Leveraging Mindsets to Promote Academic Achievement Policy Recommendations

This rope merely touched TyTy’s leg, but he thought he was stuck. He thought he needed help to escape. Rather than come to his immediate aid, however, my wife (horse trainer, Elisa Wallace) encouraged him to overcome his self-imposed obstacles and experience the liberty that was his all along.

Carol Dweck’s mindset research has tremendous potential to change higher education from the student up, addressing a major cause of attrition in universities. In a nutshell, Dweck famously compares the growth mindset to the fixed mindset. The latter views human beings as essentially unchangeable in terms of their personality and capabilities. For people with the fixed mindset, failure is a sign that a particular task is outside of the scope of one’s natural talent, and so not worth pursuing further. For people with the growth mindset, on the other hand, capacities are the result, not of talent, but rather as a result of hard work. From this perspective, failure is not a reason to give up, but rather an opportunity to persist. The good news is that mindset itself is not fixed. Dweck and her colleagues have dedicated their careers to understanding mindset, and to exploring mechanisms and strategies by which it might be changed.

I know many students who have dropped out of school because they thought they just weren’t smart enough. These are the same people who say things like “I’ll know when I’ve found what I am supposed to do when I try it for the first time and it comes easily.”

I certainly see the value of credentials. It would be silly to say that an undergraduate degree, qua degree didn’t function as a ticket to participation in middle class society (regardless of the skills, habits, and knowledges that students acquire on their way to that credential, which vary wildly). But increasing the proliferation of credentials is not nearly as important as working with students to overcome psychological hurdles that limit their ability to exercise their imaginations, take important risks, and contract their full humanity as creative agents.

Dweck’s mindset research reminds me of the words of Pico della Mirandola in On the Dignity of Man:

Imagine! The great generosity of God! The happiness of man! To man it is allowed to be whatever he chooses to be! As soon as an animal is born, it brings out of its mother’s womb all that it will ever possess. Spiritual beings from the beginning become what they are to be for all eternity. Man, when he entered life, the Father gave the seeds of every kind and every way of life possible. Whatever seeds each man sows and cultivates will grow and bear him their proper fruit. If these seeds are vegetative, he will be like a plant. If these seeds are sensitive, he will be like an animal. If these seeds are intellectual, he will be an angel and the son of God. And if, satisfied with no created thing, he removes himself to the center of his own unity, his spiritual soul, united with God, alone in the darkness of God, who is above all things, he will surpass every created thing. Who could not help but admire this great shape-shifter? In fact, how could one admire anything else? . . .

The implications of mindsets for academic policy are explored by Aneeta Rattan Krishna Savani, Dolly Chugh, and Carol Dweck in Leveraging Mindsets to Promote Academic Achievement: Policy Recommendations, Perspectives on Psychological Science, 2015, Vol. 10(6) 721-726.