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Tomorrow's Teaching and Learning
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Mindsets Toward Learning
In addition to adopting the strategies and techniques that will help you grasp and remember information, you need to understand something about yourself as a learner that we believe will result in a fundamental change in the way you learn. Gaining this understanding is so important that it will likely influence many other aspects of your life as well. The information in this chapter relates to a concept researchers call mindset. A mindset is a view you have of yourself as a learner, and it affects all the decisions you make about your learning-the effort you put forth, the risks you take, how you deal with failures and criticism, and how much of a challenge you are willing to accept. Mindset was first described by Dr. Carol Dweck, a psychologist at Stanford University. Dweck (2006, 2009) explains that your view of yourself as a learner was likely formed in middle school (or even earlier) and has been affecting your learning ever since. As you read this chapter, reflect on the concepts presented and try to figure out what kind of mindset you have and how you can develop a mindset that leads to optimal learning for you.
Mindset and Intelligence
One thing about human intelligence is absolutely certain: it is malleable, meaning it can be changed through exposure to new information or even by looking at what you already know in a new way. There is no limit to what you can learn, and, contrary to what some may think, nobody's brain has ever been "filled." The brain continually changes by making new neuroconnections between its cells, which represent new knowledge or skills, and when this happens, we say someone has become smarter. It is possible for humans to become smarter all the time and in any area of study. Some subjects will be harder for you to learn than others, but learning in any area is possible. Intelligence is not a fixed quantity that you got at birth and are stuck with. You become smarter every day, and the intelligence you achieve in your lifetime is unknowable. That said, it does appear that your mindset about learning will have a heavy impact on how much you will learn - and just about everything else in your life.
Your mindset is your view about your own intelligence and abilities. This view affects your willingness to engage in learning tasks and how much, if any, effort you are willing to expend to meet a learning challenge. Dweck has spent more than 30 years researching learners' mindsets and their individual views of their intelligence. She noted that mindsets fall into two categories: "fixed mindsets" and "growth mindsets." A person with a fixed mindset "believes that intelligence is a fixed trait," despite hundreds of studies that have found otherwise. In this view, either you are smart in a given area or you are not; there is nothing you can do to improve in that area. Individuals with fixed mindsets believe their intelligence is reflected in their academic performance (Dweck, 2006). If a student doesn't do well in a class, it's because he or she is not "smart" in that area. Individuals with fixed mindsets mistakenly believe either that they shouldn't need to work hard to do well because the smart students don't have to (although when researchers asked students who consistently achieved high grades about their work, they reported working very hard at academic material) or that putting in the effort won't make any difference in the outcome ("I'm just not good at math"). In fact, individuals with fixed mindsets see putting in effort as indicating that they are not smart. They have falsely come to the conclusion that learning comes easy to the students at the top of the class and that they were born that way.
People with growth mindsets, in contrast, believe that intelligence grows as you add new knowledge and skills. Those with growth mindsets value hard work, learning, and challenges and see failure as a message that they need to change tacks in order to succeed next time. Thomas Edison is reported to have tried hundreds of times before he got the lightbulb to work. At one point, he was asked by a New York Times reporter about all his failures and whether he was going to give up. Edison responded, "I have not failed 700 times. I've succeeded in proving 700 ways how not to build a light bulb" (as cited in Ferlazzo, 2011). Shortly after this interview, he was successful, and we have all since benefitted from his growth mindset. Individuals with growth mindsets are willing to take learning risks and understand that through practice and effort-sometimes a lot of effort-their abilities can improve. Those with growth mindsets believe that their brains are malleable, that intelligence and abilities constantly grow, and that only time will tell how smart they will become.
The significance of Dweck's research for college students is profound. Each fall, tens of thousands of students enroll in classes that they believe they do not have the ability to pass. They also believe that hiring a tutor, visiting the professor during office hours for extra help, or even working harder will make no difference. They hold this belief because they have a fixed mindset in that area.
The next time you take a class on a subject you fear because you think you are not "smart" in that area, keep in mind that practice can make a huge difference in your learning success. The class may not be easy for you, but if you have some background knowledge in the subject or take the time to learn some background information (e.g., through learning development courses or tutoring) and you work hard (keep a growth mindset), there is no telling what you will achieve.
Fixed Mindsets and Laziness
College and university professors often see lack of effort as laziness. Not going to tutoring or taking advantage of a professor's office hours is seen as irresponsible and immature. In fact, it may be that a student's fixed mindset is causing many of his or her problems. If you have always struggled with reading, you may believe it is because you are simply "bad at reading" or "not smart in that way." A person with this mindset sees tutoring and extra work as wasted effort. Other students with similar mindsets may work hard but tell themselves, "This is hard.... I can't get it.... Maybe I should drop the class." We don't have to tell you that studying with that attitude is not productive at all. In contrast, those with growth mindsets work hard, even on work for classes they don't like, and because they know the effort will likely produce improved results, they see greater success. Those students are not smarter; they just see themselves differently.
Changing to a Growth Mindset
Nearly everyone has at least one fixed mindset, and there are things you can do to change your fixed mindsets into growth mindsets. As was mentioned at the beginning of this chapter, intelligence is malleable and can be changed, meaning you can in fact "grow your brain." Jesper Mogensen, a psychologist at the University of Copenhagen, has found that the brain is like a muscle that gets stronger with use and that learning prompts neurons in the brain to grow new connections (Mogensen, 2012). You need to understand that you are an agent of your own brain development.
Dweck's research has found that students of all ages, from early grade school through college, can learn to have growth mindsets. It is important to recognize that your intellectual skills can be cultivated through hard work, reading, education, the confrontation of challenges, and other activities (Dweck, 2007a). Dweck explains that students may know how to study, but they won't want to if they believe their efforts are futile. If you accept that effort will pay dividends then you are on your way to greater academic and life success. This does not mean that you will enjoy all subjects that you study, only that everyone can improve as they work in different academic areas. Even your teacher was a novice at one time and had to spend a good deal of time studying in order to become an expert in his or her field. Researcher Joshua Aronson of New York University demonstrated that college students' GPAs go up when they accept that intelligence can be developed (Dweck, 2007b).
The following are several aspects of a growth mindset that are important for you to know:
1. Success most often comes from effort and learning strategies, not intelligence. If intelligence earned you a grade of A on the first test and then you failed the second test, did you suddenly become stupid? Of course not. For the first test, you used the right study strategies and put in enough effort to earn an A. When you failed, something was wrong with your level of effort and strategy. It may be that the material was more difficult and needed additional effort.
2. You can grow your own brain. Neuroscience research findings clearly show that new neuron networks are created and become permanent through effort and practice (Goldberg, 2009; Ratey, 2001). These new networks make us smarter. This knowledge is the key to shifting yourself away from a fixed mindset toward a growth mindset.
3. Failure can point you toward future success. When you fail, focus on the strategies you used and the time and effort you put forth to see what caused the failure. Ask for feedback from the teacher. Taking advantage of failure is a key ingredient in creating a growth mindset. When you focus on how you can improve-by finding a new strategy, getting a study partner, reviewing on a daily basis, or putting in more time and effort-you can discover how to overcome the failure. Your ability to face a challenge is not dependent on your actual skills or abilities; it's based on the mindset you bring to the challenge. You need to be willing to take learning risks and be open to learning all you can from your experiences. This message can be difficult to accept, but it is crucial to your growth and development as a learner.
4. Your performance reflects only your current skills and efforts, not your intelligence, worth, or potential. Weight-lifting improvement comes solely from improved technique and increased effort. The more you practice and the better your technique becomes, the greater the amount of weight you can lift. Being a weakling is simply a current state of performance, not who you are. College classes are often like weight lifting. You start small, and with repeated practice, you keep building brain muscle.
How to Help Yourself
The way you help yourself is to use self-talk. Carol Dweck (2009) offers the following suggestions:
Step 1. You need to learn to hear your fixed mindset "voice."Students can learn to listen and recognize when they are engaging in a fixed mindset. Students may say to themselves or hear in their head things like, "Are you sure you can do it? Maybe you don't have the talent," or, "What if you fail-you'll be a failure." Also, catch yourself exaggerating the situation, as that can signal a fixed mindset. Some individuals indicate they can't do math. Although it is possible geometry, algebra, or calculus might be challenging, it is difficult to believe a college student can't do any math. A person with a fixed mindset will say things like, "I can't give presentations."
Step 2. You need to recognize you have a choice. How you interpret challenges, setbacks, and criticism is a choice. You need to know you can choose to ramp up your strategies and effort, stretch yourself, and expand your abilities. It's up to you.
Step 3. You need to talk back to yourself with a growth mindset. THE FIXED MINDSET says, "Are you sure you can do it? Maybe you don't have the talent." THE GROWTH MINDSET answers, "I'm not sure I can do it now, but I think I can learn to with time and effort." FIXED MINDSET: "What if you fail-you'll be a failure."GROWTH MINDSET: "Most successful people had failures along the way."
Step 4. Students need to take growth mindset action. The more you choose the growth mindset voice, the easier it will become to choose it again and again.
This chapter introduced the concept of mindset to students. It explained what a mindset is and how and when mindset is formed. The chapter also explained how students can determine which kind of mindset they have, fixed or growth, and how they can change to a growth mindset if they need to. Following are the key ideas from this chapter:
1. A mindset is a view you have of yourself as a learner, and it affects all the decisions you make about your learning-the effort you put forth, the risks you take, how you deal with failures and criticism, and how much of a challenge you are willing to accept.
2. Mindset was first described by Dr. Carol Dweck, a psychologist at Stanford University. Dweck explains that this view of yourself as a learner was likely formed in middle school (or even earlier) and has been affecting your learning ever since.
3. One thing about human intelligence is absolutely certain: it is malleable, meaning it can be changed through exposure to new information or even by looking at what you already know in a new way. There is no limit to what you can learn, contrary to what some may think.
4. Dweck noted that individuals' views of themselves as learners fall into two categories: fixed mindsets and growth mindsets.
5. Those with fixed mindsets "believe that intelligence is a fixed trait" (Dweck, 2006, p. 96). In their view, you are either smart in a given area or you are not, and nothing can be done to improve in that area. Students with fixed mindsets usually put forth much less effort in a course if the course is viewed as difficult because they believe they are not smart enough to pass.
6. People with growth mindsets believe that intelligence grows as you add new knowledge and skills. They value hard work, learning, and challenges and see failure as a message that they need to change tacks in order to succeed next time.
7. These views of intelligence begin to surface in middle school, when more stringent academic work appears in the curriculum.
8. Dweck is careful to point out that these mindsets are context specific. That is, a person can have a growth mindset in one area and a fixed mindset in another.
9. A fixed mindset, which often causes students to put in less effort and to avoid going to tutoring or using a professor's office hours, is often mischaracterized by college and university professors as laziness, irresponsibleness, or immaturity. Students with fixed mindsets often take on only easy tasks, try to make others look dumb, and discount others' achievements to protect their self-image.
10.Jesper Mogensen, a psychologist at the University of Copenhagen, has found that the brain is like a muscle that gets stronger with use and that learning prompts neurons in the brain to grow new connections. You need to understand that you are an agent of your own brain development.
11.When you fail, focus on the strategies you used and the time and effort you put forth to see what caused the failure. Ask for feedback from the teacher. This is a key ingredient in creating a growth mindset.
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