Improving Academic Performance

Understanding the Growth Mindset

Posted by Mark Skoskiewicz on Thu, Jan 23, 2014 @ 12:29 PM

At MyGuru, we track feedback on our tutors’ performance to identify top performing tutors and provide constructive feedback about what made things go well or poorly.  Over time, in discussing tutoring relationships with students and tutors and reviewing this feedback, we’ve noticed that the major obstacle standing in the way of a student understanding material and earning a better grade in a class (or a better score on a standardized test) is often a belief they have about their ability.  It’s not a lack of understanding per se, and certainly not a lack of “intelligence” that’s the problem. 

How Important is a Mindset?

Certainly, with every tutoring relationship, there are facts a student needs to remember and concepts to be explained and better understood.  However, the impact of general attitude and mindset is, in our experience, somewhat remarkably important.  With this in mind, we did a little research to see if there was any statistically significant academic research about the importance of mindset in academic performance.  The answer was an emphatic “yes.”

Here’s a quote pulled from the web-site of Dr. Carol Dweck, a world renowned Stanford Psychology Professor who has studied mindsets on and their impact on achievement and success for 30 years –

In a fixed mindset, people believe their basic qualities, like their intelligence or talent, are simply fixed traits. They spend their time documenting their intelligence or talent instead of developing them. They also believe that talent alone creates success—without effort. They’re wrong.

In a growth mindset, people believe that their most basic abilities can be developed through dedication and hard work—brains and talent are just the starting point. This view creates a love of learning and a resilience that is essential for great accomplishment. Virtually all great people have had these qualities.

Why are Mindsets so Important?

According to Dweck, mindsets are critically important, and most well recognized and generally understood to be extremely successful people have had the growth mindset (Mozart, Michael Jordan, Albert Einstein), although some success stories have operated more within the fixed mindset (Patrick McEnroe, Bobby Knight).

Moving away from direct quotes from Dr. Dweck, in our experience, mindsets are important because they frame the way in which a student approaches studying.  Let’s explore with a generic example of a student struggling in his or her pre-calculus course in high school.

Implications of the Fixed Mindset

In a fixed mindset, a student struggling with Pre-calculus may have a few beliefs that ultimately impacts greatly how he behaves and performs:

Beliefs:

  1. Pre-calculus is particularly hard for me (I get Cs and Ds)…
  2. …but apparently not for some of my friends (who get As and Bs)
  3. If I have to try so hard to understand the homework, I really must not be very smart.  I’m certain my friends are barely studying and they are doing so much better
  4. When I answer questions incorrectly in class or get bad grades, it shows that I’m not smart
  5. I really just hate Math.  I hope I don’t have to take more math classes, and I just need to get through this one

Behaviors:

  1. Because I don’t enjoy math or being exposed as “dumb,” I try to minimize the questions I ask in class…
  2. …I complete homework so I don’t fail, but I don’t try extremely hard, because I don’t want to show just how “dumb” I am.  If were to really try and still not understand, I would feel even worse
  3.  On the final exam, I get a “C”, and I might say things like “I got a ‘C’, but I passed without studying much”
  4. I never take another math class because a) I want to maintain a high GPA which shows that I’m smart and b) I don’t want to experience this again
  5. I probably don’t end up pursuing any career that has a healthy dose of math or is analytically based

Implications of a Growth Mindset

In a growth mindset, a student struggling with Pre-calculus may have a few beliefs that ultimately impacts greatly how he behaves and performs:

Beliefs:

  1. Pre-calculus is particularly hard for me (I get Cs and Ds)…
  2. …but apparently not for some of my friends (who get As and Bs)
  3. This is a real challenge.  I’m going to have to start studying a lot to learn this material.  I bet my friends getting As and Bs are studying a lot.
  4. When I answer questions incorrectly in class or get bad grades, it’s really frustrating, but at least I tried and I know what to work on
  5. I’m going to figure this out somehow, especially with my teacher offering time after class and if necessary, additional help from one or more sources (a friend, a tutor, etc.)

Behaviors

  1. I ask more questions in class
  2. I am fully engaged in the homework, seeking to understand what I’m hearing in class
  3.  On the final exam, I get a “B+”, and I might say things “I got a ‘B+’, and I earned it.”
  4. I take Calculus 1 because it’s another challenge and I enjoy taking on and meeting challenges, and it will look good on my college transcripts
  5. Careers that are math or otherwise analytically-based are still options for me

Upon reflection, most of MyGuru’s student do seem to clearly fit into one or the other mindset, although obviously there are many shades of grey.

What can you take away from an understanding of mindsets?

The most important thing to take away is the understanding that mindsets are powerful, and that having the “growth” oriented one is clearly preferred.  If your or your child’s mindset seems fixed, just knowing that there is another option is a big deal.  Try to think about activities, tasks and challenges through a different, growth oriented lens moving forward.  There are other specific strategies one can use to build a growth mindset, and Dweck covers them in her book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success – How We Can Learn to Fulfill Our Potential, by Carol S. Dweck, PhD.  For example, always praise effort, not intelligence – this builds a growth mindset over time.

If you found this discussion of mindsets interesting, please check out our new book 99th Percentile: A Guide to Excelling on Standardized Tests – by Mark Skoskiewicz, where you’ll find us arguing that the “growth mindset” is one of the key pillars to getting a 99th percentile ACT, SAT, GMAT, or GRE score.