The Power of Potential

In most of my online Composition courses, students completed an introductory discussion activity introducing themselves and identifying their relationship to both reading and writing. Without fail, several students in each course would express sentiments such as:

  • I’m not good at writing.
  • I’ve never been good in my English courses.
  • I don’t understand grammar.
  • I never read books.
  • Reading has never appealed to me.
  • Citation is something I’ve never been able to comprehend.
  • Punctuation has always been a problem for me.
  • I’m not very good at __________.

These students entered the course with a fixed rather than a growth mindset. The difficulty with a fixed mindset is that it negates potential. As the renowned psychologist, Carol Dweck, has discovered

 “In a fixed mindset, people believe their basic qualities, like their intelligence or talent, are simply fixed traits. They spend their time documenting their intelligence or talent instead of developing them. They also believe that talent alone creates success—without effort. They’re wrong.”

The challenge with adult students is overcoming a lifetime of preconceived notions about their innate potential to learn. A brief look into the research about how and why these notions become so deeply ingrained reveals that we usually form these ideas during childhood. Numerous studies have concluded that girls do not excel in math and science because they are told repeatedly that girls are not as good at math and science. A study by the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign confirmed this finding and exposed why there is a gender gap between males and females in the field of math and science.

But how do we overcome these obstacles and prove to our students that they do have the potential to learn a subject in which they already feel they are pre-disposed to being unsuccessful? Dweck gives us further insight into this subject. Her studies discovered that emphasizing students’ effort rather than innate ability improved students’ performance significantly. Students who were praised for their inherent talents surrendered easily to challenges in which they believed they might be unsuccessful. Students who were praised for their efforts improved significantly after further testing and even seemed to enjoy the challenge!

What we learn from this knowledge is that the way to unlock students’ potential is by encouraging their effort and emphasizing that it’s practice and repetition that form better skills. It’s also crucial to measure a single student’s success by their own progress rather than their proficiency as compared to other students. Small gains in achievement can be just as significant to a struggling student as larger ones can be for an over-achieving student. Instilling a growth mindset in students (of any age) means underscoring the idea that students can do better rather than focusing on the idea that the students did their best.

Check out a talk given by Carol Dweck at the “Authors at Google” conference:


Bronson, Po. (2007, August 3). “How Not to Talk to Your Kids.” New York Magazine. Retrieved from

Dweck, Carol. (2010). “What is Mindset.” Retrieved from

Severns, M. (2014, June 12). “Study Offers Possible Explanation for the Huge Gender Gap in Science and Math.” Slate. Retrieved from