Mindset: Teaching students how to learn

I just finished reading a phenomenal book, Mindset by Carol S. Dweck.  This book is a must-read for anyone who teaches at any level, or anyone who parents for that matter.

Dweck argues that traditionally, people view one’s ability, whether IQ or artistic ability, as fixed.  Dweck calls this view the “fixed mindset.”   Until you get close to your potential, work happens almost effortlessly.  If you have to put in effort, that’s bad news since it means you’re reaching the limit of your ability.   Students with the fixed mindset tend to avoid challenges because challenges by definition require effort, and effort implies the very real possibility (in their eyes) of failing.  Failing at something is bad because it means you’re a failure.  (Question: Does this sound like the “Imposter Syndrome” among academics.)  This is especially difficult for college students who have likely been successful for all of their academic careers.  Indeed, Dweck identifies the transition to college as one of the major stress points for learners.

Dweck proposes another view, the “growth mindset.”  According to this view, one’s ability is not fixed.  Rather, it’s like a muscle—the more you work at it, the greater your ability.  With this mindset, effort is a positive not a negative since it is through effort that you learn and your ability grows.  Failure is an opportunity for learning and improvement, not a judgment.   Many successful people have made this point:

  • “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”   – Thomas A. Edison
  • “There isn’t enough failure around here. If you aren’t failing, you aren’t trying. Science is developed through failures. That is how we learn.” – Edwin Land, CEO of Polaroid

But we usually write these people off as geniuses.  Dweck argues that we all have that potential, but that many or most of us are mired in the fixed mindset.

Dweck helped me better understand something I have witnessed over my teaching career.  Some students are very bright.  They never have to work at learning.  They simply look at the task and complete it with little or no effort.  This is analogous to the writer who when he writes, simply puts down on paper what he already knows.

Contrast this with another type of student.  The second type of student isn’t as bright as the first type.  She has always had to work hard to learn and to get good grades.  Using the same analogy: This student writes to find out what she knows.   She doesn’t start out knowing; she has to work at it.

The problem with the first type of student is that if they continue in school, eventually they reach a level where they can’t complete the work without effort.  Often, these students find they’ve never learned how to work through a problem to figure it out.  They don’t understand what ‘figure it out’ means since it’s never been a part of their experience.  Sometimes, these very bright students flunk out of school–they’ve always been A students and now they’re failing.   They don’t know how to learn, so when their existing model doesn’t work, they’re at a loss for how to proceed.  These students can be literally clueless.    What a waste of talent.

Of course, there are also bright students who work hard, but the system inhibits them because what’s the point of learning more if you have already earned an A?  There are also less bright students who don’t know how to work at learning.  Often, they don’t make it to university.

Are you frustrated that too many students play the grade game, that too many seem uninterested in real learning?  Perhaps the most important thing we can teach our students is the growth mindset.  It’s something I’m going to make a central part of my pre-major and major advising this year.

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8 Responses to Mindset: Teaching students how to learn

  1. Jenny says:

    I have not yet managed to read Mindset, but a good number of the staff at the elementary school where I teach have done so. We’ve talked a lot about it (and it is on my to read list).

    I’m struck by the idea that if we accept the idea of these two mindsets (and I think I do) then our language, as teachers or parents, is critical. We encourage our children to develop one or the other mindsets and I think, typically, we encourage the fixed mindset. It’s something I keep in mind when I praise or encourage. Peter Johnston’s book, Choice Words, has helped me a lot in that area.

  2. sgreenla says:


    Dweck argues that the schooling/grading system teaches the fixed mindset, but you may be right that it happens through the language we use. Grading seems to emphasize not what kids have learned, but rather how far short of perfection they fall. We want students to take grades as formative, but they usually see them as summative. I’m not sure what the answer to that is.

    Thanks for your comment,

    – Steve

  3. Joe Calpin says:

    You ask “Are you frustrated that too many students play the grade game, that too many seem uninterested in real learning? “, however I’ve come to find that education tends to play itself off as nothing more than that very game of grabbing a good grade, getting a piece of paper and getting out. I don’t believe that the problem all falls upon the student, but rather comes from a system that is more invested in the results rather than the process. Learning for knowledge’s sake is just does not fit in the “be successful” model. While none of what I said is particularly groundbreaking, I think it is worthwhile to consider that not only do students’ mindset towards learning needs to change, but also the university system requires revamping. There’s so much emphasis placed on grades it’s a wonder anyone can focus on the real goal which should be the absorption of material and furthering one’s understanding.

  4. sgreenla says:


    I’m not blaming students. I agree that the system is at fault, or to put it differently, all the players bear some responsibility. From the teacher’s perspective, it’s much easier to treat students as part of a cohort who are just trying to get the credits and degree. Much harder to be a learning guide for each individual student.


    – Steve

  5. Jennifer says:

    I had a similar reaction when I first learned about the fixed/growth mindset concepts (I wrote about it awhile back at http://economicsforteachers.blogspot.com/2008/07/cultivating-optimism.html). There’s a New York Times business article about the book that puts it in a business context (http://www.nytimes.com/2008/07/06/business/06unbox.html?_r=1&scp=1&sq=Growth+Mindset&st=nyt&oref=slogin#) that I’ve had my Principles students read it (since many of them want to be CEOs, etc.) – I’m not sure how much sinks in but hopefully, it at least gets them thinking…

  6. Bill Goffe says:

    I haven’t read the book, but have read article about it. On a survey I did of my 300 student class in the Spring of 2010, I found asked about mindsets and found a good variety of responses. No analysis yet of its impact. Of course, it would be better to ask about behaviors rather than views, but I hope to get some interesting results.

  7. Rosemary Jesionowski says:

    Well, I am late to this string of comments; I just found your blog (thanks to Jerry Slezak!).

    I am very interested to read this book, though I agree with above comments that it is the entire system that is causing our students to focus on grades. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard the question (literally), “How do I get an A in this class?”. My description of listening, taking notes, asking questions, researching, and then applying all of that (and then some) into the student’s own work is not a popular answer- they’re looking for a check list. And yes, what they’re looking for is that they are not a failure. They want to be reassured that nothing is wrong with them. But nothing IS wrong with them except that they don’t have any understanding of what it means to learn! I had a student explain to me that he deserved more than a B+ simply based on how much money he had spent on a project.

    Grading is the worst part of this job I love.

    YET, I feel pressure to assign grades from the students, administration, and the system at large. Students rely on specific GPAs for scholarship money and to apply to graduate school. Students’ parents warn them that if they do not receive “good” grades that they will stop paying tuition. The students are reacting to (well, really, they’re just acting in) the system that has been built around them. I would love to teach in an environment where students received constructive feedback on their work that was not linked to this judgment system. It’s not an easy fix, but yes, the mindset needs to change so that the system can change.

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