I sometimes have pupils, that struggle to learn because they have a fixed-mindset (“I can't program”, “I can't use computers”, …).

I the context of teaching a Computing (Computer Science, IT, Digital Literacy, Computational Thinking ) lesson, what can be done to encourage growth-mindset?


Growth-mindset / fixed-mindset, are from research by Carol Dweck. Dweck's work shows that a students belief about whether they can do it has a massive effect on outcome. I think some one else said “Whether you believe that you can do it, or that you can not, you are correct.”, this sums it up.

  • $\begingroup$ The time has come to give someone a ✓. There are 3 very good answers here, but which one to award the tick to. A lot of the advice is general. the question asked for in computing lessons (this does not rule out the general, though I prefer thinks specific to computing). So who to pick? $\endgroup$ Nov 6, 2017 at 18:14

3 Answers 3


I like both of the existing answers, but I wanted to add another technique that I think is very important: you should show that making mistakes or not knowing is part of the process.

Don't: Make your lessons all about perfect example code and only best practices.

I'm a student in your class. I've understood most of what you told me in lecture. Now I'm at home, sitting down at my computer looking at a homework assignment. I have no idea what to do! Then I start writing code, and I get a ton of errors. Ugh, maybe this computer stuff isn't for me!

Do: Include mistakes, debugging, and looking stuff up in your lessons. Do live coding exercises.

I'm a student in your class. Now I'm at home, sitting down at my computer looking at a homework assignment. I have no idea what to do, but I remember from class you told me I should break problems down into smaller steps and then take those steps on one at a time. Now I'm writing code, and I get an error. Good thing you showed me that errors are a normal part of programming, along with how to debug the issue. I even know how to look stuff up in the reference if I'm confused!

  • $\begingroup$ I like that. Sorry I didn't think of it myself. Maybe there should be a pedagogical pattern "Honor Mistakes." $\endgroup$
    – Buffy
    Nov 2, 2017 at 17:16

I'm afraid this is one of those sad but true situations. Too many students are blocked by their own expectations. Too often those expectations are based on early experience and then reinforced continuously. Every time they seem to fail, the poor sense of self worth is deepened. You want to try to break that cycle.

There are two solutions (at least). One for the whole class and one for the individual.

For the class you need to always teach with the attitude that yes you can. That this may not be easy, but it is do-able, even if it takes work. You shouldn't say things like "this may be too hard for some of you" or anything implying that. You can say "I struggled with this when I was younger, but pushed through the block." Good teaching practice in general can help with this. Peer instruction, pairing, group work, peer feedback can all help. Providing a way for them to get questions answered as they arise will help so they don't need to wait for an answer. Encouraging questions helps - even requiring questions - with points given for "participation" helps. Value questions over answers, actually (unlike this site). If you keep an index card for each student (assuming reasonable numbers) you can annotate it as questions and discussions occur. Keep these cards with you as you teach, of course. Cards on your office desk are less valuable.

For the individual, you may need to spend some time exploring what got them to the situation they are in and why. When was the first time they noticed this "inability"? What happened then that gave them that idea? Many people get into this situation and then miss a lot of essentials that leave them behind their classmates making it harder and harder to catch up or change their self-perceptions. You need to try to break that cycle. Sometimes tutoring is available, but you may need to instruct the tutor to have it properly effective.

The key idea, however, is to assure, somehow, that the student has success and recognizes it, even if it is a small success. Sometimes pointing out to them that they were abandoned by earlier teachers gives them some incentive to succeed.

One way to assure success is to depend less on "all or nothing" examinations and base grading more on cumulative work submitted. Permitting repeated work and re-grading is a powerful technique, but can, if not monitored, lead to the student getting farther behind, as the re-work takes time and focus. If a course is "worth" 1000 points, then each of 8 projects is worth 100, with resubmission after grading permitted. The remaining points can be distributed otherwise. Some people even permit re-taking examinations.

It is likely that the reinforcement of failure comes from many directions. You can/should discuss the situation with your colleagues and develop an overall plan for any such student. Hopefully your rules and regulations don't make that impossible. Parents can also help in some situations, perhaps by providing tutors or counseling. In particular, you may need to educate your peer educators that it isn't proper behavior to teach only the obviously teachable, especially if that is only the best students who may, in some ways, be the easiest to teach.

You should also ask this same question at Math Educators. Math teachers have long faced this situation at all levels. Sometimes in an Algebra class, for example, you learn that students don't actually know how to add two numbers. In math or CS you may need to take the student back a long way to fill in the gaps they have.

One person close to me thought he was dumb in math. In fact, he was bored in school and being bored caused a bit of trouble. This resulted in at least one teacher ignoring his instruction. He could only add by counting on his fingers. Later on, he took a Calculus course and did very well, surprising himself. I knew that he had unrealized ability, but it was hard to get that idea through to him.


Tell students explicitly that the mind works like a muscle when learning computer science. Carol Dweck showed that students can be explicitly trained in growth mindset, leading to better outcomes for those students.

  • The message is that everyone can learn CS if they work hard at the right strategies.
  • Carol Dweck created the Brainology curriculum to teach growth mindset. You can preview it for free.

Believe yourself that growth mindset in computing is real. Act what you say. Your students will likely pick up on your attitude.

  • Don't say that anyone's a genius, or naturally talented at programming.
  • Demonstrate that you think any student can succeed if they study correctly.

Help your students focus on strategies and processes that lead them to success. Students should see evidence that using a good strategy will help them. It's not just about being "smart".

  • Make problem-solving strategies explicit in your teaching. Demonstrate the strategies and reward use of those strategies.
  • Use active learning techniques, which often require students to talk through their problem-solving strategies.

NB: Carol Dweck has been giving interviews over the last couple years that critique how growth mindset is used in practice (see here and here). She cautions about a "false growth mindset" that says students only need to try hard. It's about good strategies, not just trying hard. She also notes that sometimes teachers use "fixed mindset" as another reason why students just can't learn, similar to how we used to blame the child’s environment or ability.

"Must it always come back to finding a reason why some children just can’t learn, as opposed to finding a way to help them learn? Teachers who understand the growth mindset do everything in their power to unlock that learning." - Dweck in Education Week

  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Did I just read, that some teachers are using “Fixed mindset” as a disability label. “They have a fixed-mindset, that is why they don't learn (it is not my fault).”. Oh the irony: that attitude is so fixed mindset. $\endgroup$ Oct 31, 2017 at 18:49
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ ooooo, recursive $\endgroup$
    – Buffy
    Oct 31, 2017 at 18:52

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