Ask Academic Innovation: How do students think about learning?

Our students’ success or failure in learning in a class may stem at least in part from their underlying beliefs about how they learn and about their own intelligence. If we, as professors, can help a student shift from a self-sabotaging mindset to a more constructive one, we can help them achieve greater success both in our classes and in others. Carol Dweck’s 2006 book, Mindset: The New Psychology of Success offers insights into people’s beliefs about intelligence and learning.

According to Dweck, a person with a fixed mindset believes that intelligence is a trait—you have a certain amount of it, and that’s it. Same with talent: either you’re good at something, or you’re not. We’ve all heard students explain failure in a course by saying, “I’m just not good at ____.” A fixed mindset leads to seeing successes as proof of their fixed intelligence or ability. In this view, effort will yield relatively little change.

A person with a growth mindset believes that success or ability is the result of effort—in other words, it depends on a person’s actions rather than an essential quality that doesn’t change. In a growth mindset, intelligence is just a starting point, and the ability to do something is the result of consistent hard work over time.

Growth mindset, metacognition, and self-regulation go hand in hand, as a student who can reflectively self-monitor, evaluate the success of certain actions or practices, and change them as needed is most likely operating from a growth mindset. If beliefs about intelligence and ability have a significant impact on performance, then it’s worth addressing our students’ beliefs.

Saundra Yancey McGuire offers suggestions on how we can frame criticism and mistakes so that students can view them as constructive and as essential parts of the learning process rather than attacks or failures that prove lack of ability. She notes that “when students become aware that their instructors have provided criticism in order to help them improve rather than as a judgment of their ostensibly fixed abilities, they are likelier to use that criticism constructively” (64). By emphasizing action and effort over time, she writes, instructors can help students achieve growth over time and the willingness to take on challenges. Another suggestion she offers is to give homework assignments that begin with easier exercises and gradually increase in difficulty. The initial success will encourage students to persist through the more challenging material.

Dweck, Carol S. Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. New York, NY: Random House, 2006.
Yancy McGuire, Saundra, with Stephanie McGuire. Teach Students How to Learn: Strategies You Can Incorporate Into Any Course to Improve Student Metacognition, Study Skills, and Motivation. Foreword by Thomas A. Angelo. Sterling, VA: Stylus Publishing, 2015.

Submitted by:
Erica Miller Yozell, Ph.D.
Co-Director, Teaching & Learning Center
Associate Professor of Spanish
Moravian College

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