The conventional wisdom on academic attainment is entrenched.
You take a test or submit an assignment. You are graded. You get a number, or a letter. The smartest students get the higher grades. Simple, right? Not so fast. What if I told you that it’s all… a lie?
It’s not just me making stuff up, there is scientific evidence here. What am I talking about, then? I’m talking about the growth mindset (and it’s opposing fixed mindset) and how it relates to your academic goals at university. If you ask Carol Dweck, professor of psychology at Stanford University, no one is ‘just bad at maths.’ Her body of work around the mindset trait shows an alternative perspective on the old ‘A+ is smart and D- is dumb” paradigm.
Getting a bad grade
The idea behind a growth mindset and its usefulness at university can be understood in your response to getting a bad grade. Any challenging circumstance could be used - but most of us have flopped at Uni one time or another. Students with a growth mindset tend to see these occasions as opportunities to get better, to try new strategies or increase their effort. Students with a fixed mindset, on the other hand tend to see it as evidence that they just have low ability.
Which mindset you have currently is hugely influenced by your teachers and parents throughout childhood and adolescence. The way adults respond to their children’s success is hugely influential on which mindset they develop, says Dweck. “After seven experiments with hundreds of children, we had some of the clearest findings I’ve ever seen: Praising children’s intelligence harms their motivation and it harms their performance.”
Children love being praised for being especially intelligent or talented. It means they are good, better than the other kids even. But if they learn that success is based on innate ability, then it follows that so is failure. Their confidence is shot as soon as they mess up. But innate ability doesn’t really exist - any skills can be learned if effort is put in.
Dweck suggests that the correct way to cultivate the growth mindset is to teach children that their success is based on their effort and their process of learning. Dweck says “the best thing [parents] can do is to teach their children to love challenges, be intrigued by mistakes, enjoy effort, and keep on learning.”
How to use a growth mindset at university
Consider this when setting your own goals for attainment in university. You will receive countless grades during the course of your study, and most likely some will be worse than others. It’s awesome to get a high mark. It makes you feel good and your parents will be impressed. But how you respond to the not-so-good grades is actually more important in the long run.
The fixed mindset cultivates failure avoidance, since failures are seen as unequivocally bad. In other words, aiming to succeed at something is more about avoiding failure, than learning the topic. And when failure comes, it is a critical blow to the self-esteem. What’s more, studies found that children who failed artificially difficult tests in an experiment “buttress their self-esteem by being openly disparaging or looking down on peers.” Failure is critical to self-esteem, and the blow gets shifted downwards. Now, have you met people in high school or university whose fixed mindsets have shown through after failures?
The growth mindset is about reframing failures as opportunities. Because, what’s the point of constantly succeeding without being challenged, when it fails to teach you how do deal with failures when they (inevitably) come?
The tricky part is that there can be a lot riding on grades at university. Academic success is rewarded with scholarships and further educational opportunities. But, keep in mind that your grades in third year and even second year will always be viewed as more important than first year grades. Failures early on in university aren’t so bad if they lead you to improve yourself and develop those strategies to get better results later.
When you’re setting your own goals, consider that improvement is a better indicator that you’re learning than attainment. Other growth mindset-focussed goals could be asking questions in class, or volunteering answers even if you don’t know that they’re correct. It is crucial to interact with failure. Staying in the safe harbour of always being right is not the correct way to learn.
John Wooden, who coached the UCLA men’s basketball team to 10 NCAA championships in 12 years, said “you aren’t a failure until you start to blame.” When you claim your mistakes weren’t your fault, you are denying yourself the opportunity to learn from them. And after all, what is university for, if not to learn?
By Jack Buckley, Wellington, New Zealand