Over the past 15-20 years, the education and business worlds have been increasingly invested in the research surrounding “growth mindsets.” The concepts of growth and fixed mindsets are based on decades of research by Stanford University professor Carol Dweck and colleagues, especially researchers associated with the Mindset Scholars Network. Dweck and her colleagues noted in their research that “individuals who believe their talents can be developed (through hard work, good strategies, and input from others) have a growth mindset. They tend to achieve more than those with a more fixed mindset (those who believe their talents are innate gifts)” (Dweck, 2016).
In other words, those with a fixed mindset believe intelligence is a fixed trait, something that they are just born with and that can never grow (PERTS, 2015). They focus on talent (or lack of) as a born trait, rather than the outcome from an ongoing process. These students avoid situations that they may not feel immediately strong in, thus limiting their opportunities to learn and only attempting those tasks they are sure they will succeed at and prove how smart they are (Dweck, 2007).
Oftentimes, the students who come into our offices who are at risk of failing a class or dropping out were strong students in high school, but after an early setback in their attempts to adjust to the rigorous work of college-level classes find themselves questioning whether they really belong in college. You may have seen fixed mindset students avoiding classes that are known to have challenging content or switching majors when they don’t immediately succeed in an entry-level course. They worry that failing or making a mistake will prove they are not smart, and try to avoid these or hide them when they occur. They may even cheat to get a good grade (Dweck, 2007).
Students with a growth mindset, on the other hand, believe that intelligence is not completely fixed but can be developed through learning new strategies, correcting mistakes, and challenging themselves through hard work and effort (Dweck, 2007). They know that, rather than being born with a certain amount of intelligence, we can enhance our intelligence through learning. More importantly, when faced with a mistake or failure, they know growth thinking can be the most appropriate coping strategy for moving forward (Dewitt, 2017).
Interventions for a Growth Mindset
Students are going to experience setbacks - we can’t change that (Tough, 2014). However, we can change the way they make sense of those setbacks and help empower them to learn and grow from those setbacks to prevent them in the future. Dweck’s research extends beyond just noting fixed and growth mindsets, but also seeks to change students’ mindsets to increase achievement (Dweck, 2017). This research finds that “when students learned through a structured program that they could ‘grow their brains’ and increase their intellectual abilities,” they did better academically, even in challenging school situations (Yeager and Dweck, 2012).
Much of the research on growth and fixed mindsets has been conducted at the K-12 level, thus research on growth mindset interventions on college students are still in their infancy (though one organization is testing an intervention specifically for college students at https://www.perts.net/orientation/cg). However, the results so far are in line with research on K-12 interventions. In a study still in preparation, the authors conclude that, of almost 1,000 community college students in a remedial skills course, there was a 5% increase in the proportion of students who persisted to the next semester, transferred into a new college, or graduated from the institution after the intervention (Gripshover, Paunesku, Romero, Beaubien, Yeager, Dweck, & Walton, 2016).
In a study referenced in a New York Times article (Tough, 2014), David Yeager and his co-authors performed an experiment with 288 community college students in a remedial math class and found that their low-cost, low-involvement intervention reduced dropouts from that course from 20 percent to 9 percent of students. Yeager and his colleagues at the University of Texas at Austin found that in addition to the prevalence of a fixed mindset among new college students, many also felt they did not belong there, and that these two thoughts led to a sense of “helplessness” among students. When they designed an intervention for incoming students at a Northeastern college, and then again for incoming students at U.T., they found a higher persistence rate, especially (or almost exclusively) for Black, Latino, and first-generation students (Tough, 2014).
Promoting a Growth Mindset at Your Institution
What does this research mean for college faculty and advisers, short of doing our own full-scale interventions?
It may be tempting to just tell students they should have a growth mindset (PERTS, 2015). However, this could have the potential negative effect of just the opposite as students may dislike being told how to think. In addition, encouraging a growth mindset in students is more than just “praising and rewarding effort” (PERTS 2015). More effort isn’t necessarily good effort, especially if it is unproductive. Not only must our students put forth effort, but they must also learn and progress - outcomes born of trying new strategies, learning from mistakes, and reaching out for support. In a way, having a growth mindset is about working smarter, not harder (or, more accurately, finding the strategies that work best, rather than toiling away cramming last minute and being surprised when you fail the test). “Effort is a means to an end to the goal of learning and improving” (Dweck, 2016).
As faculty, we need to help students recognize when they have hit a setback and help them devise strategies to overcome this setback or prevent it from happening again in the future. Students may want to ignore a bad grade or see it as a fluke. Or, with a fixed mindset, they may take it as a sign they are not smart enough to continue in a class or in college in general. But we need to help students confront these setbacks and mistakes and take them as learning moments to do something different next time. Faculty can incorporate growth mindset lessons into their courses with resources curated by The Mindset Kit website, a collection of resources regarding learning mindsets compiled by PERTS (Project for Education Research that Scales), a Stanford University-backed group of educators that includes Carol Dweck.
As advisors, we don’t need to teach students in a classroom to educate them about the growth mindset. Resources specifically for mentors can also be found on The MindSetKit website. Talking about your own process to learn about growth mindsets can be helpful. Advisers can incorporate conversations about struggles students are facing. For instance, talking about the “brain’s ability to rewire itself through practice” has been shown to help develop a growth mindset (PERTS, 2015b).
For any educator that interacts with students, Watermark Student Success & Engagement (formerly Aviso Engage) can be a tool to identify issues that may be preventing the student from succeeding and develop strategies to address them. For instance, Watermark Student Success & Engagement has the ability to help students plan out their academic pathway. With the “Academic Plan” feature (Dweck, 2016), students and advisers can map out how their course plan may change if they fail a course or want to change majors. This can aid students in understanding the ramifications of altering their academic plans - especially late in their academic career. It can also help them find a more appropriate and enjoyable course plan. Within Watermark Student Success & Engagement, students can easily see their entire transcript, helping them take into context their entire time in college instead of focusing on just one test or one course.
In addition, the attendance feature of Watermark Student Success & Engagement helps faculty and advisors identify patterns in students’ absences from classes. With this attendance and academic planning information in Watermark Student Success & Engagement, the predictive modeling techniques in Watermark Student Success & Engagement (formerly Aviso Predict) - when combined with the expertise of faculty and advisors - can help students and advisors reinterpret failures and mistakes and “high risk” indicators with a growth mindset (“I have missed too many classes” or “I’m not using my support services to their potential”) instead of a fixed mindset (“I’m not smart, I shouldn’t be in college”).
Pitfalls to Avoid
Research on fixed and growth mindsets is not without controversy, with some worried the growth mindset approach blames the student for not trying hard enough, or that it ignores the real structural conditions that can predict academic success and failure, such as poverty and racial discrimination. However, Dweck and colleagues insist that the growth mindset is more than just trying hard enough - it is also seeking out resources and strategies that will help students succeed when faced with an obstacle, like a failing grade or a botched test. As seeking out new strategies can be hard for some students, faculty and advisors can use Watermark Student Success & Engagement (formerly Aviso Predict) (PERTS, 2015) to identify the students who might need this type of support, and devise a custom plan in conversation with them.
And it’s not just about how we approach our failing students - having a fixed mindset when advising can often show up when interacting with students and advisees who are succeeding. Whether internally or through praise, we may recognize excelling students by providing fixed mindset feedback (“you’re so smart” or “it’s obvious you get this”), instead of recognizing the process of learning (“you’ve developed some strong studying techniques”). Some of these students may earn an A without putting forth much effort. Dweck recommends providing more challenges to them to increase what they learn.
But first, we need to be cognizant of our own mindsets and work to utilize a growth mindset with high-risk students. Just espousing a “growth mindset” doesn’t mean we think and act this way all the time. In fact, Dweck notes that we are a mix of fixed and growth mindsets, that we need to recognize this, and that we need to continually work on developing and growing our growth mindsets. There is no pure growth mindset. Regardless of our role in our colleges and universities, we as educators need to recognize our own mixture of both fixed and growth mindsets in different situations. To move closer to a more encompassing growth mindset, she suggests we “need to stay in touch with our fixed-mindset thoughts and deeds.” Recognizing it in ourselves makes it easier to address and work on, and ensures we don’t pass it on to students.
Whether you teach at a traditional public four-year college, a highly selective university, or a community college, growth mindset research can inform how you interact with your students. Community colleges in particular, who are experiencing a decline in overall enrollment (Fain, 2012) but an increase in their high school student population (Gripshover, Paunesku, Romero, Beaubien, Yeager, Dweck, & Walton, 2016) through dual enrollment programs, may find this research crucial to the retention of students. While this research will not solve all issues with the retention of undergraduate and dual enrollment students, it can be one part of an overall effort to increase degree completion rates.
DeWitt, Peter. 2017. “Misinterpreting the Growth Mindset: Why We’re Doing Students a Disservice.” Education Week - Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground. Retrieved July 19, 2019.
Dweck, Carol. 2007. “The Perils and Promises of Praise.” Educational Leadership 65(2):34–39.
Dweck, Carol. 2015. “Carol Dweck Revisits the ‘Growth Mindset.’” Education Week, September 23.
Dweck, Carol. 2016. “What Having a “Growth Mindset” Actually Means.” Harvard Business Review, January 13.
Fain, Paul. 2017. “Enrollments Continue to Slide at For-Profits and Community Colleges.” Inside Higher Ed, May 24.
Gripshover, S. J., Paunesku, D., Romero, C. L., Beaubien, J. M., Yeager, D. S., Dweck,C. S., & Walton, G. M. (2016). Two scalable psychological interventions advance progress through community college. Manuscript in preparation.
Gripshover, S. J., Paunesku, D., Romero, C. L., Beaubien, J. M., Yeager, D. S., Dweck,C. S., & Walton, G. M. (2016). What Happens to Students Who Take Community College “Dual Enrollment” Courses in High School? Community College Research Center: Teachers College Columbia University.
Kohn, Alfie. 2015. “The Perils of ‘Growth Mindset’ Education: Why We’re Trying to Fix Our Kids When We Should Be Fixing the System.” Salon, August 16.
PERTS. 2015. “Mindset Kit - Growth Mindset Lesson Plan, Teaching a Growth Mindset.” Mindset Kit. Retrieved July 19, 2019.
PERTS. 2015. “Mindset Kit - About Learning Mindsets.” Mindset Kit. Retrieved July 19, 2019.
PERTS. 2015b. “Mindset Kit - Teaching Growth Mindset to Mentees, Growth Mindset for Mentors.” Mindset Kit. Retrieved July 19, 2019.
Tough, Paul. 2014. “Who Gets to Graduate?” The New York Times, May 15.
Yeager, David, and Carol Dweck. 2012. “Mindsets That Promote Resilience: When Students Believe That Personal Characteristics Can Be Developed.” Educational Psychologist 47(4):302–14.
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