Perspective is Everything: How Mindset Influences Your Success

By: Abe Flanigan, 2015 MSRE graduate assistant

Students’ beliefs about their ability to learn can have an incredibly positive or negative impact on their college success. Take Alan and Maria, for example. Both are college freshmen taking an introductory-level chemistry class. Alan never felt like he was any good at science. Instead, Alan likes to tell himself, “Tiger Woods was born to be a great golfer and Emily Dickinson was born to be a writer. Unfortunately, no matter how hard I try, I’m just not cut out to be a scientist.” Maria, on the other hand, has a different mindset. Although science has never been her favorite topic, she knows studying and working hard make it possible to do well in those courses. While thinking about chemistry, Maria often tells herself, “I know it might not be my best subject, but I can earn an A or B in this class by working hard.”

Last week, Alan and Maria took a chemistry quiz. Both of them failed. While neither was happy about failing, they interpreted their performances differently. Alan saw his poor performance as confirmation that he’s simply not cut out for science and, no matter how much time and effort he devotes to science classes, he’ll never succeed in chemistry. Maria understood her poor performance as an indication that she needs to devote more time and effort studying, asking questions, and visiting her professor’s office hours. She believes that, by working hard, she can do better on future quizzes, learn the material, and succeed.

Alan’s and Maria’s interpretations of their quiz performance represent two opposite mindsets about the nature of learning. According to educational psychologist Carol Dweck (1999), most students have one of two mindsets about the nature of learning: fixed and growth.

Students like Alan have a fixed mindset. For these students, intelligence is an innate gift. You’re either born smart or you’re not. You’re good at math and science, or you aren’t. Students with a fixed mindset don’t see the value in working hard or taking challenging academic courses because there’s no point. If you were born with natural ability in math, then you’ll always be good at math; if you weren’t born with natural ability in science, then you’ll always struggle in classes like biology and physics. It’s as simple as that and there’s no way around it.

Fortunately, not all people think this way.

The Wright Brothers had to overcome several crashes before successfully flying the first plane. Crick and Watson had to work for over a decade before uncovering DNA’s true structure. Marie Curie only discovered radium after years of intensive work and study. All of these people understood that they needed to persevere and overcome obstacles to reach their goals. People who view intelligence as a malleable quality that can be developed over time through hard work and effort possess a growth mindset. These people understand that sometimes learning doesn’t come easy. In order to succeed, you need to apply yourself, take on new challenges, confront failures, and work hard.

What influence does our mindset have?

Dweck discovered important differences between people who possess fixed and those with growth mindsets. She found that mindsets influence (a) how we respond to setbacks, (b) our beliefs about the importance of working hard, (c) academic performance, and (d) the amount of anxiety we experience during college.

Response to setbacks. If students believe success in school is fixed, that it’s determined by how much natural ability they have in each subject, then their failures or successes will only confirm those beliefs. Alan thought he was bad at chemistry. When he failed the quiz, Alan decided his performance confirmed his belief. He was unable to see how a more concerted effort would’ve helped him boost his performance on the quiz.

Students with a growth mindset view setbacks as opportunities for improvement. Maria didn’t do well on this quiz, but used the experience as motivation. She studied frequently, asked more questions, and visited her instructor’s office hours. Maria believes that, with a more dedicated effort, she can succeed. Setbacks are going to happen; they’re a natural part of the learning process. If your faculty research advisor doesn’t like the way you wrote the first draft of your research manuscript, does that mean you will never be able to write scientifically? Of course it doesn’t. It simply means you have room to improve. Believe me, even doctoral students (and faculty members) receive constructive feedback from peers and advisors.

Beliefs about effort. It’s empowering to know that the ability to learn new information and master new skills is in your hands. Students with a fixed mindset believe working hard is pointless because intelligence can’t be developed over time and natural ability won’t disappear. They are wrong about both of these things.

First, research has shown how taking more notes, studying regularly, and setting a goal to master course content are positively associated with course achievement. Hard work does matter. Second, ability does decrease over time if you don’t continue to practice and apply yourself. For example, let’s say that Alisha’s high school teachers always told her she was a good writer. When she got to college, Alisha felt that she didn’t need to spend time improving her writing ability because she was already a “good writer.” But if she doesn’t practice the skill and hone her abilities, Alisha will have trouble rising to the more demanding writing tasks in college. After all, it’s much more difficult to write a research manuscript in college than to write a two-page book report in high school. Previous success does NOT always mean that you’ll continue to be successful in the future. It takes effort to continue developing the skills to be successful in college, graduate school, and beyond. Students with a growth mindset are more likely to embrace this reality than students with a fixed mindset.

Academic performance. By using setbacks as motivation to improve and work harder, students with a growth mindset set themselves on the path to academic success. The same can be said for growing as a researcher. Learning how to write scientifically takes work. Exploring relevant literature, designing experiments, and analyzing the results can be draining, time-consuming, and mentally exhausting. However, all of us have the capacity to become competent researchers who contribute to our respective fields. By embracing this truth and working towards it, you will already put yourself ahead of students whose fixed mindsets hold them back.

Anxiety. Finally, students with fixed and growth mindsets feel different levels of anxiety during their academic experience. Sure, everybody feels a little anxious sometimes. In fact, studies have shown that feeling slightly nervous before a test or speaking to a group of people can actually boost your performance! People with a fixed mindset, however, experience what educational psychologists refer to as “invited anxiety” – the anxiety that arises from a lack of preparation and feeling like they can’t learn new skills. Why invite anxiety? You have enough to focus on, so keep a positive attitude towards learning!

What does all of this mean for you?

Now that you know a little more about fixed and growth mindsets, you can begin to think about how your mindset impacts your motivation, behavior, and performance. If you have a fixed mindset, take steps towards developing a healthier growth mindset. If you’re struggling in calculus, talk to friends who took the course before you, learn about their struggles. Find out how they overcame them. Read Carol Dweck’s work on fixed and growth mindsets and learn how mindsets influence the performance of students, people in the workforce, athletes, and more. The more educated you are about the benefits of a growth mindset, the easier it’ll be for you to accept how influential your mindset really is.

As you work to develop your academic, research, and professional skills, don’t forget about the importance of your mindset. If you attend graduate school, you can expect to be challenged. You’ll learn new, complex forms of statistics. You’ll receive feedback on how you design research studies and write reports. You may even receive a teaching assistantship and need to learn how to communicate effectively, develop lesson plans, and design assignments that promote student learning. If you’re like most people, you’ll struggle in some (or maybe ALL) of these areas. That’s okay. By keeping a growth mindset, positive attitude, and putting your best foot forward, you can chip away at the obstacles in front of you and achieve your academic and professional goals.

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