Growth Mindset & Grading


Grading is one of my least favorite parts of teaching. It’s funny, because growing up, I always loved when teachers let us grade each other’s papers. It was kind of fun, getting to wield a red pen and assign points to peers. Now on the other side, I find myself frustrated with a system in which we preach growth mindset to our students, yet often provide feedback in the form of points or circled rubrics, rather than in ways that help our children to improve.

Growth mindset, an idea first introduced by Dr. Carol Dweck, refers to a student’s belief that they can get smarter. Her research showed that when students believe that intelligence is a malleable quality, they recognize that effort drives them towards success, leading them to work harder, and ultimately, resulting in academic achievement. It’s the opposite of fixed mindset, in which a student views intelligence as a quality outside of their control, and therefore put in less effort to change it. Growth mindset has been found to help students overcome (though, importantly, not eliminate) even inherent gender and racial biases.

Growth mindset is, in effect, a reflection of tenacity. Students with a growth mindset are more likely to persist when they encounter challenges within their learning, and research tells us that tenacity is an incredibly important determining factor in a student’s long term success. As referenced in Paul Tough’s book, How Children Succeed, this is true in nearly every area of life — they are more likely to graduate from high school, stay out of jail, even get married — than their less tenacious peers.

If research tells us that tenacity and resilience are more predictive of long term success than, say, grades or standardized test scores, then shouldn’t our grading reflect that quality? Shouldn’t the core of our grading practices be working to build growth mindset and resilience, rather than simply working towards more widespread measures of academic performance?

And while our overall schooling system still operates within the schemes of standardized testing and letter grades, there are many ways that classroom teachers can work within the existing system while still creating an environment where student determination is practiced, rewarded, and allowed to grow.

As a classroom teacher, I believe that tenacity is the single most important quality I can build in my students. I believe this so deeply that I have worked to build a grading system within my classroom that encourages and rewards growth, while recognizing that every student is unique, and that each student progresses towards mastery at a different pace.

Here are three tenets that can be adapted and applied even within a traditional grading system:

Coaching first, grading later. Grading in the traditional sense looks a lot like a teacher assigning points to an assignment and handing back papers with minimal opportunities to earn points back. While this method does help a teacher identify which students are succeeding and which need additional help, it lacks a means for students to take ownership of their learning. On long term projects, adopting a coaching approach to grading helps students master the material prior to having the assignment “graded,” for grade book purposes. Much like a Language Arts teacher having multiple outlines and drafts due before the final paper, on long term assignments, teachers should have multiple check-in points where either the teacher or a peer review work done so far, give meaningful feedback, and allow the student to ask questions to gain additional insight into how they can improve.

Multiple opportunities for re-dos and displaying mastery. The ultimate goal of education should be to foster a deep love and appreciation for learning. Ultimately, very few students will go on to pursue careers that require them to be experts of every subject, but equipping a student with a passion for learning and growth will serve them well in whatever field they choose. As such, we must recognize that not every student achieves mastery of every concept at exactly the same time. And, when we only allow them one opportunity, at some pre-ordained (and, let’s face it, often arbitrary) time, to show mastery of a concept, we’re sending the message that learning is not important unless you can complete it in a set amount of time. We do students a huge disservice by not allowing continued work towards mastery on concepts that are more challenging because it does not fit within our curricular framework. Instead, students should be given ample opportunities to continue to work towards mastery of concepts in which they struggle, and should earn back points they miss whenever allowed within the grading system. This not only builds their subject matter understanding, but breeds that all important quality of tenacity.

A’s are for excellence, not completion. Okay, so, this guideline hinges largely on the successful implementation of the first two: IF students are coached to success on large scale projects AND given the opportunity to continue to work towards mastery on their own timeline, then it naturally follows that high grades should require work. In order for a student to be successful at the absolute highest level, as teachers, we must expect them to go above and beyond, outside of the box (and the rubric), and to employ creativity in their display of mastery. If this sounds abstract, it’s because it is, and because it has to be. It must be challenging for a student to earn an A for two major reasons: first, research supports the finding that heightened teacher expectations lead to student success and second, because requiring persistence in order to earn an A builds a child’s tenacity, which, as we’ve discussed earlier, largely impacts their success later in life.

Ultimately, even with the constraints of our education system, there’s still room for classroom teachers to implement grading policies that encourage student success and build tenacity by focusing on student-motivated growth, rather than points alone.

What ways do your grading practices build growth mindset? Share your ideas in the comments!


Published by Jen

A political science major turned computer science teacher, I am passionate about inspiring a love for learning through authentic, real world experiences. I blog about education: ways we can help students succeed, how to innovate within the classroom, and my own quest to never stop learning.

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