What type of "attitude" does your student have?

written by Cindy Hovington, Ph.d. Founder of


Your attitude has an influence on your effort. Teachers see it everyday in their classroom. "Student A" gets 65% on a math test and says, "I will never be good in math. I was born dumb in math!". "Student B" gets 65% on a math test and says, "I thought I studied well for this test, maybe I missed something." and asks their teacher to explain their mistakes. Both these students have different "attitudes" towards failure. As a result of their attitudes, they will study differently and this will pave the path for either success of failure. 


Which attitude does "Student A" have?

Entity attitude. A student with this type of attitude believes that they were born either "smart" or "not smart", and that it is fixed. These types of students do not respond well to errors. They need extra guidance and support to boost their motivation both in and out of the classroom. Even if they think they were born smart, they will not make an effort to do better. Teachers might struggle to get this type of student to go the "extra mile". The student who thinks they were born "not smart" might also have negative inner self-talk or exam anxiety. They might need more positive feedback on assignments and exams


Which attitude does "Student B" have?

Figure 1.

Figure 1.

Incremental attitide. As Dr. Carol Dweck describes in her book Mindset, a student with incremental attitude, or a "growth mindset", believes they can get more intelligent with effort and that their intelligence is not fixed. It is this type of student that will put in the time and effort and will also have greater success than the student with an entity attitude. As you can see in this graph from one of Dr. Dweck's studies,  incremental improvements in math grades can be seen in students with an incremental attitude.  


Science behind motivation and achievement in a nutshell.

Motivation is a complex subject in neuroscience. Motivation recruits brain areas involved in both emotions (limbic system) and thinking/ cognition (frontal lobe).This is why it has a great impact on student learning. Scientists are beginning to get a better understanding of the relationship between emotions, cognition and motivation. An article by Crocker et al. (2013) beautifully outlines this relationship in greater detail for those of you who are interested. In addition, studies have shown that a person places greater effort when they anticipate a positive outcome. If a student begins to anticipate a low grade on a test, especially while studying or writing a test, their effort will most likely be lower, which will in turn impact their level of thinking. Stay tuned for a future article on motivation, make sure your subscribe to our mailing list at the bottom of the page.


My advice: Bring these attitudes into a students awareness. 

“As students learn, these experiences shape the architecture of their brains. Therefore, abilities are not fixed but rather continuously developing. This plasticity enables students to overcome many learning challenges. ”
— Dr. Kurt Fischer, Harvard University

My experience with students has taught me that learning about their brain empowers them, regardless of their age. Learning that the brain is plastic (able to change its architecture through learning) is fascinating to students. One of my favourite quotes from Dr. Fischer, a world class researcher who used to be the Director of the Mind, Brain and Education department at Harvard University, is that as we learn, the architecture of our brain changes (see full quote).

In the Blackwell study (2007), they studied 7th graders and followed them for a period of 2 years to assess their "attitudes". Students who believed their intelligence is malleable (incremental attitude) had a steady increase in math grades over this 2 year period, whereas students who believed that intelligence if fixed had a slow decrease in math grades (see Figure 1 above). More importantly, researchers examined whether teaching students about these attitudes and how their brain functions could change their way of thinking. See figure 2 for details of the intervention. Indeed, this intervention promoted positive change in student attitude and motivation, strengthening the fact that we can change a students attitude.

Figure 2.

Figure 2.

Classroom Application.

Challenge your students to build something. For instance, give your students toothpicks and mini marshmallows and ask them (either individual or small groups) to build the tallest possible tower. However, set some sort of limit that will make it challenging and almost "impossible". For instance, ask them to build a tower that reaches a 4 foot mark (place some tape on the wall) and give them only 15 min. Within a few minutes you will start hearing them say, "THIS IS IMPOSSIBLE" or "I CAN'T DO THIS". Perfect, the activity worked!. Don't say a word!! After 15 min, hand out this worksheet or write out the questions on the board and discuss it with them (this worksheet might be more appropriate for younger students). How many gave up? What thoughts went through their mind? Did they change strategy?  Go back to discuss the activity. Did you ever set limits for what materials they could use? No! Stack some books or bins on the floor near your 4 foot mark, and build the smallest structure with your toothpicks and marshmallows! VOILA! What is the take home message from this activity...YOUR MINDSET IMPACTS YOUR EFFORT!!!

This coming school year, start the discussion on mindset with your students or do this activity early on. Place this Poster of Growth Mindset Questions to Ask in your classroom. Be mindful of the students and their attitudes as this will guide you on how to support them. If you need advice on how to do this, feel free to email me!

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The power of positive meaningful feedback on student success

Receiving feedback is an integral part of learning. Constructive feedback helps students learn from their mistakes. Errors should be embraced, not feared. However, I think we should not forget the power of positive meaningful feedback. Students should not only hear about errors, they need to know where they stand regarding their knowledge on concepts, whether there were improvements in their effort and where they stand in terms of the goals for that topic or assignment. Generic comments such as "great work" or "keep up the hard work" are positive, but not meaningful. Positive feedback helps students build their confidence and improves their positive self-talk. Meaningful feedback provides building blocks to help students become self-regulated learners and builds their confidence. Below, you will find some ideas for students of various ages. 

Elementary school - positivity journals.

In young children, I have seen first hand how receiving positive feedback can improve their confidence. With younger students, feedback might not solely focus on academics. At such a young age, we want to build their academic confidence and motivation to learn. You can give them feedback on your observations of their effort, persistence, self-efficacy, helpfulness, independence, curiosity, intrigue, enthusiasm, positive attitude etc. I had the pleasure of working with a young girl who was struggling to pass grade 2. Her parents had been told that she needed to repeat her grade. She had received many hours of tutoring in all subjects but to no avail. After meeting her during a private Curious Neuron session, it was clear to me that she had not only lost all motivation with regards to school (her parents struggled greatly to get her to do her homework) but that her academic confidence had diminished. All she spoke of was the negative feedback she was getting throughout her day from both home and school... "why didn't you do well on this exam, you know this material!" or "you need to focus and stop giving up".

I had her start a "positivity journal" which required her to write or draw something positive about herself every day (for instance, whether she had been kind to a friend that day, helped someone out, perhaps did she not give up at a task at home or school etc.). I wanted her to see that there she had many positive qualities. Her parents also wrote in this journal every night.

More importantly, her teacher started a positivity journal for her as well and almost each afternoon, her teacher wrote a small phrase of meaningful encouragement/feedback about her day such as:

  1. I was very proud of you for helping a student out when they didn't understand.

  2. You were very focused in class this morning!

  3. You tried very hard on today's assessment and you didn't give up even if it was challenging!

  4. You improved your writing skills, you no longer forget your accent on the word _____.

  5. You had all your materials ready today without me having to ask you many times.

Within only 2 weeks this students attitude towards school improved. The school was no longer "against her" as she worded it to me. This feeling went away merely because of the time her teacher took to give her positive meaningful feedback about her day.  Although she was still struggling with academics, she was trying harder and no longer giving up quickly. Homework was no longer a struggle. Interestingly, as the weeks went by, her grades began to improve! Not only did she pass grade 2, she now shows interest, motivation, confidence and has a positive attitude towards school!!  

High school and university - feedback on assignments and exams.

With older students teacher's are more likely to use assignments and exams to deliver their feedback. Feedback, is also be given orally throughout the school day, however, some studies have suggested that "64% of students prefer to be praised quietly and privately", which is why assignments and tests can be a better choice for feedback (Hattie and Timperley). 

Some suggest that feedback should not focus on acknowledging achievements, but rather on "recognizing the effort invested, regardless of the outcome" (Lizzio and Wilson. Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education, 2008). Another group of authors (Hattie and Timperley. Review of Educational Research, 2007) defined feedback as "information provided by an agent (e.g., teacher, peer, parent) regarding aspects of one’s performance or understanding". These authors stress that "a critical aspect of feedback is the information given to students about the attainment of learning goals related to the task or performance". A framework proposed by these authors suggests that effective feedback must answer where they stand in terms of the goals the student is trying to attain, what progress is being made toward the goal and what activities need to be undertaken to make better progress. 


Positive feedback can have a huge impact on a students perception of themselves and can consequently influence their effort and grades. A study published in the Journal of Educational Psychology (Mega et al 2014), highlighted the strong influence of emotions on both a student's motivation and self-regulated learning. Interestingly, the more often a student felt "joy", "enjoyment" and "pride" in the academic setting, the more likely they were to take better notes, adequately plan their study time, to set challenging goals and the greater their confidence became in their own intelligence.

Final thoughts...

During school workshops, teachers will often ask me how to motivate students. We talk about the importance of intrinsic motivation, where a student motivates themselves to do well on an exam rather than looking for an external incentive (a star or reward from parents). It is incumbent on teachers, parents and anyone of authority that is part of a students environment to help the student build this motivation and this can be done, in part, through positive meaningful feedback. Focus on the goals of a unit, the students knowledge, understanding and effort. It is clear that this can't be done for each student every day, however, keep an eye out for the student who seems to be struggling, yet your gut tells you they know their material well. Perhaps this student is being limited by their negative self-talk during exams and needs to boost their academic confidence. 

As a parent of a toddler, I often keep this in mind as well. We are quick to tell our children what not to do and often forget to praise them for the little accomplishments. While my daughter is drawing, I avoid comments such as "good job" and comment on her choice of color or improvements on her shapes due to practice for instance. Positive meaningful feedback is what builds their confidence. Even as adults, these small comments, as I am sure you have also experienced in your life, can have huge impacts on how we think of ourselves. 

Please share your experiences with us along with any tips to help out other teachers! Comment section is below. 

Stay Curious!

Cindy Hovington, PhD

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63% of students do not feel invested in learning

Written by Cindy Hovington Ph.D. Founder of

Montreal, Canada

Canadian students are disengaging from learning at an alarming rate, with only 37% feeling invested in learning. Statistics show that 25% of students who drop out of school report feeling disengaged and having low confidence in their ability (known as self-efficacy). Research shows that student disengagement starts as early as 9 years old and worsens as they get older. Allowing students to teach younger children will foster their emotional well-being, build their confidence and help them develop a sense of purpose for learning. 


Motivation and the brain.

How does this relate to the brain? In my opinion, disengagement can be caused by several factors including low intrinsic motivation, low self-esteem or high anxiety. All of these stem from the brain. When a student receives a reward (intrinsically or extrinsically) the brain activates its reward pathway (see Ventral Tegmental Area (VTA) in the picture), giving them a pleasurable feeling. We can all activate this pathway through natural methods (exercise, eating certain foods, drinking water when thirsty) or "unnatural methods" such as drugs, alcohol or video games (they give you a feeling of pleasure and your brain wants more). Although scientists have not discovered the hidden secret to unlocking every student's intrinsic motivation in the classroom, there is some research that points towards; autonomy, competency and relatedness. Giving them the opportunity to select what they want young kids to learn and using science as a  subject to get them curious about the world around them are unique ways to help engage students in the classroom and increase their motivation. If they are feeling defeated by school and feel that they are not good enough, slowly working at their confidence through having them teach others will translate into more positive talk in the classroom, better confidence and engage them in learning. 

Bring back "play" in learning and children will be engaged!

When a student is struggling in school we often seek subject-specific tutors. However, even if they understand the material very well, having negative self-talk while studying or writing an exam can lower your grades (i.e. "I suck at math, I will probably fail this test"). We need more programs that allow students and children to forget about the subject and simply learn while playing and having fun. Instead of sitting down to practice reading, perform a science experiment while following the instructions or follow a recipe. Play is so important in learning, especially at a young age. Here in Montreal, grade 1 students have told me they can have 1 hour of homework every night. I don't think that is right, and I believe this contributes to disengagement. I will never forget what an education professor at Harvard said at the start of her class a few years ago. She said, "All children are born curious and curiosity is what allows us to learn. Unfortunately, the minute a child enters the classroom, curiosity is killed...this is what our current education system is doing". This needs to change.