Here’s a question: Is intelligence a fixed trait, or can it be developed?

How a teacher answers that question may have a powerful impact on the success of the students in her classroom.

According to Dr. Omid Fotuhi, the way we think about intelligence — and therefore the messages about intelligence we send our students — is a critical component of their success at Hope.

Dr. Fotuhi is the project manager of the College Transition Collaborative and Research Associate at Stanford University’s Interventions Lab. He visited Hope College on September 21 and 22, 2015, to address K–12 educators and Hope faculty and staff about improving student engagement and learning.

In the research he presented, Dr. Fotuhi identified a handful of interventions that consistently provide positive outcomes for student performance. One of these addresses our intelligence mindset, or how we think about intelligence and talent.

Many believe intelligence is innate. In this fixed mindset, intelligence is viewed much like height is: Once we’ve matured, it’s seen as a relatively stable trait. We either have it or we don’t.

But what if intelligence is actually a growth process, one in which tackling difficult material or failing after we tried something new actually increases our intelligence? In this growth mindset, intelligence is viewed more like strength might be: We have the ability to become stronger with effort.

“The way we view our intelligence is a predictor of how we will engage or disengage with challenge and difficulty,” Dr. Fotuhi said. “If we see intelligence as innate and we think we’re inferior to others, we’re likely to get frustrated and give up more readily. But if we see intelligence as a process of growth, we’re more likely to persevere through difficult or challenging circumstances.”

It’s that response to challenges that makes all the difference.

“Last year there was an on-going conversation about ‘growth mindset’ and the simple things teachers can do to foster such a mindset with our students,” said Steven Bouma-Predeger, professor of religion and associate dean for teaching and learning. “We invited Dr. Fotuhi because want to learn more.”

Dr. Fotuhi said that faculty, staff and administrators have a formative role in communicating a different message about intelligence. So what can we do to help shift our students toward a growth mindset? Here are four tips:

1. Identify your own intelligence mindset

Are you operating primarily on a fixed mindset or a growth mindset? In truth, we all have a mix of the two. Pay attention to how you react to successes and failures in your classroom. These verbal and nonverbal responses are captured by students — and they can influence their own mindsets. 

2. Praise the process, not the person

Rather than placing value on traits like talent or intelligence, give praise for a growth-oriented process. Applaud practice, study, persistence, good strategies and experimentation; these shift the focus from outcomes to efforts, strategies and choices. Convey to your students that it’s okay to try new strategies and fail; what matters is a willingness to experiment, to access resources, and the belief that with time and effort they can achieve positive outcomes. 

3. Praise failure as well as success

Most people think that if success means they’re smart, then failure means they’re dumb. But that’s not the case. Every failure is an opportunity to learn and grow for next time. And there is something good in every failure, too — a creative idea that just didn’t pan out, a tenacious effort, an improvement that should be celebrated. Find the good in every failure and praise it.

4. Be clear that you’re committed to your students’ success

Students put a lot of weight in how they think you view them, and sometimes they’re uncertain about why they’re receiving feedback. Do those red marks all over their paper mean you think they’re not smart enough? Take the time to clarify why you’re critiquing their work.