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Fostering Online Student Success in the Face of COVID-19

Updated: May 16, 2023

University of Southern California

How can I help my students be successful?

Amidst the turmoil of the COVID-19 pandemic, faculty and administrators remain dedicated to supporting students’ academic and professional goals. As we move from emergency remote teaching to more well-designed online learning experiences, we need to be agile. To create effective online learning experiences, it is important to develop growth-minded students.

Why Growth Mindset? Why Now?

How can we be successful teaching our classes online? One answer is to teach and demonstrate growth mindset as a means to ignite student achievement.

Carol Dweck’s growth mindset theory is built on the principle that qualities and talents are not fixed; rather, these skills can grow through dedication and hard work. When students utilize a growth mindset, they apply more effort and time and therefore, they accomplish more.

A few years ago, in a Scholarly Teacher blog, Gaier (2015) explained his research of students’ dispositions for learning that are associated with growth mindset. His team identified qualities of academically successful students, including “active engagement, curiosity, joy, intentional effort, learn from failure, persevere, and seek help.” Gaier encouraged instructors to incorporate these dispositions into their course design and content.

More recently, in a Scholarly Teacher blog, Zakrajsek and Smith (2020) encouraged instructors to use growth mindset as a tool to reframe thoughts about mandates to complete face-to-face courses online.

How Can We Teach Growth Mindset Online?

For the past decade, as a faculty and an administrator, I’ve learned, witnessed, demonstrated, and have been inspired by growth mindset. In this blog, I’ll share three strategies for developing growth-minded students in online learning environments:

  • Set the stage: Create psychological safety;

  • Play the part: Demonstrate growth mindset through personal narratives on failure, success, and resilience;

  • Inspire the players: Highlight student examples and offer opportunities for growth.

Set the Stage: Create Psychological Safety

Which classes still remain the most poignant and impactful in your mind? Characteristics of successful classes may include: respectful, courteous, and compassionate dialogue; a feeling of co-creative community; a commitment to learning and growth through authentic inquiry.

In the time of uncertainty of COVID-19, students experience heightened anxiety and fears. How can we support them in remaining calm, staying safe, and continuing to focus on their academic goals? The first step is our active role in creating psychological safety.

Some ways faculty can create psychological safety are:

  • Hold weekly classes online through video conferencing (e.g. Zoom or WebEx). Encourage all students to turn on their cameras and audio so they can be seen and heard. The power of witnessing is truly transformative. Structure and routine can also plant feelings of normalcy and security.

  • At the start of class, lead a brief check-in with students to see how they are doing. Encourage students to share their challenges, as well as their methods of coping. Students can learn growth mindset when they hear their classmates sharing how they persist in the face of struggle. Learning from their peers can inspire courage and build self-efficacy.

  • Co-create ground rules with your students that are aligned with their values. Some classes may value confidentiality of their classroom discussions and advocate for The Vegas Rule (What’s done in Vegas stays in Vegas!).

  • Lastly, invite all voices into the room. Articulate to students: “There is no right or wrong answer.” Everyone’s voice is valuable in our conversation. Listen carefully to what your students are sharing, validate their points, and when relevant, weave their examples into your lecture.

“All the world’s a stage, And all the men and women merely players…” - Shakespeare, As You Like It

Play the Part: Demonstrate Resilience

Students look to their professors for leadership right now. Faculty can foster growth mindset in their students through narrative and inquiry. Some ways include:

  • Use personal narratives: Admit mistakes, describe learnings, and demonstrate resilience. Use a conversational tone in your class when sharing a story. Allow yourself to be vulnerable when telling the class about your experience in order to build trust and deepen connections in an online learning setting. Based on your level of comfort, share how you developed a new skill or found a new hobby (My personal example is struggling to learn to play the cello). Inspire a love of learning and resilience, as these are essential characteristics for future success.

  • Invite application and problem-solving skills: In the context of a story of struggle and challenge, ask students: “What would you do?” Invite them to think of ways they might problem-solve and persist. (In a synchronous format, engage a live class discussion; in an asynchronous format, create a dialogue in a discussion board.) Student discussions provide an opportunity to develop critical thinking and problem-solving skills. Perhaps, while giving and receiving encouragement, students may even identify their strengths and discover some inspiration.

Inspire the Players: Emphasize Effort and Provide Opportunities for Growth

We’ve set the stage, and we’ve demonstrated examples. The next step is critical: Empower your students to demonstrate and develop a growth mindset:

  • Remind students that talent alone doesn’t create success. Emphasize effort. Angela Duckworth shared that psychologists and educators have identified a major predicative factor in academic success is the concept of grit or persistence amidst struggle.

  • To stay relevant, make connections to popular culture. Consider posting an announcement in Blackboard with a videos of celebrities discussing how they became successful, like this one of Will Smith or this one of John Legend. When students feel motivated and positive, they can become inspired and excited about learning.

  • In a discussion board, ask students to share examples of when they witnessed their family or peers using growth mindset to accomplish a goal. Inquire how their familial examples inspired them to pursue their current academic dreams. Remind them that you will take this conversation into the synchronous session.

  • Encourage self-reflection and discussion. Offer a 1-minute writing opportunity in the synchronous class. Invite students to write about how they accomplished an academic or professional goal. If possible, split students into small groups for discussion (Zoom offers the break out room feature).

Final Thoughts

The faculty-student relationship a key feature in helping students to become academically successful through sustained effort and supportive and compassionate dialogue. Through demonstrating growth mindset in an online learning experience, students can become willing to learn new material, sustain a focused effort, and gain deeper understandings of the topics at hand.

Discussion Questions

1. Reflect on a time when you accomplished a personal, professional, or academic goal. In what ways did you use growth mindset to accomplish your objective?

2. How can you use your personal narrative to inspire growth-minded students?

3. What do you anticipate might be the most challenging in our current pandemic climate? How might you use a growth mindset to bravely overcome these challenges?


Dr. Dweck’s research into growth mindset changed education forever. Mindset Works.

Duckworth, A. (2013). Grit: The power of passion and perseverance. TED Talks Education.

Dweck, C. (2006). Mindset: The new psychology of success. New York: Ballantine Books.

Gaier, S. (July 19, 2015). A Mindset for Learning: The Dispositions of Academically Successful Students. Scholarly Teacher,

“John Legend: Success through Effort.” Khan Academy,

“Will Smith Mindset” posted by BMBohrmann. Youtube,

Zakrajsek, T. & Smith, K. (March 12, 2020). Completing a Face to Face Course Online Following a Campus Mandate. Scholarly Teacher,

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