SAGE Musings: Shifting from Deficit Thinking to Asset Thinking

Carol Ormand, SERC, Carleton College
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published May 16, 2019 12:20pm

Students arrive on our campuses and in our classrooms from a rich array of backgrounds, with an almost unimaginable diversity of prior experiences. This includes a wide range of what we think of as academic preparation, which is in large part a function of the educational opportunities available to our students prior to enrollment in college. When we meet a student who is clearly struggling with college coursework, it's easy to fall into the trap of thinking about that student as "deficient," or at least "disadvantaged," because they have not yet developed knowledge and skills that we expect people to learn in high school. I've fallen into this trap myself, more often than I care to admit. This mindset, called deficit thinking, blames our students for the imperfect educational systems that produced them. What's particularly insidious about this is that once we begin to conflate a lack of educational opportunities with a lack of ability or motivation, we are likely to choose pedagogic strategies that are inappropriate for these smart, highly motivated students (Smit, 2012). We can make more appropriate pedagogic choices by consciously developing an asset mindset.

Consider context

Imagine how different your classroom might be if every one of your students had attended well-funded K-12 schools, where every teacher was well-versed in evidence-based pedagogies and used strategies for addressing implicit bias in STEM. How would you see your students? How would your students see themselves? Human beings have enormous cognitive capacity. Students who aren't yet flourishing are like plants struggling to survive in poor soil. There's nothing wrong with our students. They just need an environment that will allow them to develop their potential.

Unfortunately, in many cases deficit thinking pervades the college environment, and this stifles our students' growth:

The effect of the deficit thinking model on students is devastating. Tema (1985) points out that the students from disadvantaged backgrounds who get to university see themselves as survivors of an inferior schooling system, as strong, successful individuals who have beaten the system, and who, in many cases, carry with them the hopes and dreams of families they leave behind. These students arrive at higher education institutions and are told, in effect, that they stand very little chance of succeeding, that they are lacking in a number of aspects, and that they have to 'catch up' (Smit, 2012, p. 372).

Nonetheless, some students do arrive at institutions of higher education notably less well-prepared for college than their peers. What is a good college professor to do? How can we acknowledge this reality without labelling our students in a way that will interfere with their success? Faculty with an asset mindset focus on their students' potential. They see students who have made it to college as successful. They watch for and encourage students' effort and improvement.

Don't conflate opportunity with ability

It's a very short step from thinking of a student as "disadvantaged" to thinking of that same student as lacking ability or blaming them for a lack of motivation or effort. As Dudley-Marling (2015) writes (p. 1):

In the United States and Canada schooling is conceived as a competition with clear winners and losers. The winners go to the best colleges and universities with a pipeline to the highest status, most lucrative careers. The losers in this high-stakes contest are assigned to the lowest academic tracks, perhaps drop out, and, in the end, compete for low status, low paying jobs. This system of competitive schooling is generally deemed to be a fair way of allocating society's scarce resources since it is presumed that the people who succeed, do the best in school and get the most desirable jobs, do so because they work the hardest and possess the most innate ability. It is similarly assumed that people who fail in school or the workplace do so because of a lack of ability and/or effort.

Remember Uri Treisman's work at UC-Berkeley? When bright, capable students are failing, changing how we teach can help them not only to succeed, but to excel. Treisman knew that his students were bright; he knew they were capable of learning Calculus. He had an asset mindset about his students. But he also saw that some of them were failing. Rather than blaming the students, he spent time figuring out why and then he changed the learning environment -- the structure of his course -- to provide the kind of support that would allow his students to thrive. And he did that without lowering his academic standards.

Maintain high expectations for all of your students and scaffold their success

To get beyond deficit thinking, we would do well to focus instead, consciously and actively, on the strengths each of our students brings to the classroom (Weiner, 2006; Smit, 2012). "Deficit thinking applies a narrow pathology-seeking assessment to groups of people, and fails to recognise individual strengths" (Smit, 2012). In addition, it may help to turn around the idea of preparedness and ask ourselves how well prepared our institutions are to meet the needs of the student body (Smit, 2012). As I wrote in a prior Musing, Why student engagement is not enough, student success is dependent on three factors -- engagement, capacity, and continuity -- and it's our educational institutions that provide the capacity and continuity (Jolly et al., 2004).

Simply put, maintaining high expectations for your students and using evidence-based active learning strategies to engage them in the learning process is effective (Dudley-Marling, 2015). However, some students will need scaffolding to achieve those expectations. Make your expectations explicit: model the thinking process you want your students to practice, show examples of the quality of work you want to see, and distribute grading rubrics with your assignments. Remember that this message -- "I have high expectations, and I know you can meet them" -- is also an effective way to mitigate stereotype threat. Given opportunity, with appropriate scaffolding, students will rise to meet high expectations (Dudley-Marling, 2015). And isn't that what we all want?


Dudley-Marling, Curt (2015). The Resilience of Deficit Thinking. Journal of Teaching and Learning, v. 10, n. 1, pp. 1-12. DOI: 10.22329/jtl.v10i1.4171. Available online:

Jolly, Eric J., Patricia B. Campbell, and Lesley Perlman, 2004. Engagement, Capacity and Continuity: A Trilogy for Student Success. Available at

Smit, Renee (2012). Towards a clearer understanding of student disadvantage in higher education: problematising deficit thinking. Higher Education Research & Development, v. 31, n. 3, pp. 369-380. DOI: 10.1080/07294360.2011.634383. Available online:

Weiner, Lois (2006). Challenging Deficit Thinking. Educational Leadership, v. 61, n. 1, pp. 42-45. Available online:

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