Story Student Success

Growth Mindset Instruction Spurs Student Success in CSU STEM Programs

Lorraine Crawford

“Struggle equals your brain growing.”


​​​Krzysztof Slowinski, Ph.D., associate dean, College of Natural Sciences and Mathematics at California State University, Long Beach, was explaining why students should adopt "a growth mindset" as they tackle their vexing calculus problems. 

"If you have a growth mindset and are working to solve a problem, you are thinking 'I can learn anything I want to. When I'm frustrated, I persevere. I want to challenge myself. When I fail, I learn. My effort and attitude determine everything,'" he says.

Slowinski, along with CSULB colleagues Tracy Maples, Ph.D., acting associate dean of academic programs, College of Engineering; and HSI-STEM Project Director Eric Marinez, Ph.D., associate professor in the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry, are spearheading CSULB'S efforts to increase pass rates among their science, engineering and math students by incorporating growth mindset teaching strategies and belonging interventions into their introductory classes. 

CSULB's first and second year STEM students, as well as students at CSU Northridge and CSU Dominguez Hills, are now among those reaping the results of their faculty's development in sparking a growth mindset. Students are learning tools to persevere, improving their grades, increasing their pass rates and declaring their majors earlier, Maples says.

Growth mindset, a concept coined by Stanford University psychologist and author Carol Dweck, is the idea that students can learn anything they want to, even if they find it difficult, and that struggling is part of the process.  Dweck cites research indicating that the brain develops like a muscle does: "As we learn, neurons form new connections, and over time get smarter."

"Having a growth mindset means believing that talents and abilities can be developed, with help and support.  It doesn't mean telling students they can do anything if they work hard or keep trying. It means asking them what strategies have you tried, what will you try next? Probe for understanding. Effort is not the ultimate value. Learning, progress and improvement is," she says.

Training faculty and students how to tap into a growth mindset supports CSU's Graduation Initiative 2025, says Jeff Gold, CSU assistant vice chancellor for academic affairs. "Early findings are indicating that teaching students these growth mindset strategies have great potential to help us close achievement gaps among low-income and underserved students," he says.

Supported with a second five-year $5.8 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education's Hispanic-Serving Institutions STEM and Articulation Programs (HSI-STEM), CSULB's growth mindset teaching strategies are being implemented as a collaboration between the Colleges of Natural Sciences and Mathematics (CNSM) and Engineering (COE).

Citing a 40 percent drop out rate for engineering students in their first year, CSULB's engineering faculty began adopting growth mindset strategies three years ago, Maples says. Beginning with two cohorts of 26 students dubbed the Beach Engineering Student Success Team (BESST), the growth mindset program has been incorporated into summer bridge classes and specific introductory classes in engineering and math.

Faculty incorporating growth mindset tenets into their teaching learn to refrain from discouraging their students "who just aren't getting it" to try another major, Maples says. Instead, professors practice a variety of strategies to encourage students in their introductory classes. For instance, she says, "Don't let the first test do them in. Give them a chance to bounce back." 

Maples is quick to extend kudos to top-notch math instructor Andrea Johnson, who has been key to the execution of the new program.

Early results are showing that BESST students are demonstrating significantly higher pass rates than previous classes. Compared to students in 2014-2015, cohort students in Calculus I had grades averaging 90 percent compared to the 70 percent average for all students. The new grant will now triple the number of cohorts and students served.

In addition to the growth mindset instruction and extra tutoring, Maples credits the placement of the students in cohorts or groups for the BESST's success. She says, "The students are grouped together, not just so they can help each other, but so they don't feel alone in their struggles. It's helpful that they see others aren't getting it either. There is big satisfaction to learn something that doesn't come easy."

Slowinski advises his students that the CNSM classes are purposefully challenging. "This struggle is normal – your brain actually 'grows' and forms new connections. It gets stronger precisely because you are exposed to a new and challenging learning environment."

In CSULB's science and math departments, selected freshmen enroll simultaneously in a cluster of chemistry and algebra courses including Algebra Supplemental Instruction and Freshman Science Success Class to form learning communities. Slowinski says each student is also assigned a peer mentor who serves as a teacher's assistant in the science success class.

"Making mistakes is THE most useful thing you can do to learn math and science. It's no big deal whether you make a mistake. What you do immediately after making a mistake, that's a very big deal!" Slowinski tells students.

At California State University, Northridge, Katherine Stevenson, Ph. D., professor of mathematics and director of developmental mathematics, and her colleagues have seen a marked improvement in their students' pass rates when growth mindset and social/emotional learning are combined with supplemental instruction in developmental math. In fact, "Those students who did not participate in the social/emotional learning element did not show significant improvement."

Since 2015, at-risk Early Start Math (ESM) students have been offered a combination of two programs to increase their pass rates: supplemental instruction and test preparation with a tutor along with participation in the EXCEL (Experience Confidence and Enjoyment of Learning) program, developed by Mark Stevens, Ph.D., professor of educational psychology and counseling.

Stevenson says, "Offering the combination of these two programs to our developmental math students has been very impactful. Previously, students' retaking their Level 1 ESM were averaging a 40 percent pass rate. We had to try something different to help them pass.  By adding supplemental instruction with EXCEL, our students' pass rates increased to 62 and 57 percent in 2015 and 2016, respectively. Moreover, we eliminated the achievement gap between the underserved students. "

Participating in the EXCEL program is intended to increase each student's sense of belonging, build academic confidence and improve help-seeking behaviors and attitudes. Stevenson says, "Those who responded best to the combined program were the first-generation college students, those most likely to suffer from 'belonging uncertainty.' Because they feel they don't belong in college or higher math, they descend into a downward spiral with every negative result they encounter. We must be proactive in breaking the negative cycle."

With the success of the combined program, Stevenson says, "The Math Department is providing the supplemental instruction for all sections; that's more than 700 students in 25 classes this spring," she says.

To learn more about CSU's Graduation Initiative 2025, click here.  

Graduation Initiative