Want Your Students to Be More Engaged, Take More Risks, and Get Better Grades? Here’s Why Your Mindset Matters.

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If you’ve read any articles online in the last few years about learning or resilience, you’ve probably come across some reference to the work of Carol Dweck, and idea of a growth vs. fixed mindset.

This is where believing that intelligence is changeable and can be developed (i.e. a growth mindset) is associated with better learning, performance, and perseverance. Whereas believing that intelligence or talent is something innate that we either have or don’t have (i.e. a fixed mindset) is associated with a tendency to focus on proving ourselves, and avoiding learning risks or challenges that could make us look bad (here’s a great 3-minute video where Dweck illustrates this concept ).

We’ve looked at some of this research before, but it’s always been centered around how one’s mindset affects one’s own learning experience. We’ve never looked at how our mindset might affect the learning experience of others. Specifically, our students.

And how big a deal is this really?

Well, author and educator Parker J. Palmer, once said something that I always found rather intriguing. He says in this video that “we teach who we are.”

So, if this is true, it probably wouldn’t be such a bad idea to take a look at what sort of effect our mindset may have on our students. And this is exactly what a team of researchers from five different universities came together to study (Muenks et al., 2020).

And, spoiler alert, it’s a bigger deal than you might think. Let’s take a look…

37 intro STEM classes

The team recruited 902 first and second-year undergraduate students, all from a large, midwestern university, and who were enrolled in one of 37 intro-level math, science, and engineering classes.

Somewhere between the 2nd to 4th week of the semester, participants were asked to complete a survey that asked how they perceived their professor’s “mindset beliefs, warmth, and competence.” Which asked how “competent and smart” the professor seemed, how “warm, friendly, and mean” they were, and included items like “The professor in this class seems to believe that students have a certain amount of intelligence, and they really can’t do much to change it.”

Psychological vulnerability?

Then, starting around the 6th or 7th week of the semester, students began receiving text messages right after class, with a survey to complete right then and there. Which included questions to gauge their sense of psychological vulnerability. 

As in, did they feel like they belonged (“How much do you feel that you ‘fit in’ during this class?”)?

Or did they feel like an imposter (“I feel like people might find out that I am not as capable as they think I am.”􏰁)?

Were they afraid of being evaluated negatively by others (“How much do you worry that you might say the wrong thing in class?”)? 

And did they feel nervous/anxious/stressed in class (“In this class, I feel nervous, distressed, upset”)?

Attendance, interest, and grades

At the end of the semester, participants completed one final survey, where they reported on their attendance for the semester, how often they thought about dropping out of the class, and how interested they were in the class, as well as the broader field of study. Their grades were also obtained from the school’s records.

And what did the researchers find?

Results

Well, the short answer is that students’ perception of their professors’ mindsets did have a pretty meaningful effect. Not just in terms of how much they enjoyed being in class, but also in their attendance, and ultimately, in the grade they received at the end of the semester too.

Specifically, the more strongly they perceived their professor to have a fixed mindset, the less they felt they fit in, the more imposter feelings they had, and the more they worried about being evaluated negatively by their professor or classmates.

This heightened sense of psychological vulnerability – especially their sense of belonging and imposter feelings – was in turn linked to lower attendance, more frequent thoughts about dropping the course, and lower grades.

So what are we to take away from all of this?

Takeaways

I’m guessing that what we learned from today’s study approaches only a tiny part of what Palmer meant when he said that “we teach who we are.” But still, I think it’s pretty fascinating how our beliefs about learning, talent, and intelligence, can seep into our teaching in very subtle and indirect ways that we may not even realize. Which can in turn have a meaningful impact on students’ lives.

Not just in their sense of belonging in the classroom, or in their confidence, or how engaged they become with the subject matter, or how they respond to challenges, but possibly even in terms of the career path they take. Where we might inadvertently either close off, or open up, a potential future to students.

The big question of course, is what are the subtle things we do that communicate these beliefs?

The authors acknowledge that this is an important area for future research to explore, as this particular study didn’t aim to answer that question directly. But there are some other studies that have looked at at least some parts of this question, so we’ll explore that a bit more next week. =) Specifically, how the well-intentioned ways in which we might try to comfort or console a struggling student can sometimes do more harm than good.

What subtle messages have you received?

But in the meantime, I wondered if we might be able to crowdsource some of those subtle messages here. As in, what have authority figures in your own life said or done that projected a fixed mindset, and gave you the impression that success was a function of having talent and being “special?”

Or alternately, what have important people in your life said or done that projected a growth mindset? Subtle things that made you feel hopeful? And that they believed in your ability to learn and grow?

I’d be curious to learn more about what some of these messages sounded or looked like, if you feel comfortable sharing them in the comment section below. Anonymously is totally fine, and no need to name names either, of course!


References

Muenks, K., Canning, E. A., LaCosse, J., Green, D. J., Zirkel, S., Garcia, J. A., & Murphy, M. C. (2020). Does my professor think my ability can change? Students’ perceptions of their STEM professors’ mindset beliefs predict their psychological vulnerability, engagement, and performance in class. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 149(11), 2119–2144. https://doi.org/10.1037/xge0000763

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Comments

17 Responses

  1. My parents were my strongest support system, always encouraging and positive towards whatever activity I was involved with. Initially, on being faced with two hand playing and independence of hands required, I was frustrated and felt my study of piano would end. My Mom listened to my frustration and said, “Your teacher would never ask you to do something that was too hard for you. You just need to work some more.” Sure enough, about another 45 minutes of practice and the skill was mastered (with pride). I’ve used that quote with some of my students who felt like they had “hit a brick wall.” Just knowing that someone thinks you can accomplish something that you think is impossible is a giant motivator to keep trying. And as a teacher, to be creative to teach in more than one way if that way is not working for a student, is the ultimate reward for both when success is achieved.

  2. First semester in college, I loved my experimental biology class but got a D on the first exam. When I went for help, the professor said, “You can’t just read to learn this material. You must draw pictures and work with them until the knowledge becomes part of you.” He was such an inspiring teacher that I took organic chemistry, calculus, and physics in order to enroll in his advanced class a few years later. The calc teachers had the most fixed mindsets, “You’ll either get this or you won’t. Probably won’t.” Now retired from a long career of teaching math and science, I am learning to play violin, and “working with the pictures” consists of practice techniques like varying rhythms and dynamics and practicing small parts before putting the whole together.

  3. I can’t say that I ever had a teacher take a particular interest in me, or in helping me. But my one memory of my dad sticks out. I came home with a 97 on a particularly tough test, and was happy to have that, until he said, why didn’t you get 100? Blew my bubble, my confidence, my trust. He might have thought he was saying in jest, but, it sure didn’t go down that way.

  4. As an example of fixed mindset, when I was a flute major at university I had a teacher for my final two years who would say things like “why can’t you do this?”; “just play it like this”; “this should be easy”; “you’re not practising hard enough”; “I don’t understand what your problem is” etc. etc. Needless to say, I was turned off instrumental music making and when I graduated, in 1975, my flutes ended up in the back of my closet where they’re still gathering dust today! Since then, I can count on the fingers of one hand the number of times I’ve played. As a side note, the last time was this past summer and there’s still something there! So maybe if/when I retire, I’ll start again! My music career pivoted and I became a professional choral singer and now, for the last 30 years a singing teacher.

    To contrast that with a growth mindset, I’ve had several singing teachers over my career who enthusiastically encouraged me to attend various workshops, seminars, masterclasses etc. which they found to be very helpful in their own lives as educators and performers. They all thought of themselves as life-long learners and inspired me to become a curious student of the voice. Now, it’s my turn to inspire and invite my own students to join me in attending webinars, workshops, conferences etc. where we can all be at the same table as equals acquiring new knowledge and sharing experiences.

  5. My mentor told me “Some people just have to practice more than others.” And the very last thing he said to me was “keep doing what you’re doing”. He passed 10 years ago. He was the best music teacher I’ve ever had.

  6. Well, not exactly what your question was, but as a freelance musician playing at different orchestras, I always felt all the pressure and judgement disappear at the orchestras where I had friends, colleagues, whereas in places where I knew no one or didn’t have a personal relationship with any of the musicians there, I had a hard time trying to stop anxiety from getting the best of me.

    Now, more related to your question: I remember at school, I was always top of the class, and some students would ask me how did I do it because they were failing and didn’t know what to do.
    The thing is they will have us seat in the classroom according to our scores on the exams, so I was always seated at the front while the ones who failed were at the last row on the classroom. How is that for a pedagogical approach? These poor kids were constantly reminded that they were not good and nobody told them how to work so they could improve.
    At least, for me it was an inspiration to be a much better teacher than they were.

  7. In terms of academic studies, throughout my life it was a mixed bag of professors / teachers having fixed or growth mindset. I’m happy to say that my piano teacher now (I’m an amateur musician) is one of the best – after every lesson I always feel like I can succeed, and I’m highly motivated to keep going. In the area of athletics, which I pursued through high school, I’d have to say that every coach I ever had was of a fixed mindset. I say that not just because of how I was treated, but observing the treatment of other non-star athletes. Sad, but true.

    1. I moved from a country town into a much larger city to do my undergraduate degree in music. One week early on I was a rambling mess in my lesson, overwhelmed at how far I was behind the students who’d grown up there, playing in orchestras, being around other musicians, knowing the standard repertoire, being around the professors and musical programs. My teacher looked at me and said ‘Well, yes, but that’s why we’re here’ and I was completely taken aback by how ok it was to be at the level I was at, and just work on getting myself better than I was before.

      While much of my study outside of lessons was not encouraging like this was, the moment stuck with me. I tell my students about it when they’re worried about other students being better than them.

  8. I think the growth mindset is so important. The notion of fixed talent has hurt so many people: I have students who come to me as adults saying they want to take singing lessons and have always loved singing but were told as a child they couldn’t sing. They were really hurt and then years of happy singing were totally lost. Strangely though, in my research for my book on music, I came across this very recent article that finds that the correlation between “grit” and the fixed mindset is higher than that of the growth mindset. Interesting read: https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/pdf/10.1177/2059204321989529. If the link doesn’t show up, the article is What Does it Take to Flow? Investigating Links Between Grit, Growth Mindset, and Flow in Musicians, by Jasmine Tan, Kelly Yap and Joydeep Bhattacharya, published in SAGE’s Music & Science, Volume 4: 1–11.

    1. Interesting indeed, thanks for posting Lorraine! I thought the cultural piece and range of music training were interesting variables too. Would be interesting to see if the findings would be similar or different for different populations.

  9. I moved from a small country town to a capital city to study music. In one of lessons early on in first year, I turned up to my lesson a rambling mess- I was so overwhelmed with how far behind I was compared to my peers. They’d been in youth orchestras, music focussed high schools, learned from the professors before uni. They had so much more knowledge about repertoire than I did, knew how to navigate the world, and I was like a deer in the headlights. I told my teacher and he looked at me and said ‘Well, yes, but that’s why we’re here’. I was dumbfounded by how ok it was to be where I was and focus on getting myself better and better than my previous self.

    Much of the uni environment did not share that mentality, but my goodness, that conversation got me over many hurdles.

  10. Thank you! I think my teacher has quite a fixed mindset in that he sees some students more “intelligent” or capable of learning more than some others. But for all students he is really demanding and always giving challenges, he is not very much complimenting even the students he thinks are “better”. He often says things to me like “as you are smart and you will be able to understand this, …” in the lessons. These are always followed with something I should learn. Would you think it will also affect me negatively that he has this fixed mindset, even if he kind of sees me in a positive way, as “intelligent” and because of that, able to learn much more and improve my skills? I feel also like he sees behind my rather bad technique on my instrument and believes in me.

  11. Some well-meaning teachers told me I was doing fine when I wasn’t, or at least I didn’t think so. They didn’t hold me to high standards, and I received the message that it was ok for me to not meet those standards, because I couldn’t. Consequently, I developed a fixed mindset and very low confidence. It’s taken me a long time to realize that I am capable of a lot more than my teachers led me to believe, and to start to overcome some of the things that were in my way. I think it’s better in the long term to hold students to high standards, even if it makes them, or us, uncomfortable uncomfortable in the short term.

  12. In my 30s I decided to switch careers and return to school to study piano. I failed my first audition. Part of the problem was nerves with shaking hands, memory issues etc. I hadn’t played for anyone in over 10 years. But that was only part of the problem. The teacher I studied with afterwards asked the department why they didn’t take me. The answer she got was that if I had been a typical 18-year old freshman, they would have had no problem taking me. But since I was older, I wouldn’t be able to learn as well. I re-auditioned after a few months and did get accepted, but I never got over the “you’re too old to learn” comment.
    In another instance, I once played for a choir rehearsal and did a poor job following the conductor (also my professor). Instead of teaching me how to do better I was told I simply wouldn’t be allowed to play for other rehearsals. I’ve since played for other choirs and ensembles, but I’m always afraid I’m doing it wrong.
    And now with a career that isn’t panning out the way I had hoped, I can’t help thinking they were right. Having a growth mindset can get someone farther along, but it can’t get everyone to where they want to be or need to be to be successful.

    1. I want to say that even entering at age 18, I have had similar experiences. Don’t stop! It is a loss for the fixed-mindset-folks that they don’t get to work with you – someone who had the courage to take up a demanding and intimidating field when others would just dream of what “could have been.”

      Your music is needed in this world. You are always learning, discovering. The right opportunities will come. Or you will make them.

  13. At 13, I read the Autobiography of Malcolm X, in which he talks about a teacher who dumped on his aspiration to grow up to be a lawyer. In that case, racism was the teacher’s flaw but we see that teachers can do the same thing for other reasons. Anyway, the book put me on the lookout, so when I encountered that race-based fixed mindset in college–fairly frequently–I just brushed it off and chalked it up to gaps in my professors’ education and life experience.

    Later, as a writing student, I thought my primary teachers were Beethoven, Mark Twain, E.M. Forster, Richard Wright, and James Baldwin, and my writing instructors were just teaching assistants. Even if they were highly acclaimed, I thought, “yeah, but you’re not Mark Twain.” And they dealt with it.

    I wish I could talk to Scriabin about his relationship with the professor at the Moscow Conservatory who flunked him out of composition class–poor, poor man. I’d ask if he learned anything from Arensky despite the fights, or was it a total waste. I’m going to guess Scriabin would say “Oh, I learned a lot from him. I parsed the good from the crap, and kept the good. But I wasn’t going to be his donkey.” How I wish I could have heard those fights.

  14. I had a potential teacher in college that suggested a church music degree instead of music education after she heard my audition, and she gave me to another teacher, which I think in the long run was better for me, but that started my college experience off in a way that made me think I was sub-par. I have other experiences with other teachers and students who also gave me that impression, even though I graduated with that music education degree. I know I’m not the strongest pianist that went there by a long shot, and maybe I’m not the weakest, but I’ve always felt that way. There was another teacher there who taught brass and percussion that I had to take a class from, and we had to play trumpet and trombone, each for a half semester in that class, and I loved it. Well, I kind of hated trumpet haha, but I loved playing trombone in comparison. That teacher encouraged us to play in his ensembles (band, brass ensemble, pep band). And I and others who were pianists did, even though we barely knew what we were doing, but we really loved doing it for the year that we got to do it. And that teacher knew we were beginners but always encouraged us to play and learn and grow, and I will never forget that and will always appreciate it. I sincerely hope and pray that I am that kind of teacher to my students, and I would like to say that I am, at least most of the time, because I always push them to grow and get better, and I like to point out their improvements.

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