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SAGE Musings: Teaching about Mindset

Carol Ormand, SERC, Carleton College
published Feb 1, 2018 1:44pm

Carol Dweck's research on mindset provided extraordinary insights into the learning process. Her book, Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, is well worth reading. But, knowing that nobody has the time to read every great book, here's a too-brief summary of her findings and a few links to related web resources that she and her colleagues have developed.

What Carol Dweck found is that a person's mindset is the strongest factor affecting their ability to learn. Let that sink in for a minute. Mindset has more impact on learning than general intelligence does. Here's why. In very simplified terms, a person either has a growth mindset or a fixed mindset. If you have a growth mindset, you believe that you can learn to do new things, and that you will get better with practice. If you have a fixed mindset, you believe that your ability to do something is fixed; you're either good at it or not, and you can't change that. Of course, many people have a growth mindset about some things - sports, for example, or cooking, or whatever - and a fixed mindset about other things - mathematics, or music, or creative problem solving. But the research on learning is very clear: our brains develop new and stronger neural pathways any time we learn and practice any new cognitive or psychomotor skill. So why does mindset matter? Because if you believe from the start that your ability to do something is fixed, and there's nothing you can do to change that, then when you try something new and you're "not good at it," you give up. Because there's "obviously" no point in trying. (Have you seen students do this?) But if you have a growth mindset, and you know that you can and will get better at new tasks with practice, you persist. Successful people have a growth mindset.

So how can we help our students to be successful students? That is, how can we cultivate in each of them a growth mindset about learning? Here are a few resources from Carol Dweck and her colleagues, about how to do that:

How do you help your students develop a growth mindset? What's your favorite "Aha!" moment or success story, where a student was able to shift their mindset and it made a difference for them in your class?

SAGE Musings: Teaching about Mindset -- Discussion  

Taking a cue from Saundra McGuire and her very persuasive way of presenting, I sometimes tell a story about a student who used a more growth-oriented mindset to overcome a hurdle - for example mastering a quantitative technique required for my geology class. I then back that up with some sort of data about how students that spend more time on the task typically do better in the end. The combination of an anecdote and data seems to be more persuasive than either on their own and hopefully helps them see that they should not expect to just get it instantly but, with some effort, they can improve.


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