed to predict college achievement!15

A similar study at the University of Pennsylvania using a measure of optimism administered to five hundred members of the incoming class found optimism was a better predictor of freshman academic achievement than both SAT scores and high school grades.16

As an undergraduate I was on the UC Berkeley swim team, so the following research study has particular salience for me. It provides important information for every teacher who has ever seen a student give up in the face of difficulty or a setback. The study was designed to test the power of optimism in determining resilience.17 Would an optimistic belief system predict which swimmers responded to a serious setback with resilience? Who would step up their effort in the face of difficulty and who would fade? First, a measure of optimism was administered to all the men and women varsity swimmers on the UC Berkeley swim team. Then they were instructed to swim one of their best events as fast as they could. Next, they were given false feedback: they were told their time was quite poor. The swimmers were given a rest and then told to swim the race again. The question: Who would bounce back following this simulated defeat and whose performance would be knocked down? Those swimmers who scored pessimistic on an optimism scale swam much worse following the simulated set back, some swimming so slowly their time would be dead last in a real race. In contrast, the optimists either maintained their prior fast time or got even faster. Several of the optimists improved their time between two and five seconds—tremendous gains, enough to be the difference between a terrible race and a win!18 A swimmer's optimism score also predicted which swimmers had worse than expected swims for the season: Those who scored pessimistic had twice as many "worse than expected" swims as did the optimists!

Fostering Growth Mindset and Learned Effectiveness

There are many approaches to overcoming a fixed mindset and learned helplessness. A detailed review of those approaches is beyond the scope of this paper. Here we briefly examine some successful approaches.

1. Teach Neuroplasticity

Adolescent students who were taught a course in 'brainology' that emphasized neuroplasticity (how the brain develops with practice) improved their math scores. Those with a fixed mindset declined in their scores.19

Prior to the intervention, the math grades of all of the students were declining. At the outset of the intervention the math grades of the brainology and the control groups were almost identical. Following learning about and adopting more of a growth mindset, students in the brainology group improved dramatically compared to those in the control group who continued to decline. See graph: Teaching Growth Mindset Improves Math Achievement.

Student comments after taking the brainology course reflect the intended shift in mindset:20

"After Brainology, I have a new look at things. Now, my attitude towards the subjects I have trouble in is I try harder to study and master the skills."

"I did change my mind about how the brain works and I do things differently. I will try harder because I know that the more you try the more your brain works."

Applying this research, we can increase growth mindset by teaching students how the brain is like a muscle and how the brain is constantly growing new neural connection. Rather amazingly, simply teaching students about neuroplasticity increases their motivation and achievement.

2. Have Students Advocate Growth Mindset

By having students advocate the importance of a growth mindset, they increase their belief in growth mindset and as a consequence increase their motivation and achievement. This was demonstrated in two experiments, one having students create a growth mindset web page and the other by having them write to a pen pal about the power of having a growth mindset.

The Web-Page Experiment. Experimenters relied primarily on the Internet to change student's beliefs from fixed to growth mindset.21 Experimenters had students construct a web-page advocating the importance of a growth mindset. This intervention was based on research showing "saying-is-believing." That is, when people advocate a position, their belief and commitment to that position increases. Results demonstrated that this intervention significantly improved math and reading. The results are particularly impressive given that math and reading skills were measured by the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills (TAAS), a statewide, standardized achievement test.

The Pen Pal Experiment. Applying this "Saying-is-Believing" approach in a different way, other experimenters had Stanford University undergraduates adopt a low achieving student as a pen pal, writing to them about how with effort they could grow intelligence and achieve academic success.22 The pen pal they were writing to did not really exist, but the Stanford students were led to believe they were writing to a real, at-risk, low-achieving student. The Stanford students were asked to emphasize in their letter that intelligence is not a finite endowment, but rather an expandable capacity that grows—"like a muscle"—with mental work. Before writing their letter they were told:

"Because intelligence is malleable, humans are capable of learning and mastering new things at any time in their lives. This message is especially important to get across to young, struggling students. If these students view intelligence as a fixed quantity, they may feel that they are incapable of learning if they encounter difficulty with their schoolwork. If, however, students can be convinced that intelligence expands with hard work, they may be more likely to remain in school and put effort into learning."

Using their official grade transcripts at the end of the academic year, the grade point averages of students in the growth mindset advocacy condition were compared with control conditions. Students in the growth mindset condition had significantly higher grades than those in the control conditions. This finding is a powerful proof that simply changing a student's belief about intelligence impacts on their academic achievement. In addition to improved academic achievement, students in the growth mindset condition showed significantly more enjoyment of the academic process than did students in the control conditions, significantly more often indicated they "enjoyed the educational process—studying, going to class, taking tests, etc.—at Stanford."

We can apply these findings by having students advocate the power of effort in growing intelligence. We can have them do research on neuroplasticity, write essays, create posters, and even write letters to lower grade students explaining how they can grow their intelligence by persisting in the face of difficulty.

3. Promote Growth-Mindset Language

Carol Dweck, who formulated the growth mindset concept, advocates teaching students about the power of "yet." To promote a growth mindset, encourage students to add the word yet to I can't and I haven't statements. Have students practice: Using RoundRobin each student in turn makes an I can't or I haven't statement, pauses, and then adds the word yet. For examples,

I haven't memorized my 8's in the multiplication table.
I haven't memorized my 8's in the multiplication table yet.

I can't do this math problem.
I can't do this math problem yet.

I can't get 100 on my spelling tests.
I can't get 100 on my spelling tests yet.