Growth Mindset and Intrinsic Motivation During COVID-19

Growth Mindset and Intrinsic Motivation During COVID-19

With school districts across America taking varied reopening approaches as the COVID-19 pandemic continues, it is more important than ever for students to develop resilience, hope, and a healthy learning mindset.

Educators have long worked to instill in their students an intrinsic motivation to succeed, rather than relying on extrinsic motivators such as grades and awards. However, at a time when many are feeling more doubtful than hopeful, inspiring students to stay motivated might seem like a tall order.

Certainly, COVID-19 has changed a great deal about the 2020–2021 academic year, but there is still potential for students to thrive despite—or even because of—adversity. With this in mind, here are our practical tips for cultivating a growth mindset and intrinsic motivation this school year, both in the physical classroom and online.

Ideas for teaching a growth mindset

Teachers who participated in the University of Texas at Austin's OnRamps growth mindset program at the beginning of the 2019–2020 school year noticed that students encouraged to embrace a growth mindset were able to adjust more quickly to last semester's abrupt virtual learning switch. This fall, educators who place an emphasis on building a growth mindset can cultivate similar benefits by helping students develop the personal belief that they can learn and grow through challenging situations.

Here are our top three in-class and online lesson ideas for teaching a growth mindset:

  1. Create a vision board
    Ask students to gather pictures from magazines, the internet, or their own drawings that show the future they’re working toward. Some may look far down the road (going into a particular profession, buying a car, or purchasing a future home) while others focus on goals for the present year (finishing a project, learning a new skill, or strengthening their relationships). 

  • In class: Ask students to present their vision boards with the class or display the boards on the wall.

  • Online: Have students upload and post pictures of their boards, then compile the images into a class slideshow.

  1. Keep a journal 

Students who write in a journal on a daily or weekly basis can look back at the progress they've made in terms of emotional learning and working toward their personal goals.

  • In class: Set aside the beginning or end of each class period for journaling. Once a month, ask students to look back at their previous entries and reflect upon the changes they see.

  • Online: Begin each online session with a question such as "What is your greatest accomplishment?" or "What areas challenge you the most?" Repeating each question once a month will prompt students to look back at their previous answers and note their own development.

  1. Make a personal timeline

Encourage students to think about how growth happens over time by having them write one sentence to summarize achievements in each year of their lives—for example, "In 2005, I learned to walk and talk" or "In 2012, I immigrated to the United States." Next, ask students to extend their personal timelines into the future. How do they predict they will grow within the next year? How about five or 10 years from now?

  • In class: Have students form small groups, share their personal timelines, and brainstorm three action steps for reaching one of their goals.

  • Online: Before students post their timelines, remind them not to include dates of birth and other personal identifying information. Then ask them to share the years in which they have experienced the most significant personal growth so far and have them make one prediction about their future.

Strategies for cultivating intrinsic motivation

In a recent EdSurge article, educator and writer Tim Klein contended that because an increased number of educators adopted pass/fail grading systems and deferred assessments over recent months, grades are particularly unlikely to motivate students during the COVID-19 era. Citing the self-determination theory developed by Richard Ryan and Edward Deci, Klein recommended moving away from external motivators in favor of prioritizing autonomy, competence, and relatedness.

Here are our top three strategies for cultivating these key elements of intrinsic motivation:

  1. Create flexible, choice-led learning menus
    Whether their schools are operating entirely virtually, holding in-person classes, or using a hybrid model that combines remote and classroom-based instruction, many students are adjusting to a "new normal" this semester. With so much currently beyond their control, why not offer a learning menu that provides flexibility and autonomy in the form of multiple options? For example, students could select one of two novels to read or explain a concept using their choice of a written report, a comic book, or a short story. 

  • In class: Use classroom time for guided, self-paced work that allows students to complete their chosen tasks at their own pace. Offer reminders and review expectations to ensure everyone completes and submits assignments by the due date.

  • Online: Give students a variety of choices for submission, such as using text files, pictures, or written messages. To further personalize learning, consider recording lessons for students to access at any time.

  1. Promote self-assessment
    Before students turn in an assignment, ask them to rate how much effort they put in, how well they managed their time, and how much they learned. Encouraging students to take pride in their work can build intrinsic motivation, while providing regular opportunities to talk about their learning experiences will prompt them to advocate for themselves.

  • In class: Include two rubrics with each graded assignment—one for the teacher and one for the student—and ask students to grade themselves on how well they fulfilled the requirements.

  • Online: Ask students to consider how the virtual setting affected their time management, skill-building, and personal effort. How did they fare outside the classroom environment? Do they need any additional support?

  1. Emphasize relevance and interpersonal connections
    Education does not occur in a vacuum, even when classroom-based instruction is socially distanced or students are learning remotely. With this in mind, make time for paired and small-group discussion to facilitate connections among classmates. 

  • In class: Invite students to share their thoughts on how current events have shaped the ways they are learning and the concepts they are studying. Ask them to draw their own connections to the material—their insights may surprise you!

  • Online: Guide students to connect via group chats and discussion boards. Ask them to respond to others' thoughts by relating these to their own observations, current events, or concepts discussed earlier in the semester.

The bottom line

By promoting a growth mindset and intrinsic motivation, educators can help prepare their students to succeed in any circumstances. While COVID-19 has changed a great deal about teaching and learning in 2020, educators' role in guiding students through their own skill-building and growth remains unchanged, regardless of whether they are teaching remotely or in the classroom.

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Featured White Paper:

6 Ways to Help Students Develop a Growth Mindset

Decades of research have demonstrated that a student’s mindset is a critical factor that impacts how comfortable and motivated they are when posed with a new or difficult problem to solve. Read this white paper by Dr. Elizabeth Kazakoff to learn about what it means to have a growth mindset and how supporting this perspective in students can be enhanced in the context of educational technology.


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