Challenging (and Changing) Fixed Mindsets in the Classroom

fixed mindset - college classroom

Fresh from winter break, my students want to test my boundaries—and they should. But even as they challenge me, many of my students will also limit themselves by defining their intelligence and talents as fixed traits. Each semester I hear the familiar refrains: “I’m not a good writer,” “I should stick to math and science,” and even the occasional, “I’m just not a good student.”

Such statements never fail to concern me. After all, my students have little more (and sometimes less) than two decades behind them. And yet many of them have already decided that their capacities are fixed: good at this, not good at that.

Unfortunately, many of their professors hold the same kind of attitudes about students. Throughout my career, I have heard my colleagues label this young person “smart,” or “good,” and another “not bright,” or sometimes “bad.” Truth be told, such gossip did not bother me very much; I thought and spoke as they did.

Sometimes, I labeled students to their faces—“You are smart,” or “You are really good at this,” rather than praising them for their hard work or what they learned. Just as often, I labeled students behind their backs, usually those who were not performing well, as “lazy” or “just not smart.” In my worldview, some students were “good,” while most were either “mediocre” or “bad,” and there was little that a teacher like me could do about it.

My courses reflected this belief. Much like my graduate teachers and later colleagues, I assigned a series of discrete assignments with no opportunity to revise or improve. Whether an exam or a paper, students did it once and moved on—no revision and no reflection, no taking stock of what had been learned and what had yet to be mastered. In fact, I was opposed to revision on principle because it rewarded “bad” students: those who had not worked hard enough the first time around. Not surprisingly, I prided myself on my rigor.

I rarely saw my students outside of class. Of course, they could have come to my office hours—and the “good” ones always did—but the vast majority did not. And we all eventually moved on to other courses.

Then I met Carol Dweck.

I did not meet Dr. Dweck in person; rather, I met her through her book, Mindsets. According to Dweck, there are two mindsets: fixed and growth. A student with a fixed mindset believes that she has certain talents, and only those talents; they cannot be expanded, much less improved. She attends the university to do what comes easily to her—and avoid what does not. Such students interpret failure of any kind as an indication that they should quit. Not surprisingly, students with fixed mindsets suffer increased anxiety and depression.

In contrast, a student with a growth mindset is more flexible. She believes that she can learn to be better at what comes easily to her; she also believes that she can develop new talents over time. For such students, failure is a temporary condition, not a permanent barrier; she does not expect (or need) immediate success. Instead, she looks for ways to work not only harder, but also smarter, confident that she will attain her goal eventually. As one might expect, those with growth mindsets tend to have less anxiety, less depression, and a greater sense of their own efficacy.

After reading Dweck’s work, I confronted an unpleasant truth: I had been reinforcing students’ fixed mindsets. I had been labeling them “smart” and “not smart,” “good” and “bad”—and my course design was no better. My major assignments were “one and done,” one-time performances. No opportunity to revise. No chance to apply my feedback. And certainly no reflection.

Thanks to Dweck, I changed my approach, emphasizing feedback, revision, and reflection. Gone was “one and done.” Instead, we attacked essays gradually, rewriting them over the course of the semester. At the end of the semester, students introduced each final draft with a short preface, discussing how they had revised their work in response to feedback. Just as important, students reflected at the end of every class, keeping a record not only of what they learned, but also how what they learned compared with their other classes.

Before Dweck, my praise had been stingy and vague. I focused on problems (after all, isn’t that what rigorous teachers do?), with praise limited to general observations, such as “you have some good points here.” After Dweck (and some teaching and learning workshops), I addressed problems only after giving students precise praise for effort and learning. Eventually, I stopped writing comments on essays and held individual conferences instead, encouraging students to take notes on my comments, ask questions, and become partners in the revision process.

Revision rewards tenacity

Although my change was immediate, my success was not: I had to try, fail, and try again. Eventually, I found ways to apply Dweck’s insights to group projects in my larger classes. For example, in my course devoted to contemporary global issues, I could not possibly mentor each of the 45 students—but I could mentor group projects. In this arrangement, students collectively chose a topic, researched it, and then revised their work in response to my feedback. Toward the end of the semester, our classroom took on the flavor of a studio, with teams working on their projects, and me moving from group to group offering feedback. I am sure that not every student improved in this arrangement; those who invested more in the projects learned than those who invested less. Nevertheless, the projects improved, and I found a way to challenge fixed mindsets, in word and deed, in larger classes.

I also found that revision rewards tenacity, or grit as Angela Duckworth calls it. Duckworth, a professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, argues that we tend to emphasize talent over tenacity; we believe, for example, that people succeed, or fail, because of their capacities, not their persistence. And yet, Duckworth argues, her research shows that the willingness to work hard toward a goal in the face of resistance counts twice as much as talent. After reading her book, appropriately titled Grit, I understood that the process of feedback and revision rewards both learning over time and hard work, precisely the values we seek to instill in our students.

My students see the value of this approach. Thanks to our feedback sessions, even in the larger classes, I listen to their questions about mindsets. I also read their reflections, watching as they struggle to assess their perceptions of the world and of themselves. I also see their finished work: Over the past five years, students not only meet my expectations more often, but they also report greater satisfaction with their learning. Of course, some students resist my approach, or dismiss it, usually telling me it’s too much work. But the vast majority of my students appreciate the opportunity to learn more deeply about academic subjects, as well as about themselves. They do not miss the pressure to “get it right” the first time.

Perhaps most important, I have learned how much pedagogy matters. Depending on the design of a course, I can reward a growth mindset or a fixed one; I can reward sustained hard work or last-minute binges; and I can reward deep learning or superficial understanding. In short, effective course design can lead to deep (or at least deeper) learning—for all students, not just the “good” ones.

I am not sure that all my colleagues would agree. Too many of us still find refuge in our fixed mindsets. It’s easier that way. If we faculty judge most students as either “bad” or “mediocre,” with a few “good” ones mixed in, then we can safely dispense with improving our teaching and spend more time on research, much as our universities want us to do.

On the other hand, if we believe the vast majority of students can learn deeply, if enrolled in courses that provide an effective pedagogic context, we will have a lot of work to do. We will, for example, have to continually assess and revise our pedagogic practices. We may even find ourselves redefining what it means to be a professor, as well as what constitutes learning, while identifying the ways in which our institutions could better support effective pedagogy.

I am sure that sounds like a lot of work, but as a professor it’s hard for me to imagine anything more rewarding. It’s time for more of us in the academy to change our minds.

Joseph Gonzalez, PhD, is an associate professor in the Department of Cultural, Gender, and Global Studies at Appalachian State University.

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