By Heather Landers
The way students think about learning has major implications on how and what they actually learn. We’ve all met students we knew were promising, only to have their performance not match up with what we know they are capable. Carol Dweck, a Social and Developmental Psychologist from Stanford, has developed a framework to aid our understanding of why some students (and, in fact, people in general,) fail to reach their potential while others go on to achieve amazing things.
Dweck’s framework separates learners into two “mindset” categories: fixed and growth. Students with a fixed mindset believe that intelligence and talent are innate—that people are born with a fixed potential and a fixed number of things at which they are naturally good. Those with a growth mindset, on the other hand, believe that intelligence and talent must be cultivated over time—that hard work creates ability and intelligence in various areas.
In a fascinating study of 7th grade students who were doing poorly in math, Dweck and her team randomly assigned the students to one of two different workshop groups. In one the students were taught math study skills; in the other they were taught how the brain grows, how it creates new connections each time a new thing is learned. By the end of the semester, the group that had been taught about the growth of the brain had significantly higher math scores than the one that had not.
Students enter the university with a vast array of experiences, having heard messages from parents, teachers, coaches, and other significant people that have led to the development of a growth or a fixed mindset. Some students have a growth mindset and are not even aware of how that might positively impact their learning and willingness to accept challenges. Other students have developed a fixed mindset that may hinder them from fully achieving.
While we can’t shape the years of experiences that have led to the development of a growth or fixed mindset, there are some things that university instructors can do to set students on the path of developing a growth mindset.
Here Are Some Ideas
- Talk about adopting a growth mindset in class—tell stories about former students who thought they would never learn the subject but who, with persistence and effort, ended up being successful in the course.
- Talk about what it will take to effectively learn the course material—make explicit your expectations for the amount of time they should be putting in and the types of activities they should be engaging in outside of class.
- Emphasize that “fast” learning, or getting assignments or exams done quickly, is not the same as “deep” learning. Often students who take longer to “get it” learn the material more deeply
- Break difficult or complex tasks down into their component parts so that students will see for themselves their own skills building up over time.
Dweck, C. (2007). Mindset: The new psychology of success. New York, NY: Ballantine Books