Improving Writing by Empowering a Growth Mindset

The correlation between a growth mindset and student success is easy to see. We all want our students to view learning as a process, not as a static goal or finish line. As Carol Dweck explains in her book Mindset, a growth mindset is the attitude that ability and intelligence are not predestined, but are ever evolving, growing and developing. The “wicked problem”  for me has been addressing students who have developed a fixed mindset, especially older students who often arrive in my room with little experience related to the value of a growth mindset.

As I began to consider ways I could incorporate characteristics of a growth mindset into my pedagogy, I reflected on the approach my students take to writing assignments. Traditionally, I have assigned students a writing task as a summative assessment at the end of a unit. I provide time in class to work on the assignment, and offer my help to students as they work through the writing process. This culminates with a due date, when the writing is set to be complete.  However, I have noticed that many of my students default to the human tendency of finding the shortest route to accomplish the assigned task. From a student’s view, that route involves writing as little as is required, turning it in and moving on from the assignment. Since only one grade is entered when the final product is turned in, it is easy to see why brainstorming, prewriting and most importantly revisions feel like “extra” work for a student approaching the assignment with a fixed mindset.

For these fixed mindset students the assignment feels like an opportunity to demonstrate their current writing ability, not an opportunity to learn. Proficient writers will view the assignment as a chance to demonstrate that they are “good” writers, and struggling students will see it as a chance to prove they are “bad” writers. In both scenarios, the student’s view that their ability as a writer is “fixed” can hinder their growth.

As Dweck explains in her book, students can develop this fixed mindset through messaging.  When a writing assignment leaves no time for improvement, feedback or reflection, it can communicate to a student that the goal of writing is the final product, not the process of learning how to create a quality piece. The danger here is that students learn that their job is to get it “right” the first time, or not at all.

To address this, I decided I needed to rethink the way I implemented writing in my classes. The goal is to remove the emphasis from “fixed” elements of writing, and to place the emphasis instead on the “growth” elements. The structure of a writing assignment should communicate that writing, like ability and intelligence, is a never ending process of growth, failure, revision and development. Instead of assessing a student’s ability to complete a final product, assessment is focused on the improvement of writing.

My first attempt at communicating this message is to place the emphasis not on the final product, but instead on the revisions. For my students final writing project this trimester, the rough draft they turn in will be worth roughly 25% of their final project grade. The remaining 75% will be connected to revisions of their writing, with the focus of the assessment being on the inclusion of teacher feedback in those revisions. This not only communicates that the revisions are the most important part of the process, but also that growth is the determiner of a grade, not static ability.

The goal of this change is to communicate to students that success is not the measurement of talent or intelligence, but instead success is found in the process of learning and growth. As noted by Dweck, a student’s mindset is developed through constant messaging. I don’t expect this small change to create a room full student’s demonstrating a growth mindset. As all teachers know, students bring their prior experiences with them each and every day, both the good and the bad.  However, I view this as an opportunity to reverse the messaging and communicate that I am not interested in judging their skills, ability or intelligence, but celebrating their development as young writers and learners.


Works Cited

Dweck, Carol S. Mindset. Robinson, 2017.

Power of Participation

As Michigan (and most of the midwest) is being blasted with another “Polar Vortex”, I have taken the opportunity to catch up on some much needed grading.

I have been reading through letters my Government class recently wrote to newly elected officials, discussing issues that they believe are important and should be addressed. The more I read from my class, the more impressed I became with my students.

As a general rule, I always assume that my students will surprise me, but that feeling never gets old. I had the such a feeling when I read a letter from one of my students to Governor Rick Snyder about marriage equality. In this very polite, articulate and well written letter, one line stuck out to me.

During your first term you had said many times that you have no problem with marriage equality, so my question is why do we not have it?

In this one line, I could feel the passion, concern and urgency of the writer. As a teacher I was proud of the accomplishment of the writer to convey their thoughts eloquently, respectfully and powerfully, but I was also excited for them.

Out of all the assignments this year, the assignment to write a letter to an elected official was far and away the most completed by the class, with the highest scores received across the board. I would like to think this is because I have gradually built their skills to a fantastic crescendo, and hopefully I have to a certain extent, but I think the biggest factor in this assignment was giving young people agency.

These students, who often voice a feeling of helplessness in the political realm, took full advantage of speaking directly to their representatives. This is one of those moments I want to bottle and relive over and over again. Hopefully, by providing more opportunities for my students to connect personally with the “real world”, I can.