I had the good fortune last Thursday to have a conversation with Paul Tough, author of How Children Succeed

I took the opportunity to ask him if my hypothesis in my post Tough Call is correct. That is, can we help our students develop the social-cognitive skills alongside the critical thinking, literacy, numeracy and other skills we expect to deliver in the classroom?

Paul pointed me instead to the concept of mindset, and specifically to Carol Dweck’s work on fixed and growing mindsets.  The idea, in the realm of positive psychology, is that our mindsets occupy a point on a spectrum from fixed to growing. People with fixed mindsets believe that their abilities are inherent and cannot be improved upon. People with growth mindsets believe that they can improve their performance (in school, athletics, business, etc.) through hard work, tenacity, learning and training.

Our self-concept of our mindset translates into our performance. High achievers tend to have a growth mindset. They believe that they can influence and control their destinies, and see failure as an opportunity to learn as opposed to a reflection on their abilities.

Mindset is something one can change. Further, we can teach students how to move from a fixed to a growth mindset.

I’ll be engaging our College to Careers team, and specifically Career Planning and Placement, in discussions on what we may do with this. Contributions and ideas from all are, as always, welcome.


Published by Don Laackman

Leader with non-profit, higher education, and private-sector consulting experience.

5 thoughts on “Mindset

  1. I just read Tough’s book, and have been thinking about how to support non-cognitive skills in our students. Another critical piece in his book is stress and how it affects the learning process. I would be very interested in any conversations on our campus about this important topic. thanks, Carrie

  2. Hi Don and Carrie.

    For quite a while now I have tried to “unmask” the culture of higher education/etc. in my classes. I think I do this because I wish that someone had done it for me when I was a student. In any event, I’ve just finished a two-week block of readings, short films, and activities/assignments about the topics under discussion here. Yesterday, I allowed my students to post anonymously (and cathartically) in response to two essays, “College Pressures” and “The Dog Ate My Disk, and Other Tales of Woe.” The two essays provide a holistic framework for students to examine their CCC experiences (or, at the very least, their experiences in my classroom). I figure that this is a way to ensure that even those students who do not pass a class — mine or another instructor’s for whatever reason — might be better prepared to do so the following semester, particularly if the problem isn’t related to course content.

    Below are two student responses. Are they clarifying or problematizing?


    PS — I hope the formatting transfers to the blog.

    Author: Anonymous
    Date: Tuesday, October 23, 2012 6:20:52 PM CDT
    Subject: College Pressures
    Answer Box
    1. Zinsser identifies four college pressures. List four of your own college pressures. (It’s OK if you have the same pressures as in the essay.)

    Peer pressure. Always being pressured to do better than others around me. It’s a competition.
    Economic pressure- right now I don’t have job but I know soon enough I’m going to have to look for one or my parents will say something to me about it.
    Parental pressure- My parents want me to get a degree and expect me to get good grades. They are always stressing to me how important it is all the time.
    Self- induced pressure: I always make my life more complicated than it has to be. I always think about working, going to school, volunteering, keeping in shape by exercising and just thinking about doing all of those things at the same time makes me tired already. I put pressure on myself.

    2. Zinsser quotes Carlos Hortas as saying that “violence is being done to the undergraduate experience” and that instead of college being open-ended and leading to many roads, “students are choosing their goal in advance”� so that “their choices narrow as they go along” (40). The result is that students do not take chances, resulting in a “life of colorless mediocrity” where students will be comfortable but “something in the spirit will be missing” (41).

    Reflect on Hortas’ use of the word “violence.” Briefly discuss if any violence is being done to your undergraduate experience.

    Hortas uses the word “ violence” to portray what is being done to us undergraduates. The violence that he is talking about is not physical violence, rather, emotional violence and violence towards our experience. We are so pressured into working in a field where there are slots and sometimes that is not the field in which we dreamed of working in. There used to be many roads a college student can take and now, as time passes by, those roads seem to disappear little by little. The only harm being done to my undergraduate experience is the fact that I’m going to have to start working soon because college isn’t cheap. When FAFSA doesn’t help me out in the near future how am I going to pay for college. It seems like students waste money to go to school and get a diploma only to get no job out of it.

    3. Read paragraphs fourteen and fifteen on page 451-452, then answer this question: who, according to Zinsser, is ultimately responsible for eliminating college pressures? Do you agree or disagree with him? Explain.

    The students are ultimately responsible for eliminating college pressures. I agree and disagree with that statement. I agree because with parental and self-induced pressure, we can choose not to add that burden to ourselves. If my parents want me to study something that I don’t really find any interest in, then I would choose what I want to study not them. I do, however, also disagree because the economy is the main pressure that college students have. It seems like today, working is essential.

    Author: Anonymous
    Date: Tuesday, October 23, 2012 6:49:24 PM CDT
    Subject: The Dog Ate My Disk

    I see four kinds of shortcomings among college professors today: little disciplinary action, low patience, not enough knowledge of the material covered, and low expectations. These negative traits can only hinder my success as I push forward through each course.

    Shortcoming #1
    Little disciplinary action

    Ex #1:Teacher #1 said they would not allow students to walk in late but always does
    Ex #2:Teacher #4 said they would deduct 2 points for incomplete hw but only deducts 1 point

    Shortcoming #2
    Low patience

    Ex #1: Teacher #4 does not like to take the time to help the students who need assistance because they move through chapters too quickly
    Ex #2: Teacher #1 does not allow ANY makeup tests no matter what the circumstance might be.

    Shortcoming #3
    Not enough knowledge of the material covered

    Ex #1:Teacher #1 will beat around the bush when answering questions they do not have answer for

    Ex #2: Teacher #1 does not like to cover any material outside of the book that would help our ultimate course goal

    Shortcoming #4
    Low expectations

    Ex #1: Teacher #4 allows work to be weeks late and uses the same grading system

    Ex #2: Teacher #2 does not require any kind of notice of absence and accepts late work no matter how late

  3. I’ve addressed this in my classes, but not necessarily to a great extent. I have students respond to non-math questions that I post on BlackBoard, and then they comment on each others’ responses. One of the questions I pose is “What is intelligence?” Half the students respond that it is an innate ability or gift, while the other half respond that it is something you develop through hard work. We then discuss this via BlackBoard and a little bit in class. I point out that students who believe that intelligence is innate typically do not participate as much in class discussion, and are less likely to work well with their peers. Students who believe that intelligence develops are more willing to engage in group work and explain concepts to students who are struggling. These actions alone contribute to success because in order to truly understand something, you have to try to explain it in your own words to someone else. Some students visibly change their attitudes, while others are harder to convince. I have yet to find a research article on this topic that I think would be short enough and accessible enough for students to read and discuss. I welcome suggestions!

  4. AFT’s American Educator magazine contains a column called “Ask the Cognitive Scientist.” I don’t recall anything exactly related to “fixed and growing mindsets,” but I do recall a column as to whether or not critical thinking skills can be taught. (The answer seems to be no.)

    Mindset is analogous to Bloom’s Affective Domain, isn’t it? I agree 100% that we need to inculcate a growing mindset into our students.

    After work yesterday evening I picked up a Reader in the HWC lobby. At the risk of swerving off topic a bit, I wish to share a link to the current issue of the Reader and it’s cover story, “The Link Between Lead Poisoning and Underperforming Students.”


    Here is an excerpt.

    “A recent study out of the University of Illinois at Chicago examined the blood lead levels of third graders between 2003 and 2006—students now likely to be roaming the halls at CPS high schools. It turns out that at three-quarters of Chicago’s 464 elementary schools, the students’ average blood lead level was high enough to be considered poisoned, according to standards set by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And although lead poisoning is rarely mentioned in the debate on how to improve schools, the UIC research shows just how much it may be damaging kids’ ability to succeed. According to the study, lead-poisoned students in Chicago Public Schools are more likely to fail the third grade and score notably lower on their yearly standardized tests. ”

    I also seem to remember reading somewhere (USA Today?) that the majority of two-year college students enter with some kind of learning disability which they do
    not usually disclose because they wish to start anew, free of any “stigma” they may have had back in high school. I too am interested in a conversation on campus regarding growing mindsets, but after reading this article in the Reader, I think that an investigation of growing mindsets might best be served in dialogue with studies such as those provided in the Reader, American Educator, and (clearing my throat here) the USA Today.

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