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Growth-Minded Pivot to Online Teaching

Updated: Apr 24, 2023

Todd Zakrajsek, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

If adversity allows one to grow, then COVID-19 has presented one of the most significant growth opportunities ever seen in higher education. There is no doubt moving quickly to online teaching is challenging, but many of us saw our first face-to-face classrooms challenging as well, and we mostly figured that out. What is essential when one starts to teach in an unfamiliar arena is to keep an open mind, be open to change, and expect some mistakes.

Now is the perfect time to embrace a growth mindset regarding teaching online. Carol Dweck, author of Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, states, "... growth mindset is based on the belief that your basic qualities are things you can cultivate through your efforts. Although people may differ in every which way in their initial talents and aptitudes, interests, or temperaments, everyone can change and grow through application and experience."

Having this growth mindset allows for a different definition of success, and that definition can change daily. Right now, you are likely in a position that requires you to reassess your educational practices, your teaching, and your content delivery method. You are facing challenges in learning a new skill set and an opportunity to model for your students how to grow as well.

The following are a few growth-minded approaches to address the challenges of your new reality as an online educator. View these challenges as opportunities. Growth mindedness sees challenges as opportunities to grow, learn, and move outside of what we currently know. Teaching online is not a skill that anyone was born with; it is an area in which we can always improve.

Accept That You Are a Learner

Fix minded individuals believe that you are either naturally good at something or are not, whereas those with a growth mindset approach situations as learning experiences. When faced with the difficult task of taking your course online, it is easy to be overwhelmed. You may be thinking, "I am terrible with technology," "I don't even know what asynchronous means," and "How can I possibly maintain a meaningful connection with my students when we are not together." Some individuals have prior knowledge when it comes to online teaching, but if not, acquiring the skills necessary to be an effective faculty member in a digital environment is something anyone can learn. The key is to shift from "I can't ____" to "I can't ____ yet." If you don't know the advantages and disadvantages of synchronous and asynchronous discussions, search the web for the difference. Some individuals will agonize for months about a concept that can be looked up in a matter of minutes. We are not minimizing the significant current educational challenge we all face. We are merely recognizing that an impossibly long journey may be approached with either a steady stream of concerns about the enormity of the task or by taking a planned initial step.

To start this online teaching journey, first, let's accept and admit (to ourselves and our students) that we are not perfect. Advancing in areas in which we are weak allows us to grow. The good news is that many of the skills you learn in the coming weeks are things you will use when you return to your face-to-face courses. You will gain more expertise with tools that allow you to hold remote review sessions for exams, engage with more web 2.0 tools to connect with your students and develop strategies for students to collaborate on group projects. Also, working with students to address many of the challenges faced in moving to online teaching formats models for them how to manage organizational change.

Plan Your Growth

Gaining expertise does not happen haphazardly. You did not stumble into becoming an expert in your content area. You may have become interested in your content area by happenstance. Still, your expertise is something you worked at systematically, first through undergraduate and graduate programs, and later through research and continued reading. Although during this COVID-19 crisis, time did not allow for an advanced degree in online teaching, you can strategically plan for growth. There are a plethora of resources, thanks to COVID-19. Many educators are tweeting, posting, and texting about all forms to help with online teaching strategies. Share with your students your process for growing into an online educator, which models for them how an individual develops expertise. Do what you need to do to teach your courses right now, but along the way, identify one or two concepts you can look into more specifically later.

For example, you may wish to identify ways to ensure all students in your course feel they can contribute to a discussion. Ask colleagues who teach online what they do, search google for sites that list tips, and ask your students what other faculty members do that they feel works well.

Get As Much Feedback as You Can

Feedback can be viewed as helpful or threatening. Who wouldn't tense just a bit if a department chair leans into your office and says, "Hey, do you have a minute for some feedback." When you receive feedback, take a second to decide if your first reaction is to treat it as information to use to improve (growth minded feedback) or criticism regarding your actions (fix minded feedback). Too often, feedback is delivered to help but received as criticism.

Get as much feedback from your students as possible so that you may grow and make learning experiences better. Let your students know that you are purposefully asking for feedback, and if they take the time to provide it in a prosocial way, you will take the time to give it careful consideration. Receiving feedback does not mean that you will do whatever they suggest, but you will give it thoughtful consideration. Feedback is incredibly useful as long as you do something constructive with it, and when you do, let the students know the changes were because of the input they provided. You also show them that growth requires feedback from others.

Expect Setbacks and Use Information to Grow

As you built your content expertise, and when you started to teach your first face-to-face course, there were undoubtedly challenges and setbacks. How did you respond to those setbacks? Those with fixed mindsets who face setbacks get discouraged and often blame others. However, those with a growth mindset see setbacks as a challenge. They look for a new start and a way to try to look at the ultimate goal from a different perspective.

The same will be true as you pivot to online teaching. Do not let setbacks fill you with doubt and frustration. Pivoting to online teaching with essentially no notice is certainly an unfair challenge, but it is one we are doing. There will be setbacks, but with teaching, there always are. As educators, our students need to see that not everything comes easy to us, and we must work through the problems to become successful. Every time you do something well, it becomes easier, but it won't always be easy. With every accomplishment, make a new goal. With every setback, use that as an opportunity to work harder the next time. We have all faced setbacks in our careers. As is often said, it is not the setback that defines a person; it is the response to the setback.


Moving your face-to-face course online is a massive challenge, but then again, so was the first time you taught your first face-to-face course. This new forced teaching opportunity is a challenge to start thinking about how this experience will inform your teaching in the future. Taking a growth mindset won't make the overall task easy, but it will change your approach and might make it a bit more palatable. Take a breath, digest the new challenge, and attack it. You will achieve many goals, and you will fail at a few. And it's okay to fail from time to time. Our skills are not fixed, and neither are our possibilities.

Discussion Questions:

  1. When a pandemic arrives, few people are asked how they would like to proceed. Online learning was a global health decision. When you first started to think about moving your courses online, did your first inclination feel more growth minded or fix minded? Explain.

  2. Do you struggle with feedback, or are you the type of person who craves feedback? Why do you feel you respond to feedback as you do? How might you help another faculty member to position feedback so that it feels more informative and less threatening?

  3. What challenges did you face when you first started teaching in higher education? What challenges did you face when you first started teaching in an online format? If you had started in an online environment and then moved to face-to-face teaching, how might these challenges differ?

Additional Readings

Dweck, C. (January 13, 2016). What Having a “Growth Mindset” Actually Means. Harvard Business Review. Retrieved March 24, 2020.

Hochanadel, A., & Finamore, D. (2015). Fixed And Growth Mindset In Education And How Grit Helps Students Persist In The Face Of Adversity. Journal of International Education Research (JIER), 11(1), 47-50.

Zimmerman, A. (October 16, 2016). Shift to a Growth Mindset With These 8 Powerful Strategies Inc. Retrieved March 24, 2020.

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