Growth Mindset Misconception

Science has settled the inherent benefits of adopting a growth mindset, vs. the unnecessary burdens associated with the all too common paradigms that limit us with a fixed mindset. However, this shouldn’t lead us to conclude that we’ve discovered a silver bullet to learning. Like most valuable scientific insights that demonstrate how we can improve our ability to learn, this is a component within a complex ecosystem, which must be understood holistically if it is to be improved meaningfully for anyone.

By the time a student enters college, they have accumulated a lifetime of experiences that have shaped their attitudes toward learning and their mindset concerning success and failure. A considerable challenge facing community colleges is the percentage of students who enter with a negative attitude towards learning and “fixed mindset” when it comes to their effort and ability.

It may be difficult for educators to manage unmotivated students, but it is not difficult to understand why a student who has experienced consistent failure would feel negatively towards learning. After all, it is rational to stop doing something that continues to produce failure and negativity.

Failure is psychologically undesirable and generally avoided in the classroom at all costs. This can manifest as disruptive or distracting behaviors, or as a lack of engagement.  Yet, it is highly atypical for students to fail without good reason. For example, a student may be living with weaknesses or gaps in cognition that inhibit their ability to learn. Asking this student to be motivated and to continue trying can be ineffective and even harmful. Instead, if a growth mindset can be tapped into in tandem with an effective approach to address the underlying cognitive issues, a real shift can occur.

It is also important to note the role of stereotype threat, particularly on community college campuses where insecurities regarding intelligence and rank are often cause and effect. The basic notion of the stereotype threat is that belonging to a group whose intellectual abilities are considered inferior negatively impacts an individual’s performance. Stereotype threat is in fact a manifestation of a fixed mindset, with these students believing their intelligence and their performance is attributed to something inherent rather than being malleable and the outcome of effort. It is not uncommon for stereotype threat to drive students to “disidentify” from academics &/or to do the very minimum that is required.2

Carol Dweck’s “growth versus fixed mindset” helps explain why some students achieve their potential while others do not. The answer, it turns out, is largely explained by one’s perception of failure and specifically how this failure is attributed. While many students overcome obstacles with an inherit appetite for challenge, others view challenges and setbacks as personal threats and do whatever they can to remove themselves from this discomfort.1

Educators across the globe are familiar with the growth vs. fixed mindset dichotomy proposed by Dweck. However, some educators falsely assume that these traits are inherent to an individual, and they fail to recognize that a growth mindset can be developed in all students.

Dweck identifies 3 easy ways we can help students develop a growth mindset:

  1. Emphasize the challenge, not the “success”
  2. Give a sense of progress
  3. Grade for growth, not for mastery3

A growth mindset is a prerequisite for success in a COGx intervention, and it is fostered throughout every program through an alliance between the student and the COGx professional.  Students who have formerly internalized setbacks as failures learn that this approach won’t work – each session holds a challenge that is within reach, and whether one improves or not is a product of effort.  Effort is rewarded, not only through positive feedback, but also intrinsically as students who many not have a history of success begin to adjust their mindset and see setbacks as something from which to learn.  Process is emphasized over outcome, and over time, students who once relied on avoidance tactics begin to crave the challenge that training presents and begin to identify resistance and effort as a positive outcome of learning and experience rather than failure.


1: Diener, Carol I., and Carol S. Dweck. “An Analysis of Learned Helplessness: II. The Processing of Success.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 39.5 (1980): 940-52. Web.

2: Aronson, Joshua, Carrie B. Fried, and Catherine Good. “Reducing the Effects of Stereotype Threat on African American College Students by Shaping Theories of Intelligence.” Journal of Experimental Social Psychology (2001): Academic Press. Web.

3: Stanford Alumni. “Carol Dweck, ‘Developing a Growth Mindset.’” YouTube, YouTube, 9 Oct. 2014,