As the new semester begins, instructors across the country will begin the process of trying to convince their students to persist in the face of the inevitable “failures” that come from learning and practicing new ideas and skills. In doing so, many of us will turn to the work of Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck and her book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. In that groundbreaking volume, Dweck opposes “growth” and “fixed” mindsets. The former “is based on the belief that your basic qualities are things you can cultivate through your efforts. Although people may differ in every which way — in their initial talents and aptitudes, interests, or temperament — everyone can change and grow through application and experience.” In contrast, a fixed mindset assumes that “your qualities are carved in stone.” You are who you are, and no matter what you do, you’re never really going to change.
Dweck’s ideas have been adopted widely not just in education, but also in business, though not always as she might have wished. In an article in the Harvard Business Review, she points out three widespread misconceptions about growth mindset: “1) I already have it, and I always have. 2) A growth mindset is just about praising and rewarding effort. 3) Just espouse a growth mindset, and good things will happen.”
Clearly, these are simplifications of the hard work needed to develop a growth mindset—the “passion and persistence of grit,” to quote Dweck’s fellow psychologist Angela Duckworth. As Dweck points out, having a growth mindset doesn’t just mean being “flexible or open-minded.” Instead, students with a growth mindset, to quote from Dweck’s “Brainology,” “believe that intelligence is a potential that can be realized through learning. As a result, confronting challenges, profiting from mistakes, and persevering in the face of setbacks become ways of getting smarter.” In other words, moving towards a growth mindset is an active and ongoing process.
Dweck argues in the Harvard piece that “It’s critical to reward not just effort but learning and progress, and to emphasize the processes that yield these things, such as seeking help from others, trying new strategies, and capitalizing on setbacks to move forward effectively.” Moreover, institutions, as well as individuals, must “continually reinforce growth mindset values with concrete policies.” Ultimately, she claims, we are all “a mixture of fixed and growth mindsets, and that mixture continually evolves with experience.” In short, “A ‘pure’ growth mindset doesn’t exist.”
The act of writing is full of challenges, course corrections, and constant minor victories and defeats—a veritable laboratory for creating a growth mindset. Consequently, college composition classes are particularly valuable sites for encouraging students to confront their setbacks head-on so they can unpack them and strategize ways to effectively address similar challenges the next time they arise.
It’s possible to cultivate a growth mindset in everything we do in our college writing classes: from class discussions where equitable participation is paramount, to essay prompts that encourage growth mindset qualities like experimentation and introspection, to assessment and evaluation on written work that emphasizes constructive criticism and praise for risk-taking.
In fact, I think we can begin fostering a growth mindset from the very first week of class, not long after the opening icebreakers and introductions. To nudge us in that direction, I’ve asked students to discuss the following conversation prompts with a partner, or in small groups:
Think of all the people you know personally who have a growth mindset. Choose one of those people, describe that person, and give specific examples of how their growth mindset has helped them succeed. What traits do the people you’ve identified have in common with those of your partner(s)? How are they different? Make lists or a Venn diagram.
Talk about which type of mindset you generally have — fixed or growth. Describe how that mindset has played out recently in your life. In which areas can you cultivate a stronger growth mindset to help you overcome the challenges you currently face?
Developing a growth mindset is essential to student success, especially in accelerated composition courses, where some students may initially feel underconfident. You can do it, we need to keep telling our students, and we need to show them, step-by-step, how to achieve their goals.