Intelligence is Fluid

While looking for techniques that teachers can use to reinforce effort and provide recognition, I came across the work of Carol S. Dweck. She’s been studying students’ motivation for over 30 years and has found that:

“The most motivated and resilient students are the ones who believe that their abilities can be developed through their effort and learning.”

Her research has identified two distinct ways that students view intelligence and learning, with a growth mindset or a fixed mindset.

Students with a Fixed Mindset:

  • Feel that their intelligence is an inborn trait that cannot be changed.
  • Value looking smart.
  • Believe that you are smart only if you succeed without effort. If you have to work hard, then this shows you aren’t smart.
  • Feel that mistakes indicate a lack of ability.
  • Do not try to correct their errors, because these errors indicate a lack of ability, which is a permanent situation.
  • They become discouraged or defensive when they don’t immediately succeed.

Students with a Growth Mindset:

  • Feel that they can develop their intelligence over time.
  • Want tasks that stretch their abilities and teach them new things.
  • Believe that the more effort you put into something, the better you’ll do.
  • Are eager to confront their mistakes and fix them.

Fostering a Growth Mindset

A growth mind-set creates motivation and resilience, thus leading to higher achievement. Brain research is showing that intelligence can be developed and is expandable throughout a person’s life. A growth mindset can be encouraged by direct instruction, cultivating a learning culture, and embedding certain classroom practices.


  • Teach students about the brain.
    • Intellectual development is not the natural unfolding of intelligence, but rather the formation of new connections brought about through effort and learning.
    • The brain is like a muscle—the more it’s exercised, the stronger it becomes.
    • Every time you learn something new, the brain forms new connections that, over time, make you smarter.
    • Practice is the key to learning. Only by practicing can you grow new connections.
    • The more connections you make, the easier it gets to make new ones.
    • To move information from your working memory to long-term memory requires encoding. Encoding requires that you pay attention, attach new information to existing information that supports it, and repeat the information.
  • Discuss with students what a learner (growth mindset) looks like.
    • Doesn’t give up when his/her first attempt doesn’t work.
    • Wants to identify their weaknesses and focus on their own improvement.
    • Isn’t afraid to make a mistake.
    • Focuses on the process of learning, utilizes feedback to correct errors and develop a plan for the next attempt.
    • Looks forward to learning something new, taking on a challenge.
    • Devotes time and effort to the task. It takes longer to understand things at a deeper level.
    • Spends time reflecting on a learning experience: What went well? What can I try next time since this didn’t work?


  • Praise a student’s process: effort, strategies, concentration, choices, or persistence. Emphasizing process gives a student variables that he/she can control. They come to see themselves as in control of their success.
  • “You must have worked hard on these problems.”
  • “You really studied for your history test, and your improvement shows it. You read the material over several times, outlined it, and tested yourself on it. That really worked!”
  • “I like the way you tried all kinds of strategies on that math problem until you finally got it.”
  • “It was a long, hard assignment, but you stuck to it and got it done. You kept up your concentration, and kept working. That’s great!”
  • Avoid praising intelligence.
    • “That was easy for you. You must be smart.”
    • “Wow that’s a really good score. You must be smart.”
    • “What a great story. You must be the best writer in the class.”
    • “You’re so brilliant, you got an A without even studying!”
  • Make your classroom a risk tolerant environment, free from judgement.
  • As a teacher, convey a sense of joy at tackling a challenging learning task.
  • Tell students that mistakes are expected and valuable, because everyone can learn from them.
  • Encourage them to ask questions and seek additional support as needed. Using digital feedback tools (Student Response System, Moodle Forum or Feedback, Socrative) you can allow students to ask questions privately, anonymously,  not in front of the class.
  • Communicate to students that the goal is to learn, show progress or growth. The goal is not to immediately complete the task successfully without any mistakes or hard work. For example, show an inspirational video about a famous person who wasn’t initially successful, but didn’t give up.


  •  Give students time to reflect on their learning. This could be done in a blog post (which might work best if it was private between the teacher and student), or a survey (Google Form or Moodle Feedback), an exit ticket (Socrative), or a conference between teacher and student.

– What is my learning goal today?
– What will I do to accomplish this goal?
– What is clear to me?
– What confuses me?
– Am I putting in my full effort?
– What strategies are working for me?
– What could the teacher do to help me understand better?
– What questions do I still have about today’s lesson?

  • Set high expectations when composing learning objectives.
  • Emphasize progress by having students compare pretests and post test to reflect on what they have learned.
  • Keep students focused on the process of learning and show them that you are committed to to helping everyone get smarter. Rather than issuing a failing grade, provide a “Not Yet” label and allow the student to utilize feedback and formulate new strategies while making another attempt.

What are your thoughts? How do you foster a growth mindset in your students?



One thought on “Intelligence is Fluid

  1. Pingback: Do Students Discover Much In Science? | Siyensya

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