Practicing Violin

Operational Definition: What is Effort Focus?

“Growth mindset” (Dweck, 2006) has become a popular perspective and paradigm for student success. However, creating an operational definition for growth mindset can be quite difficult. In her 2006 book, Carol Dweck defines a growth mindset simply as “the belief that your basic qualities are things you can cultivate through your efforts” (p. 7). A more meaningful understanding comes from her earlier text (Dweck, 2000), in which she discusses the ways in which student beliefs(or “mindsets”) impact their behavior and, subsequently, their success (see “Practical Relationship to Success,” below).

Many practitioners who favor growth mindset attempt to consider both the underlying attributions and resulting behaviors as one condition. This is what creates difficulty in operationally defining growth mindset, not to mention measuring students’ attributes or identifying interventions. Thus, Effort Focus isolates that initial perception that success is a product of effort, rather than innate ability.


Empirical Relationship to Success (Does it Predict Student Success?)

There is a great deal of literature discussing how theories of intelligence, growth mindset and related factors impact students’ perceptions, behaviors, and success. However, this body of literature is currently limited in several ways:

  • Much of this literature exists in primary and secondary settings, and has not been applied to college students.

  • Literature in all settings tends explore relationships among constructs (e.g., how theories of intelligence relate to goal orientation), but do not refer to observed student outcomes such as GPA or retention.

  • Studies are limited to single-institution samples.


Thus, large-scale studies, such as the meta-analyses referred to for other constructs in the ISSAQ framework, have not been conducted to relate growth mindset, theories of intelligence, or related factors to student outcomes in higher education.

Practical Relationship to Success

Essentially, students either view intelligence as fixed or malleable. According to Dweck (2000), that view has significant repercussions when it comes to students perspectives, behavior, and results:

How do I help students improve in Effort Focus?

Intelligence is Fixed...
  • They are worried about how much intelligence they have;

  • They prioritize performance (i.e., their relative standing to other students) over learning;

  • They interpret challenge or failure as an indication of insufficiency (i.e., since their intelligence is fixed, failure is a sign that they aren’t able to be successful because effort or practice won’t change their potential to succeed)

  • As a result, they tend to avoid challenging tasks.

Intelligence is Malleable...
  • “For them, intelligence is not a fixed trait that they simply possess, but something they can cultivate through learning… they focus on the idea that everyone, with effort and guidance, can increase their intellectual abilities” (p. 3).

  • They emphasize and pursue learning and devalue relative performance.

  • They view failure as an indication that more effort/practice is needed.

  • “Easy tasks waste their time rather than raise their self-esteem” (p. 4).

Effort Focus is a Dispositional Factor.

This means that direct interventions should be provided in the context of a broader coaching conversation.

One of the benefits of approaching a growth mindset using the ISSAQ perspective is that you can isolate the particular elements of the theory that require intervention. Effort Focus is one such element and refers to a specific perspective that can be discussed, addressed, and reinforced over time.

As with other Dispositional Factors, interventions should be included with coaching and ongoing conversations with students. For example, the Kahn Academy materials included in the Student Resource Hub could be valuable for a student to watch but are likely to be far more effective when paired with an ongoing conversation with a Coach.


It can also be helpful to model or discuss personal examples of how effort has related to your success. After all the "Tortoise and the Hare" is merely a parable about effort over innate ability.  



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

Dweck, C.S. (2000). Self theories: Their role in motivation, personality and development. New York: Taylor & Francis Group.