I thought some of the concepts presented deserved further attention, as they have particular relevance to being a student.
The first of these is the concept of Fixed and Growth Mindsets.
A Google search of ‘Fixed and Growth Mindsets’ will invariably lead you back to Professor Carol Dweck. Carol has spent a significant portion of her life studying motivation and what makes people succeed. She is the originator of the terms.
Carol’s view (as represented in her best-selling book – Mindset) is that our underlying attitudes and beliefs about ability, intelligence, talent and creativity influence how motivated we are to work hard, how we respond to failure and challenges, and how successful we are at our education, work, and personal endeavours.
People with a Fixed Mindset view talents, abilities, intelligence and creativity as static. They see expending effort on trying to better at something as wasted effort. They seek activities where they can perform well immediately, rather than activities that challenge them. When confronted with failure, they become distressed and withdraw, as failure represents a fundamental flaw in their abilities – they move on as quickly as possible. They rarely seek feedback and tend to ignore new information or guidance on alternative ways of doing things. Being focused on outcomes, rather than process, they are more likely to cheat, promote or foster competition with others, and hoard knowledge. When failing in relation to interpersonal matters, they are more likely to experience significant shame, which may lead them to lash out or become depressed.
People with a Growth Mindset believe that abilities and talents are malleable and can be developed with practice. They view effort, rather than ability, as the central pathway to success. Whilst disappointed with failure, they take lessons from it, to try and improve and get better. Rather than withdraw from errors, they tend to approach them, to solve them. They embrace challenges. Knowing they can improve, people with a Growth Mindset seek out learning from those who are better at the particular activity than they are. They learn from feedback and they are open to new information and new ways of doing things. When failing in relation to interpersonal matters, they are more likely to feel guilt than shame, which prompts them to try to repair or learn from the situation.
Although presented as two groups, in reality, your ‘Mindset’ represents a continuum and individuals can move dynamically between Mindsets depending on topic or context. For example, I might view my intelligence as malleable, and as such am a motivated academic learner but view my personality as fixed, meaning I do little work on my self. I might also exhibit a Growth Mindset when practising my guitar, until I see a really good guitarist, at which point I say “ahh, its not worth it, I am not good enough”. The recognition that we can exhibit both Fixed and Growth Mindsets and move dynamically between them is important to note, as it is incorrect to label ourselves as either one or the other.
With the exception of a couple of areas of life (sexual orientation and ageing), studies generally show that individuals exhibiting a Growth Mindset perform better, are happier, are less stressed, adapt better to failure, and are more accomplished. Not surprisingly therefore, the Fixed vs Growth Mindset concept has become very popular and been embraced in educational and occupational/work settings as a way of increasing productivity and improving outcomes. It has replaced the ‘self-esteem’ movement (where everyone was awesome!) as the concept ‘de jour’.
It’s not that simple though.
First, as identified before, an individual cannot be defined as purely of one mindset or the other. Mindset varies as a function of topic and context.
Second, identifying your own position on the continuum and the topics and contexts in which your Mindset becomes Fixed takes considerable self-reflection. It is not as simple as taking a quick questionnaire to find out your Mindset.
Third, research into how to change or reliably foster a Growth Mindset is in its infancy. The recommendations for how to reliably foster a Growth Mindset are at this stage mostly speculative and work specifically with university students is limited.
David Yeager and colleagues have conducted a number of studies with American college students and found that growth mindset interventions can improve academic outcomes for disadvantaged students, including higher GPA at mid and end-semester, and higher rates of full-time enrolment. It is suggested that disadvantaged students come to university with a more fixed mindset, but openness to entertaining an alternative – (https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/19345747.2018.1429037). In the US, disadvantaged referred to Latino and African-American students. We don’t have these types of studies in Australia yet to determine who such interventions might be most appropriate for.
Interestingly there is now emerging research that shows that having growth mindsets in relation to psychological symptoms can buffer against the effects of stressful life events. For example, in individuals to who see psychological symptoms (e.g. anxiety) as something they can modify (i.e. a growth anxiety mindset) we see a weaker relationship between stressful life events and psychological distress. Having a growth mindset in relation to psychological symptoms may be protective, but more work is required. (https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S019188691730017X#bb0070)
That being said, there are still helpful ideas that can be taken from this popular concept.
Understand your Mindset(s)
As stated before, identifying your own position on the continuum and the topics and contexts in which your Mindset changes requires considerable self-reflection. What do I mean by that? I mean you need to take some time to notice and analyse your responses to different situations to get a glimpse into your internal world. How can you do that?
1) Do a questionnaire – So yeah I said before its not as simple as taking a questionnaire, but a questionnaire might help kick-start your self-reflection. Which one should you pick? Here is a simple one – https://docs.google.com/document/d/1m5V7w7PslqBS-nYxnsZAMB11IdXiBc1MPGoXWMzMQ9g/edit
2) Remember the last time you tried something new and weren’t that good at it. Did you notice yourself disregarding it immediately, moving on quickly or saying “Oh I am just not any good at that”. That is evidence of a Fixed Mindset. Alternatively, did you find yourself getting more curious about the activity, thinking about how you’d attempt it next time, who you might speak to to learn more. Evidence of Growth Mindset.
You might find you don’t respond in the same way each time. For example, I tend to exhibit a very Fixed Mindset when it comes to puzzles or games that I am not very good at, whereas, I exhibit much more of a Growth Mindset when trying a new musical instrument where I have much more experience that practice leads to improvement.
3) Think about how you respond to criticism of your work (Perhaps not the initial reaction, because we all tend to be a bit defensive when someone questions our work :)). What about once you’ve had time to think about it. Do you tend to dismiss the feedback? Do you feel it is an attack on you? – these might indicated a Fixed Mindset. Or do you take time to understand the feedback, think about how you would do the task differently next time? Do you take responsibility? If you view the feedback as part of the process of your learning, this indicates a Growth Mindset.
4) To what do you attribute your success to date? Do you think it was ability (Fixed) or hard work (Growth)?
5) When picking an activity to kill some time, do you commonly pick something safe, that you can do well (Fixed) or pick something challenging that tests or extends your skills (Growth)?
6) When you meet someone who has a similar job to you, but they are heaps better, do you dismiss them (Fixed) or hassle them to teach you what they know (Growth)?
Basically, any time you encounter a challenge, constructive criticism, a failure, a new activity, or a highly skilled individual in your area, its worth noting your reaction. Defensive, dismissive or avoidant responses suggest a more Fixed Mindset, where the challenge is seen as an attack on your skill level. Engaged, curious and thoughtful responses suggest a more Growth Mindset, where you are using the experience to improve your skill level.
How to shift your Mindset
So you’ve done some self-reflection and realised you commonly exhibit a Fixed Mindset in response to challenge, failure, criticism or novelty.
First up – be kind to yourself. When I did it, I found I was considerably more Fixed in my Mindset than I expected. In recent years I’ve pushed myself less and less, and become somewhat complacent in seeking to improve myself in areas that I enjoy (e.g. music, gardening, art). But lets not make this a pity party. What can we (you) do?
1) Remember that a Mindset is just a set of beliefs and beliefs can be identified, challenged and changed.
For example, the belief that our talents and intelligence is fixed is easily challenged by some basic neuroscience that says each time you learn something, or practice something, your brain cells make new connections, and strengthen existing ones (neuroplasticity). The brain is not a static organ, so why should our abilities be?
2) Learn to identify the different ‘voices’ of the different Mindsets.
A Fixed Mindset tends to sound a bit like this: “I’m no good at this”, “This would have been easy if I had talent”, “Great, now you’ve shown everyone how dumb you are”, “What if you fail – you’ll be a failure”, “People will laugh at you when they can see you can’t do it”, “It wasn’t my fault”, “If I don’t try this, I can protect myself and my dignity”.
A Growth Mindset tends to sound more like this: “I’m not sure I can do this yet – it will require time and effort”, “Most people have had failures along the way”, “That person who is really good at this, has done heaps of work to get to that stage”, “As shitty as it is, if I take responsibility I can fix it, or learn how to do it better”, “If I don’t try, I have automatically failed”.
3) Recognise that you have a choice when it comes to the Mindset that you apply to any given situation.
It might not feel great, but you can agree to take on a challenge wholeheartedly, to try and learn from setbacks and try again, and hear criticism and act on it.
4) Set learning goals versus performance goals.
When we say to ourselves “I want to get all high distinctions this semester” we a) set ourselves up for disappointment, but b) ignore entirely the content of what we are learning and the process of learning itself. Instead, try focusing on the topic content itself, and set goals that are related to your mastery of that content – e.g. “I want to learn all I can about drugs for psychological disorders”.
5) Add ‘yet’ to the end of statements that are descriptions of your abilities.
So this one is a bit cheesy, but strangely powerful. Anytime you hear yourself say “I’m no good at this” or “I am really crap at this”, chuck the word ‘yet’ on the end – e.g. “I’m no good at this yet”. It shifts the focus of that phrase markedly from a statement of static ability, to a statement of where on the learning curve for that ability you are.
6) Observe fixed and growth mindsets in others.
It is typically easier to observe characteristics in other people than it is ourselves. You may have a friend or family member who has a very fixed view of their abilities and won’t take on new things for fear of not ‘being good at it’. What is your reaction to that person? Do you think you have the same tendency yourself?
7) Continue the self-reflection process outlined in ‘Understand your Mindset(s)’.
Dweck describes developing a growth mindset as a lifelong journey of identifying trigger points, identifying challenges, responding to them to alternative ways. There is not (unfortunately) a specific point at which we can say “I have a Growth Mindset”. It is an ongoing process of learning and adjustment.
Hungry for more?
Even with a long blog post it is difficult to do the Fixed and Growth Mindset concept justice. If you want to explore more, here are some suggested starting points.
Watch these videos
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KUWn_TJTrnU – animation describing Fixed and Growth Mindsets
https://www.ted.com/talks/carol_dweck_the_power_of_believing_that_you_can_improve – Carol Dweck talking as part of a TED presentation
https://youtu.be/-71zdXCMU6A – Carol Dweck being interviewed at Google
https://www.ted.com/talks/angela_lee_duckworth_grit_the_power_of_passion_and_perseverance – Angela Lee Duckworth talks about a related concept (Grit) which is passion and perseverance for long-term goals.
Visit these websites
http://mindsetonline.com/ – Carol Dweck’s website on Fixed and Growth Mindsets
https://www.mindsetworks.com/ – Growth Mindset training for educators and students
Read these articles
How we got praise all wrong – https://www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2016/12/how-praise-became-a-consolation-prize/510845/
Growth mindset and parenting – https://parenting.blogs.nytimes.com/2016/01/21/nice-try-is-not-enough/
Back when the concept was gaining ground – http://news.stanford.edu/pr/2007/pr-dweck-020707.html
Want to comment on this article, or ask me a question about the health and well-being services available to you as a student? Feel free to comment below, abuse me on Twitter (@Dr_Furber), contact me on Skype (search for ‘eMental Health Project Officer Gareth’), or email me (email@example.com)