Author: Neil Cole, Academic Advising Support Coordinator, University of New Brunswick
This piece builds upon another – Mindset and Grit – The Keys to Unlocking Student Success? – which I invite you to read before continuing with this piece.
In my first article, I briefly review the concepts of mindset and grit and then provide the reader with some short-but-informative resources. If those resources entice you to learn more, then I recommend reading both Mindset and Grit to continue building your knowledge of these concepts and their related strategies. They are applicable to nearly all aspects of life, making this research useful for our students, but also for ourselves.
Okay, so we know what mindset and grit mean, and we know that they are important to helping our students achieve academic and personal success. But have you been struggling with way to apply these to your professional practice in easy and meaningful ways? I offer these suggestions below to get you started.
Mindset and Attitude
Some students may not respond to the notion of “fixed mindset” vs “growth mindset”, but they may recognize the importance of a “student mindset”. If you have these students in your caseload (which is almost guaranteed), you can adapt your terminology, because a “student mindset” and a “growth mindset” are both “learning mindsets”. Occasionally, we need to change our terms to match our audiences, but that doesn’t mean we need to abandon the effort to foster learning and growth centered mindsets in our students and among our colleagues. If all else fails, you can even peel back the concept to “attitude”—what is the student’s attitude toward learning, failure, etc.?
For many academic advisors and coaches, applying individualized tactics to particular students is how we open them up to thinking differently about new things, while building rapport, and connecting them to their goals, interests, and values.
In my advising and teaching practice, I continue to use the terms of grit and growth mindset, but for students who are less responsive to these concepts, I will use “student mindset” and “attitude”. I will admit that I have had varying results with these students; some will not adopt a student mindset, no matter what we try and how hard we try it. This can be for a variety of reasons, and using mindset-based strategies may help discover why. This is also when you would incorporated other advising approaches and strategies, such as Appreciative Advising, motivational interviewing, and other forms of open-ended questioning, but that is a topic for another article.
So despite your best efforts, “you may lead a horse to water, but you cannot make it drink”. No matter what we do, a student may resist our advice and suggested strategies. That is okay, because you have a growth mindset and you know this doesn’t mean you have failed your student. This is because, ultimately, they are responsible for their own education.
Responsibility for Learning
This is probably going to be intuitive for most readers: students are responsible for their own learning. We are responsible for teaching them well, supporting them when necessary, and advising them appropriately – but only the student holds the keys to unlocking the door to student success, and only the student can walk through that door once opened. But the same student can just as easily close that door.
We are here to help our students along the way, but doing the school work is their responsibility. But how many of our students fully realize this when stepping on to campus or when walking into class? We should avoid assuming that all of our students understand the expectations of college or university life, especially with first-generation and other “non-traditional” learners. We are responsible for helping these learn about and access the services and resources that maximize their success, and that success is their responsibility, but we need to collectively eliminate any potential barriers students may face, which includes clearly communicating to them their responsibilities as a student.
Helping our students recognize the responsibility they have for their learning is a part of a growth mindset and helps them (and us) overcome a fixed mindset. Research from the field has shown that students with fixed mindsets are generally the ones who “make excuses” for their failures and academic challenges… and we’ve heard all of these excuses before.
Foster Student Grit and Mindset Through Personal Grit and Mindset
In order to genuinely foster growth-minded and “gritty” students who work hard at their studies, apply effective learning strategies, and persevere in the face of a challenge, we must also be gritty and growth-minded as their mentors and teachers. This means adopting for ourselves, as university and college professionals, that the attitude we have about the things we do is an integral component of how we do that work and how we respond to its success/failure. One important “response mechanism” is our internal voice – what we say to ourselves when encountering success and/or failure.
Inner Voice / Internal Monologue / Self-Talk – as a Catalyst for Growth
Psychology Today explains that self-talk around the human experience generally tends to be negative and fixed: “I can’t do anything!”, “I’m a failure!”, etc. This can be damaging for the students we are supporting as we guide them through their academic experiences.
One way to leverage a gritty, growth mindset is to help our students understand their inner voice, how it affects and shapes their daily interactions, and how it can be a powerful catalyst for change.
Instead of “I can’t do that”, we should encourage easy changes in an internal monologue to “I can’t do that, yet.” There are some free resources online to help develop this strategy further (trying Googling “growth mindset phrases”).
The Power of Yet
Your student does poorly on a paper, comes to you and says, “I can’t do this. I can’t write term papers that get good grades.” Leveraging the “power of yet”, you may respond by saying “your term papers don’t get good grades yet… what can you do to learn how to write your term papers better?” A discussion will ensue that hopefully includes “visit the Writing Centre until you are comfortable with the grade you are getting (or the Writing Centre asks you stop bring your papers in because they have gotten so good).”
Phrases to Use, Phrases to Avoid
If you have become a growth mindset advocate, it is important to continuously be aware of the phrases we use when teaching, advising, and mentoring our students.
Fixed Mindset: Look at how well you did on that term paper. You are so smart!
Growth Mindset: Look at how well you did on that term paper. You must have worked hard at it.
Fixed Mindset: I can’t swim.
Growth Mindset: I can’t swim yet, but I’ve signed up for lesson so I can learn.
Fixed Mindset: I’m a failure!
Growth Mindset: Well that didn’t go as planned. Let’s try a different strategy.
Fixed mindset phrases are generally associated with identity. Your ability and your identity are fixed together. On the other hand, growth mindset phrases focus on effort and strategy: how much effort was required to do well at the task in question, and what strategies were used or required to maximize that effort.
One caveat: There two forms of fixed mindset, and I have focused on only one of them: the failure fixed mindset. There is also the “success fixed mindset”, and you’ll like see this predominantly in young, male students. Instead of attitudes like “I can’t do it”, a “success fixed mindset” uses phrases like “I’m awesome at this!” or “I’m the best!” and “I’m so smart!!”
These are actually the more dangerous fixed mindsets because they generally stem from a combination of 1) lack of skill/knowledge in a discipline, and 2) over-confidence in one’s ability in that discipline. The result is often a failure under-performing compared to expectation. No matter which fixed mindset phrase comes next – “I’m still so smart” or “I can’t do that after all” – the result is still a fixed mindset
One more pillar for this article is mindfulness: be mindful and aware of your mental health and your students’ mental health. It is hard to be gritty and growth minded when we are mentally and cognitively exhausted, and/or experiencing toxic stress. Being aware of this in ourselves helps us be aware of this in our students. Life is complex and difficult after all, and a part of being a student is experiencing this difficulty while learning to navigate and overcome struggles. That’s exactly what grit and growth mindset are all about!
Tyler Hall, from Dalhousie University, has provided us with some great mindfulness resources that help us understand clearly what this it means and how to practice it.