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Throwback Thursday: Growth Mindset Mentoring at University of Exeter

Posted on 22 Jan 2015

For our third Throwback Thursday (#TBT) post, we're off to the University of Exeter to hear more about the challenges and rewards they've experienced from starting up a new project over the last year. Click here to see other posts in this series.

At Exeter, we have noticed an increased interest amongst students in volunteering opportunities that allow them to work with vulnerable children and young people. Many students feel that this type of volunteering would be the most rewarding and enjoyable to engage in. They also believe that it has the potential to create pathways in to a range of careers. We are always looking at new ways to meet this demand, whilst acknowledging that volunteering with vulnerable children and young people must have integrity if it is to have a positive impact. We are certain that all of our student volunteering projects which work with vulnerable children and young people must:

  • Meet an identified need
  • Be built in partnership with a trusted host – e.g. a school or a voluntary organisation
  • Provide excellent induction training for the student volunteers
  • Be evaluated to best understand impact and to make improvements

The growth of Growth Mindset Mentoring

Two years ago we were approached by a local school which is based in the most socio-economically deprived area of Exeter. They had grave concerns about their most vulnerable pupils, and saw strong links between pupil’s vulnerability and their academic achievement. The school had identified the fact that many of their pupils that were failing to thrive academically had a very negative approach to their studies and had a ‘fixed mindset’ which pre-determined their chances of success at school. As a consequence, their life chances were severely limited.

We had a range of early conversations with the school, and brought Psychology students in to those conversations. It was decided that if we could match the ‘at risk’ pupils with volunteering Psychology students who would act as mentors, then we might be able to support small positive changes that had the potential to ‘snowball’ into more substantive positive changes.

A focus group of Psychology volunteers ran a brief research project using Professor Carol Dweck’s Growth Mindset model, and out of that the Growth Mindset Mentoring Project was born. This was piloted for a year at the original school that we were in dialogue with, and now in year 2 is being run at that school and also at a second local school.

The role of student volunteers

We have worked hard on developing the training for this project so that student volunteers have the opportunity to:

  • Engage with the concepts of growth and fixed mindset models
  • Consider the ‘learning behaviour’ patterns of your pupils
  • Consider the key challenges of mentoring disadvantaged young people

The model of Growth Mindset Mentoring provides useful scaffolding for student mentors, and it informs how they approach the building of their relationship with pupils, but it is only scaffolding and it’s not intended to be overly prescriptive. The role of the mentors, in a nutshell, is to support pupils to re-frame the challenges in their lives so that they become as positive as they can be, whilst also acknowledging that the challenges can be complex, painful and at times disheartening.

Student volunteers are supported to explore issues such as:

  • Intelligence is not a fixed and innate ‘product’
  • A young person’s Mindset about intelligence is the most important thing
  • Adopting a Growth Mindset does not make things easy, but it makes fear of failure manageable
  • Building resilience amongst their pupils is what really matters


The feedback from the pilot was incredibly positive, both in terms of the student experience and the school and pupil experience. The challenges to the volunteers were not underestimated. Their feedback identified the following key issues:

  • Rather than taking the risk of failing and this negatively impacting their self-image, the pupils will often avoid challenges and stick to what they know, avoiding anything that is outside of their comfort zone. This is self-limiting and can be problematic
  • From the pupil’s point of view, what’s the point of working hard and making efforts if afterwards you are still at ground zero? If your worldview tells you that effort is an unpleasant thing that doesn’t really pay dividends, then the smart thing to do is to avoid it as much as possible. To make a difference, student volunteers would have to engage with this and try and instil a new sense of self-image, not tied to how you will look to others, so that failure can become an opportunity to learn, rather than something to fear

Feedback on phase two of the project is also very positive. There is no doubt that this has been a complex and resource hungry project to establish, but we have benefitted in so many ways from committing that resource. The model that we have developed is we believe sustainable for many years to come. It is highly respected by the schools (we have a queue of other schools interested in hosting this project), by the academic department and by the student volunteers. Most importantly, pupils in our current 2 schools are now keen to engage and we are seeing the positive impact it is having on their self-esteem and academic progress. A Headteacher from one of our host schools has said:

"Having the Growth Mindset Mentors in our school has really created a buzz. We are noticing the increased confidence and engagement amongst our target group of pupils. It is aspirational and inspirational."

Student volunteers are starting to report the positive feedback they are getting from potential employers when they cite their engagement in the project on their job applications.

If we are meeting the needs of our student volunteers and providing something of worth to local vulnerable children and young people – then we’re happy!

The University of Exeter was also one of ten institutions to receive grant funding for a Good Deed Day event that will take place on 25 February 2015.

Students from Exeter Student Volunteers counting down to SVW

Sara Bennett

Sara manages the student Activities and Volunteering programme for the University of Exeter Students’ Guild. She is particularly interested in the impact of student volunteering on vulnerable communities.

Categories: Throwback Thursday, Universities