A common societal belief says that high achievers are born with superior talent, intelligence or other gifts and that success in life comes readily to those who “have it” (whatever “it” is), but not to those who don’t. Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck suggests that this way of thinking—which she refers to as a “fixed mindset”—leads to a lot of unnecessary anxiety and prevents otherwise capable students from succeeding academically.*
This fixed mindset creates a mental trap. Students who believe that academic success comes from having innate intelligence but experience failures in school tend to see these failures as evidence that they are not “smart” enough and therefore not able to succeed. Poor test scores, negative feedback, or failure to meet personal expectations create discouragement. Since admitting imperfection suggests personal inadequacy, those with this mindset resist asking for help or changing the way they work.
On the flipside, people with a growth mindset believe that achievement comes through incremental improvement. They believe that learning comes from ongoing, step-by-step effort rather than as the result of talent they either have or do not have. They know that mistakes are part of learning, but like a child learning to walk, they are eager to learn from mistakes and keep moving forward. They accept imperfection and see learning as a process of continual improvement, not an evaluation of their character or personal worth. Consequently, they are less distressed by setbacks and less embarrassed about sharing mistakes or consulting with others in their efforts to improve.
Mindset among BYU freshmen
Many freshmen come to BYU with a fixed mindset. Their success in high school may be due more to native talent and intelligence than perseverance and hard work. They may overestimate their abilities and underestimate the drive it takes to succeed in college. When they fail a test or get a poor grade on a paper, especially multiple times, they may think “I just can’t learn” or “I don’t belong here.” They can become emotionally and psychologically paralyzed, not knowing how to move forward or ask for help.
Others come with the growth mindset. They see setbacks not as evidence of personal inadequacy, but as opportunities to learn or indications that they should try something different. If they fail a test, they choose to study harder or differently next time. When they get a poor grade, they think about ways to improve. Rather than conclude “I can’t learn” they say “I haven’t learned this yet but I can.” They adapt their study and work habits as needed and seek out help without embarrassment.
Effects of mindset and what you can do to help
Whatever mindset students come to BYU with is especially prevalent at mid-terms and the end of the semester. Students who have allowed setbacks to discourage or paralyze them may decide not to take finals or finish projects. They may need strong encouragement to keep them from giving up. They may need help evaluating their study methods and habits to identify ways they can improve. They may benefit from a visit with a faculty member or campus counselor. Those who have learned to adapt and let setbacks suggest ways to improve may just need encouragement to keep going.
While our understanding of the role of mindsets among first-year students is incomplete, what we know strongly suggests that intelligence and other abilities alone do not guarantee success. Effort and willingness to engage in the process of learning—including accepting imperfection, learning from setbacks and actively seeking counsel and correction—are vital for success in the first year. Understanding and developing a growth mindset could be the most important thing your student learns from their experiences at BYU.
Steve Wygant earned his PhD in Psychology from BYU in 1993. He taught Psychology at Fort Hays State University, Eastern Oregon University and BYU before joining the office of Institutional Assessment and Analysis at BYU in 1998. He enjoys time with his family, nature photography and a good jazz band.