“Does anyone have a growth mindset moment to share?”
I asked this question at the start of most of my first-year seminar courses last fall.
The project was a small part of my course and one that came about by chance. At the start of the semester, we discussed the theories behind various mindsets. Much of our discussion focused on the growth mindset concept outlined by Carol Dweck in her landmark work. We compared ideas connected to growth mindsets and fixed mindsets, discussing how individuals with growth mindsets embrace challenges whereas those with fixed mindsets avoid challenges. We talked about how growth mindset learners do not give up when facing obstacles, unlike fixed mindset learners, and the value of putting effort into their learning. We addressed how those with growth mindsets accept and learn from failure as opposed to those with fixed mindsets who cannot handle mistakes (Dweck).
In past classes, I have shared one of Dweck’s Ted Talks outlining her concepts—these are worth watching in class. This year, however, I took a slightly different approach. Since my class focuses on the journey of the hero, I filled slides with images of heroes, antiheroes, and villains. We then debated whether their favorite characters had growth or fixed mindsets. This led to an engaging discussion about whether Loki gives up when facing obstacles and if the Joker learns from the challenges he faces. Students shared captivating ideas about whether heroes or villains were more likely to possess a growth mindset.
Originally, I planned to ask the students to write about how they may maintain a growth mindset as they approach each of their first semester classes, most of which are part of the college’s core curriculum; however, we ran out of time. So, I improvised. Instead of writing about how they may maintain a growth mindset, I challenged students to look for growth mindset moments throughout their semester and then be ready to share them with the class. The assignment description stated the growth mindsets could focus on academic, emotional, or personal growth. It could be related to our class or a different class, to any sport, social activity, or club. The only stipulation was the moment had to show how the student embraced a growth mindset.
I started every class asking if students had growth mindset moments to share. Students were hesitant to share these growth mindset moments at first. When the room went silent, I moved on. Then, I started sharing growth mindset moments from my own life. I talked about lessons learned while walking my dog Finn and how watching my husband coach our son’s baseball team has taught me about moving forward despite failure. Pictures featuring my son and dog on slides helped bring these moments to life for the students.
Then, a hand went up. One student shared her experience working at a local hospital. A young boy, close to her age, was brought in over the weekend after suffering a head trauma. The student told the class how he had almost died, and the experience showed her how valuable life was and how quickly it could be taken away, even at a young age—a growth mindset moment.
Slowly, throughout the next few weeks, other students started to share their own growth mindset moments. Some students discussed how failing a math or chemistry test taught them they needed to seek the college’s free tutoring services. This was the perfect segue to remind students about the myriad of tutoring offered through our institution. Many students spoke about how they were getting overwhelmed with the work from various courses, mine included, and found a planner to help them manage their time and to document when assignments needed to be completed.
Students spoke about their experiences on various sporting teams. One golfer in class said he tried harder after not making the cut for a golf tournament. Other students spoke of the social challenges college can present. Students described how they learned to stop comparing themselves to others when it came to academic success. One student mentioned that in our class students receive points for participating in class-facilitated discussions, and by doing this, she learned that speaking up in class is not all that terrifying and found a voice to speak up in other classes.
My favorite growth mindset moment may have come in the middle of class. Students were working on research for their signature assignments. After I helped one student find an article and encouraged him to then read the article, he raised his hand. “Can I use this as a growth mindset moment?” he asked. I nodded. The student went on to describe how he had just learned that you have to read the sources you plan to use in your research, even if it is challenging. He had never approached research in this way before.
Several students were not comfortable sharing personal information in class, so they emailed me their growth mindset moments. One student spoke about the challenges with her family and how they showed her she needed space and cannot be everything to everybody.
Without prompting, many of the topics that came up in the growth mindset moments aligned with the topics we cover as part of our “learning to college” curriculum in first-year seminars. I believe the ideas shared also aligned with general principles about learning to be a good human.
While I never intended to open each class asking students if they had growth mindset moments to share, I am glad I did. The sharing of small moments from my students’ lives helped invite dialogues about succeeding in college and in life. The moments challenged students to view their first semesters through a different lens and to frame each obstacle as a potential for growth. Pay attention, I told the students, what happens this semester will teach you about who you are and how you can make the most of your college education. Pay attention, I told myself, there is always room to grow.
Nickolena Kassolis Herdson is an adjunct faculty member of the Communication and Writing Department at York College of Pennsylvania. She also teaches in the college’s first-year seminar program.
Dweck, C. (2007) Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. Ballantine Books. New York.