A Mindset Workshop

jpegI’ve recently gotten turned on to the concept of Mindset and how it influences the way my students (and I) respond to challenges and successes, and generally learn.  The basic idea, developed out of an extensive body of educational psychology research by Carol Dweck and others, is that our interaction with the world lies on the spectrum between two poles: a fixed mindset and a growth mindset. And where we sit on this spectrum in our various spheres in life – academics, work, relationships – can have a profound impact on our happiness, ability to persist in challenges, and success.

What is Mindset?

According to the Mindset Theory, those with a fixed mindset believe that innate qualities like intelligence, talent, personality, etc. are established and unchanging; they define who we are. This is a common perspective in our culture: consider the “natural athlete”, the “born artist”, or the “honors student”. Fixed mindset is modeled early to children through the fixed personalities of cartoon characters such as the Care Bears, the Smurfs, or GI Joe; and when we are praised for being smart or condemned for being incompetent – qualities that in a fixed mindset we cannot change.

In contrast, those with a growth mindset believe these qualities are changeable and can be developed. Support for this idea is ascribed to recent results in neuroplasticity, which show that our brains, even at mature ages, continue to grow and reconfigure themselves in response to training.  In the growth mindset world, there are no “natural athletes” or “born geniuses”, just folks who worked really hard to hone their skills. Maybe the closest cultural analogy is the “rags to riches” story (although I have issues with the implicit individualism of this myth). Unfortunately, when we talk about the “most talented” individuals – Einstein, Mozart & Michael Jordan – we tend to ignore their path of growth.  We think people are born great.  It ain’t necessarily so.

Why does this matter? It turns out that folks with fixed mindset pay a heavy price for this perspective.  If you believe your talents are fixed, no matter how high performing you are, at some point you run into a limit – a problem you can’t solve, a dance you cannot master. At this stage the fixed mindset has a few not-so-great alternatives: lie, get angry, or quit. As a teacher, I see these reactions frequently. On the other hand, with a growth mindset this barrier becomes a challenge, and hence an opportunity for growth.  If you’re dying to master surfing no matter how clumsy you feel you may be, you’re experiencing growth mindset. If you think surfing is too hard and therefore for the fishes, you’re in the fixed mindset pool.

Having a growth mindset doesn’t guarantee success. There are genetic endowments (at 5’5″ I am unlikely to play in the NBA), socioeconomic and cultural advantages, and other factors that help individuals become successful. For someone with fixed mindset, lacking in these advantages can be permanently limiting; in growth mindset, they can be overcome.  Research by Dweck and others show that negative issues many students face (particularly those from underrepresented groups), such as stereotype threat, imposter syndrome, and disparities in standardized test scores, can all be mitigated when growth mindset is present.

The main difference I see between fixed and growth mindset is that in the latter, achievement is not the end goal; progress is.  Learners are growth mindset; award seekers are fixed mindset. Today’s focus on “everyone gets an award” plays into the fixed mindset, and Alfie Kohn has demonstrated the dangers of praise to children. Awards are not necessarily bad, but focusing on the award rather than the growth, causes us to loss sight of why we put in effort in the first place.

I personally got interested in Mindset because of a challenging advising relationship. Both my student and I were frustrated over our communication; I felt too little progress was being made; she felt I was being overly judgmental and condescending. The truth is that we both approached our student-advisor relationship from fixed mindset perspectives. Thinking more deeply, I realized I had fixed mindset behavior all over the place: fear of changing research topics, stalking my own bibliometrics, anger over someone not citing my work, self-abuse over not getting a paper done – sound familiar? All of these are the non-productive reactions of a fixed mindset scientist.

Fortunately, the most important outcome of mindset research is that fixed mindset doesn’t have to be fixed. Anyone can be taught growth mindset by becoming aware of it and learning strategies to replace fixed mindset responses to both setbacks and successes with growth mindset ones.


After reading Dweck’s 2006 Mindset book, I was inspired to introduce my (13!) summer research students to this issue, so I developed a quick 1.5 hour workshop based on the book. Materials and a facilitation guide for this workshop can be found here if you want to try it on your own:


The basic structure of the workshop is:

  • Mindset quiz (measuring degree of fixed/growth)
  • Introduction to what mindset is, why it’s important
  • “Jigsaw” on readings from Dweck book
  • Video clips illustrating fixed and growth mindsets and a brainstorm on the characteristics of these
  • Poster & present: Situational responses from fixed and growth mindset perspectives
  • Summary and affirmation that mindset can be changed
  • Personal reflections

I revealing observation right off the bat is that, for my group of high-performing students, there is a quite a range of mindset on intelligence and talent, as plotted below. While growth was a dominant feature, many of the research students exhibit fixed mindset perspectives. This does not make them any less capable, but it may limit their perseverance when the going gets tough.


The videos we used to identify characteristics of fixed and growth mindset were, admittedly, a bit contrived (see fixed & growth), but we generated quite a long list of traits for each. These helped guide the situational examples, which were very useful practice in developing growth mindset responses. Here’s the resulting poster for the situation: “You advisor told you your analysis is complete wrong and you have to redo” (which never happens, right?)


Perhaps most illuminating were some of the personal reflections:

“When I entered high school, I scored the highest of an applicant on my high school’s entrance test, and I believed this was because I was smarter than everyone else. Instead I could have thought about the experience I had taking the SAT as a 7th and 8th grader and recognized that the challenge of taking those likely helped me succeed on the entrance exam.”

“When I was in high school I had a fixed mindset because I only challenged myself in physics and math. And when I didn’t do well in other subjects or tests I would say ‘Oh well, I did not try or it doesn’t reflect my intelligence’ (not taking responsibility).”

“I was a community college student, used to a 4.0 GPA, excelling in all my classes. Once I transferred I found out I was no longer the big fish in a small bowl. Things were hard, classes tough, I was living away from home for the first time. I was ready to give up. I flet like I wasn’t smart enough and that I did not belong in any of my physics classes. I should’ve responded in a more ‘growth’ mindset way: willing to take on new challenges, not afraid of asking for help, admitting that I wasn’t the smartest person in the room anymore, wanting to learn new things from others!”

“Its…refreshing to hear that I am not the only one with this mindset and that even my professors acknowledge these issues.”


Some Additional Resources


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