Understanding the Mindset of a Struggling Student | Imagine Learning

June 10, 2020 8:00 am

Understanding the Mindset of a Struggling Student

When we see failures and frustrations as opportunities, and reinforce the principles of self-efficacy, we can better support our struggling students.

Working with struggling students requires mounds of patience and a steady course of perseverance and sometimes creativity. Most learning isn’t easy; it’s hard, messy work, and as educators, we deal with the downsides and difficulties of learning every day, especially now. But we also see our student’s failures and frustrations as opportunities, and we can help by understanding the mindset of a struggling student, and by reinforcing the principles of self-efficacy.

What is self-efficacy? The definition is straightforward: “a person’s perception that he or she has the skill and capability to undertake a particular task.” If students believe they can succeed, they can. Yet, many students come to our classes lacking this belief, and with no growth mindset. Retired Penn State Professor Dr. Mary Ellen Weimer has several ideas to keep in mind when working with struggling learners.

teacher at desk

Understanding the Mindset of a Struggling Student

They lack confidence. A student’s self-esteem has a direct effect on their academic performance. Students who struggle with confidence may believe there is no point in trying, and that where they are now is where they will always be. When asked to write a paper or work through a challenging math concept, they are often convinced they’ll do poorly before they even begin. When teachers ask if they need help with a difficult assignment, they may say no, or not respond at all. We can help these students by praising small steps in the right direction. Let them know what you like about their work in specific terms: “You’re on the right track with that equation. You got this.” And try to show them tangible proof of their growth by comparing early classwork to what they are doing now, which can help build self-efficacy in a concrete way.

They fear failure. When given a rigorous task, students can be too afraid of making a mistake to try. They can take failure personally, lacking the understanding that failure is a part of the learning process. Creating autonomy with these students is still possible, though; take, for example, The University of Montana’s Best Fail Ever campaign. The University aimed to “increase students’ resilience and convey the message that it is okay to fail sometimes.” Here, students became more comfortable with acknowledging their self-efficacy by sharing their own “best fail ever” stories publicly across campus. Programs like this demonstrate to students that failure can be a path to growth. When teachers find ways to alleviate students’ anxiety of failure, students are more likely to focus on learning.

They are easily distracted. Life is always distracting, and students (and adults) are dealing with more distractions than ever now. Often, students struggle with separating their study time from their lives, and that became more difficult as schools closed, forcing learning to take place at home. According to Dr. Weimer, “these students are easily distracted by their work, their friends, their social life, and even perhaps responsibilities at home. They respond to what’s pressing at the moment, and that’s often not studying, which can be done at the last minute with the phone on and with text messages coming in.” However, research has continually demonstrated that doing too much at once can be overstimulating for the brain. According to John Sweller’s cognitive load theory, “working memory has a very limited capacity. When too much information is presented at once, we feel overwhelmed, and much of that information is lost.” As educators, we can help redirect our student’s cognitive capacity to the right place by providing students with proactive tips on how to be productive when doing school work.

They’re in the course to get the grade, and learning is not the primary objective. Often, students will choose to do the minimum. They are often satisfied with less than their best—if the course is a requirement, and the content is not interesting to them, they see no reason to put forth much effort. They may view assignments as things to complete as quickly as possible. They can prefer easy learning. According to Dr. Weimer, “they don’t want courses or assignments that tax their ‘mental muscles’ too much.” These students prefer specific directions with little room for interpretation or critical thinking. They would rather work on worksheets than answer open-ended questions, and they steer clear of assignments where they could be wrong and it might be their fault.

As educators, we often have to find unconventional ways to reach kids that lack a desire to learn and may not see the potential for their future that comes with authentic learning. If we focus on showing students how achievements can benefit their lives, we can instill hope.
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How Can Teachers Help Students Become Better Learners?

By understanding the mindset of a struggling student, educators can become more aware of how to help all students become better learners. The tips below offer a good starting point for all educators:

  • Help students develop metacognitive awareness (or being aware of how you learn/creating autonomy).
  • Cultivate your love of learning by sharing past experiences and values with your students.
  • Strive to make the material relevant to applicable real-world scenarios.
  • Provide regular, ongoing in-class review and teacher feedback.
  • Expect failure and frustration, be prepared with plenty of patience.

School psychologist Dr. Allen Mendler wrote, “hope must precede responsibility because kids who lack hope have no reason to act in responsible kinds of ways. There’s no reason to be motivated unless [the student] is hopeful that this particular class is somehow going to improve [his or her] life; that coming to this school is better than not coming.” As educators, it is our job to help give students—especially struggling students and especially now—this hope that learning is the key to a better future. And giving that hope starts with understanding the mindset of a struggling student.


Bartimote-Augglick, K., Bridegmen, a., Walker, R., Sharma, M., & Smith, L. (2016). The Study Evaluation and Improvement of University Student Self-efficacy. Studies in Higher Education, 14(11), 1918–1942.

Brooks, a. (2019, February 25). 7 Tips to Create the Perfect Study Environment for You. Rasmussen College Life Blog. Source

John Sweller’s Cognitive Load Theory. (2019, January 14). Exploring Your Mind. Source

Mendler, a. (N.d.). Motivating Students Who Don’t Care. Ascd. Source

Ni, C. (2019). Designing for Learning Growth: Encouraging Metacognitive Practice to Support Growth Mindsets in Students [unpublished Master’s Thesis]. Carnegie Mellon University School of Design. Source

Saks, N. (2016, October 4). ‘Best Fail Ever’ Asks Student to Talk Failure and Resilience. Montana Public Radio. Source

Shore, K. (N.d.). Classroom Problem Solver: the Student With Low Self Esteem. Education World. Source

Weimer, M. (2018). What Are Five Methods to Help Students Become More Effective Learners? Source