Building Academic Tenacity

Renee Wright

I’m always looking for ways to help students succeed; when students perform well, my life and job are easier. So, when I read about psychological interventions several years ago, I was enamored by the possibilities and what student success would look like using brief, or small interventions. These psychological interventions help build tenacious students: those who believe they belong in school academically and socially, and that school is relevant to their future; who seek out challenges and value effort as a learning experience; who view setbacks as an opportunity for learning; and who aren’t derailed by difficulty.

Carol Dweck, Gregory Walton, and Geoffrey Cohen state, “[p]sychological factors—often called motivational or non-cognitive factors—can matter even more than cognitive factors for students’ academic performance” (2). The research they present outlines educational interventions that target specific practices that can transform students’ experience and achievement in school. The interventions they present focus on four key areas: mindset, social belonging, self-relevance, and self-regulation. Integrating brief or small interventions into your teaching practice can improve academic outcomes realized months or years later.

I’ll touch upon each of the four areas in a series of posts, providing a bit of research for each factor, along with my specific practices.

Mindset Interventions

Mindset interventions can work across disciplines in a variety of ways:

  • Teach students about the difference between a growth and fixed mindset. Reinforce the concept that challenge should be met with persistence and not resistance or procrastination. Make reference to the concept of growth mindset throughout the semester. Additional sources can be found at PERTS.
  • Spend the first class period or two reviewing the course expectations and effective learning strategies that can improve opportunities for success. Provide students with specific strategies, such as effective note taking, reading closely, and annotating the text, for your discipline. An example can be found at Strategies to Teach Students.
  • Let students know you are there to help them succeed, but you aren’t working alone so they have to be engaged and motivated to succeed as well. They have to apply strategies to their daily practice. Additional sources can be found at Effective Teaching Practices.
  • Teach students how to learn and explain that learning new things can help the brain grow new connections and “get smarter” when working on challenging tasks. Additional sources can be found at How Students Learn.

When students understand the concepts surrounding the growth mindset premise, they are more focused on learning. After completing the assigned reading on mindset a student stated, “What I learned tonight about mindset has motivated me to study hard, focus, and stay optimistic. I want an ‘A’ and I now feel that I have the skills to get it. Thank you soooo much.”

I think most students start my class with a fixed mindset, partly because they don’t understand general postsecondary expectations. Many of these students want or expect a high grade in the class while exerting little effort. To bring this misconception to the foreground,  I ask students to take a self-report survey that evaluates their motivations in my class. The survey asks 80+ questions across a variety of categories such as metacognitive and cognitive strategies, self-efficacy, and goal orientation.

Metacognition, for the purpose of the survey, measures the control, planning, monitoring, and regulation of the aspects of learning. Expectancy is concerned with students’ belief that outcomes are contingent on one’s own effort. Grade reflects students’ expectancy for grades, rewards, or comparing their performance to others, not the learning task itself. The scale of 1 (not like me) to 7 (like me), below, reflects the scores of a recent survey within each category.


As a class, we discuss the results to determine how students can use the information. In this example, scores suggest that students have limited understanding of the metacognitive aspects of learning. The expectancy score suggests they understand, to some degree, that their performance is based on their own efforts. However, their grade score suggests they expect to earn a good grade, for the sake of the grade. When we talk about what they’re going to do the “earn” that good grade, they may say, “complete homework on time.” Very seldom do they understand what homework entails, even after reading the syllabus.

Once I start teaching students about mindsets, they develop a better understanding of what they need to do to be successful. Over the course of the semester, we work on making growth mindset connections to course expectations. My goal is to keep students in a growth mindset rather than a fixed mindset throughout the semester.

Originally published as a Faculty Voices Project blog post on December 12, 2016.