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Instructor's Mindset

A page within CATL Instructor's Guide to Inclusive Excellence


"Mindset" (for our purposes as instructors in higher education) are beliefs about learning. A "fixed" mindset is the belief that abilities are inherent (a matter of talent or lack thereof) and cannot be changed (e.g., "I'm just not good at math/writing/science/art/skateboarding"), Messages can come from teachers, parents, as well as from society. Many social stereotypes in the United States include the assumption that an entire group's intelligence is fixed at a level either higher or lower than the social reference point (e.g., men are better at math than women, white men can't jump as well as African Americans, whites' intelligence is higher than all other groups). Research indicates that students lose motivation and cease to work at learning if they believe that their intelligence is fixed.

A "growth mindset" is the belief that abilities can be attained with well-targeted work, and that requires good teaching and feedback. Research indicates that students work harder and are more likely to accept intellectual challenges if they believe that their intelligence can develop. Learn more about mindset here

In higher education, instructors as well as students can harbor some fixed-mindset assumptions.  This page explores ways instructors might send unintentional messages that can demotivate our students.




Try not to do this

Try to do this


Student success resources

Single out the resources available to targeted groups (e.g., OMSS, ACCESS Center).

Provide students with all the available student success resources, including those available to targeted groups, but don't single out anything.  You can inadvertently reinforce a stereotype (e.g., that students of color need more help than white students do), and students may then avoid seeking help in order to avoid confirming a  stereotype.

Explain that most students struggle with new material, and that you expect students to ask for help if they don't understand something

UWL Syllabus template

Communicating about evaluation and study strategies (motivation)

"47% percent of you will get a D or an F on this test/paper/project." While this might seem like useful data you're giving students so they know they need to study hard, to students the message is that no one can pass that assignment.  Students from stigmatized groups might hear an additional message based in social stereotypes: that a large part of that 47% percentage includes a lot of students like themselves.  

"Students who earned a B or better on this assignment reported using these strategies to prepare for it." Then name and explain the strategies that worked.  Collect this data over time. This approach emphasizes successful effort, and provides data that students can actually use.

The assumption that students don't study and that's why so many did so poorly can be a misdiagnosis.  Many students, particularly in the first two years, employ study strategies like memorization and rereading that worked great in high school but aren't adequate to the learning goals of college. Chances are, struggling students are working just as hard as their higher-performing classmates, but lack the broader range of study skills we take for granted that they already have.  Use a measure for your data collection on exam preparation that includes a broad range of study skills.

CATL TIG - Metacognition


CATL TIG – Students' Study Skills




"Class participation:  X%" (and that's all you say about it)

Define what class participation is. A rubric is even better. Determine how often you will give feedback, and on what.  Be equally transparent with other graded components of your course.

See the UWL template for additional policy statements to consider.

UWL syllabus template

Standards of excellence for graded work

"Paper: X%"  (and that's all you say about it)

Build your evaluation rubric around something authentic – a transparent, external standard: the publication standards for an undergraduate journal, for example. Tell students the source of your standards.  Students from groups with negative social stereotypes may have received fixed-mindset messages from some teachers, but also praise for work the student knew was substandard when they turned it in. A clear external standard can help by rendering that history less relevant.

Try a metacognitive tool like an assignment wrapper, a self-assessment of the student's own effort, submitted with the assignment.  Metacognitive tools can help students identify their own strengths and weaknesses.

CATL TIG Mindset  – see #4 in Examples



CATL's TIG - Rubrics





CATL's TIG – Students' Study Skills:  the assignment wrapper is linked at the bottom

 Course design


Try not to do this

Try to do this


Clear learning process

Assign graded tasks that don't align with the learning outcomes for your course.


Assign graded tasks without first identifying the skills and knowledge students will need to be successful and ensuring that students are prepared.

Expect students to be able to do tasks "they should have learned in high school" but obviously didn't.

Use a planning worksheet that helps you work backward from the outcome to the assignment to the learning process that prepares students for success.

CATL TIG Mindset – see especially the Examples and Tips.


CATL TIG – see discussions worksheet or group learning worksheet  Adapt as needed.


Sink-or-swim types of complex assignments that require students to apply multiple new skills and/or knowledge simultaneously.

Opportunities to practice new skills in isolation before adding more. Often that means providing components of a complex task that are necessary for students to practice the new skill, then removing the other components for more practice.

CATL's TIG – Student Learning:  many ideas linked to this page

Rewrite/mastery design

One-and-done papers. The message is pretty clear: either you get it or you don't (either you're smart or you're dumb). 

Break down longer writing assignments into components to give students multiple opportunities for feedback.  Develop the learning process as clearly and transparently as you can.

CATL's TIG – Student Learning:  many ideas linked to this page

Giving feedback


Try not to do this

 Try to do this  Resources


Cover the page with red ink, with no prefacing message.

Set a clear, high, external standard, provide your usual feedback, but attach a note that the student will see FIRST saying "I'm giving you this feedback because I know you can do it."

CATL TIG Mindset  – see #4 in Examples


Adopt a tone that implies the student should already know something

Adopt a tone that implies the student can learn the skill or knowledge needed to perform well.



Use academic “code” (e.g. you write “vague” in the margins of a paper). You might know what you mean; your students may have NO idea.

Explain.  Demonstrate.  Provide opportunities to practice.

Try a “paper wrapper” to avoid responding to errors a student already recognizes.



Principle mindset researcher is Carol Dweck, Psychology, Stanford University:

Ted Talk: The Power of Believing that You Can Improve (10 minutes, 20 seconds)

Dweck, C. (2006). Mindset:  The new psychology of success. New York:  Random House.

See also: Malcom-Piqueux, L., and Bensimon, E. M. (2017). Taking equity-minded action to close equity gaps. In AAC&U Peer Review, 19:2.

See also more resources at the Academic Affairs website, including a for a video of students talking about mindset.

Hoskins, D. (2016, 2020).  Instructor's mindset.  In Instructor's Guide to Inclusive Excellence. University of Wisconsin at La Crosse Center for Advancing Teaching and Learning. Retrieved from