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Mindsets and Resistance to Learning

Tomorrow's Teaching and Learning

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Students with a fixed mindset, when given a choice, would select a task that documents their competencies or abilities, whereas students with a growth mindset would select a challenging task, a task that increases their competencies. In addition, multiple studies have demonstrated that achievement levels themselves are heavily influenced by mindset during both adolescent education and the college years.


The posting below, a bit longer than most, looks at a very important concept of “growth mindset” and its impact on student learning.  It is from Chapter 9 – How Promoting Student Metacognition can Reduce Resistance, by Rob Blair, Anton O. Tobman, Janine Kremling, and Trevor Morris, in the book, Why Students Resist Learning – A Practical Model for Understanding and Helping Students, edited by Anton O. Tolman and Janine Kremling. Published by Stylus Publishing, LLC 22883 Quicksilver Drive Sterling, Virginia 20166-2102. Copyright © 2017 by Stylus Publishing, LLC. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.


Rick Reis

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Tomorrow’s Teaching and Learning

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Mindsets and Resistance to Learning

One psychological theory useful for understanding student resistance describes the self-theories of students. Dweck’s (2000) research into “self-theories” evaluated how students perceived themselves, the structuring or implicit beliefs that influence major aspects of one’s identity. Dweck called this structuring belief a “self-theory” or, in the literature released for the general population (Dweck, 2006), a “mindset.” A mindset is a collection of ideas and beliefs about how the world works and how we, as individuals, work within it. Given these structuring beliefs, students’ perceptions about learning opportunities can vary significantly, and these beliefs can have a dramatic influence on how a student views risk taking, learning itself, or the definition of success – or failure.

Dweck (2006) explored two primary self-theories or mindsets; the fixed mindset and the growth mindset. According to her research, people with a fixed mindset believe that their “qualities are carved in stone” and that “people only have a certain amount of intelligence, a certain personality, and a certain moral character” (p. 6). Therefore, putting forth effort or struggling to learn something would be an acknowledgement of a lack of innate intelligence or talent. Thus, when students with a fixed mindset are challenged to do things that they believe they cannot do effortlessly, this challenge will be met with resistance (Dweck, 2006), primarily related to self-preservation. Challenging work is a risk to the self-identity of a person with a fixed mindset because it could demonstrate that he is not as smart as he thinks; it generates anxiety and the possibility of failure. Conversely, tasks that he believes are straightforward and in which he will do well validates and supports his self-identity, making him feel good about himself.

On the contrary, people with a growth mindset believe that “your basic qualities are things that you can cultivate through your efforts. Although people may differ in every which way – in their initial talents, aptitudes, interest, or temperaments – everyone can change and grow through application and experience” (Dweck, 2006, p. 7). Students with a growth mindset tend to see challenges as opportunities and are more open to putting forth effort to learn. These students are less likely to resist learning because they believe that a person’s true potential is unforeseeable and that they can improve and overcome deficiencies (Dweck, 2006). To these students, failure on a task is not failure as a person; it is a chance to learn something new.

Mindsets and Teacher Behaviors

Studies on Dweck’s “mindset model” have demonstrated the value of her self-theories. Mueller and Dweck (1998) looked at the mindset of students given praise in the classroom. Two groups of students were given a problem-solving test and were then praised on their scores either by giving trait-oriented praise (e.g., “You must be really smart at these”), effort-oriented praise (e.g., “You must have worked hard”), or generalized praise (e.g., “This is a good score”). The groups were then given the chance to do a harder set of problem-solving questions. The trait-praised group was less likely to take on this greater challenge. What’s more, their lower score on the second test was more likely to cause negative emotion, lower enjoyment, and lower persistence. Perhaps the most interesting outcome, however, is that these students performed significantly worse than both the effort-praised group (which did the best) and the control group. Students in the trait-praised group were also surprisingly likely to lie, with 40% of them misrepresenting their scores when such an opportunity presented itself compared to almost none of the effort-praised students. Mindsets extend beyond isolated incidents like those created by this study. The mindset of students also has a substantial impact on the performance goals those students hold (Dweck & Leggett, 1988). Students with a fixed mindset, when given a choice, would select a task that documents their competencies or abilities, whereas students with a growth mindset would select a challenging task, a task that increases their competencies. In addition, multiple studies have demonstrated that achievement levels themselves are heavily influenced by mindset during both adolescent education and the college years. For instance, Blackwell, Trzesniewski, and Dweck (2007) found that students’ math achievement could be significantly improved for those who had a growth mindset. In sum, studies on contingent self-worth have found that those who feel bad about doing something wrong are less likely to change the problematic behavior or aim to resolve the negative outcomes (Tangney, 1995). These studies have implications not only for student learning but also for instructors as it relates closely to resistance to learning. To better understand why some students happily embrace new challenges and others resist those challenges, one must understand where the mindset comes from. This understanding will aid in overcoming resistance and helping students develop their potential.

Where Does a Mindset Come From?

A mindset doesn’t come from a single place, nor is it a consistent and immutable trait of an individual’s personality (Dweck, 2006). According to Dweck, mindset is also not a trait someone is born with, or else some children would never learn to walk or talk.  Mindset develops via interaction with others and is influenced by a large number of factors, all of which are part of the integrated model of student resistance. Some of the most salient factors are socialization via parenting and experiences in school (Dweck, 2006). For instance, as described previously, studies have shown that praise for ability rather than effort can lead to the development of resistance toward challenges because of children’s fear that not being able to complete a more challenging task would be met with negative feedback (Dweck, 2006). Contrarily, children who were praised for effort rather than ability were motivated to work harder and chose more challenging tasks. They were not afraid to fail because completing the task wasn’t about their ability but about their effort. Thus, as long as they put forth their best effort, they would receive praise (Dweck, 2006). Effort, in most cases, also resulted in successful completion of the task, which then served as a motivator to continue seeking challenges.

Furthermore, a person can have a fixed or growth mindset in some categories but not in others (e.g., “I get better at math by practice, but I’m just not a writer”) and can even have different mindsets within individual categories (e.g., “I get better at playing basketball by practicing, but I’m just terrible at football no matter what I do”) (Dweck, 2006). The origin of those self-theory beliefs is no less complicated.

Some portion of one’s self-theory beliefs undoubtedly come from prevailing cultural beliefs about certain skills. For example, many people who otherwise subscribe to a growth mindset adopt a fixed mindset with traits like creativity or mathematical ability, in which social discussions revolve around the skills as if “you have them or you don’t.” The term talent is often used to express this idea of an innate, almost genetic ability that someone possesses or does not, especially in artistic fields, athletics, or areas like math or writing. These beliefs can also form self-fulfilling prophecies in which persons act on these beliefs, lowering effort and avoiding opportunities for development in areas in which they feel they “have no talent” and then see those beliefs confirmed by poor results or else expending significant effort and learning in areas in which they believe they are talented and seeing positive results. Such experiences can only make these self-theories stronger. For some students, fixed mindsets may focus on intelligence, and the effects may be more general (e.g., “I am smart” or “I am not very intelligent”) and will influence effort, persistence, and willingness to participate in active learning.

It is also possible to observe the self-blame, risk aversion, lowered persistence, damaged self-esteem, and general helplessness of children who are faced with priming situations that place them in a fixed mindset position (Cain & Dweck, 1995; Kamins & Dweck, 1999; Smiley & Dweck, 1994). This helplessness seems to come mainly from harsh criticism (Hyman, Dweck, & Cain, 1992). For instance, Heyman and colleagues (1992) found that children whose teachers said they were “disappointed” in them because of the quality of a submitted project were more likely to show signs of helplessness, had higher degrees of negative affect, and were less likely to develop constructive problem-solving strategies to overcome obstacles. However, not all criticism has the same impact. Research has shown that it is the meaning of the criticism that influences mindset: When criticism is about the person, it instills a fixed mindset: when criticism is about the product or outcome, it has a roughly neutral impact on mindset; when criticism is about the strategies used to reach the product and includes suggestions on those strategies, the growth mindset is instilled (Kamins & Dweck, 1999; Mueller & Dweck, 1998). But how children react to criticism is determined by more than the mindset of the child. Some people persist in their endeavors despite facing criticism. Professor Ellen Pollack shared a story that might explain why some girls still believe that they cannot excel in hard sciences:

As one of the first women to earn a bachelor of science degree in physics from Yale – I graduated in 1978 – this question concerns me deeply. I attended a rural public school whose few accelerated courses in physics and calculus I wasn’t allowed to take because, as my principal put it, “girls never go on in science and math.” Angry and bored, I began reading about space and time and teaching myself calculus from a book. When I arrived at Yale, I was woefully unprepared. The boys in my introductory physics class, who had taken far more rigorous math and science classes in high school, yawned as our professor sped through the material, while I grew panicked at how little I understood. The only woman in the room, I debated whether to raise my hand and expose myself to ridicule, thereby losing track of the lecture and falling further behind.

In the end, I graduated summa cum laude, Phi Beta Kappa, with honors in the major, having excelled in the department’s three-term sequence in quantum mechanics and a graduate course in gravitational physics, all while teaching myself to program Yale’s mainframe computer. But I didn’t go into physics as a career. At the end of four years, I was exhausted by all the lonely hours I spent catching up to my classmates, hiding my insecurities, struggling to do my problem sets while the boys worked in teams to finish theirs. I was tired of dressing one way to be taken seriously as a scientist while dressing another to feel feminine. And while some of the men I wanted to date weren’t put off by my major, many of them were.

Mostly, though, I didn’t go on in physics because not a single professor – not even the advisor who supervised my senior thesis – encouraged me to go to graduate school. Certain this meant I wasn’t talented enough to succeed in physics, I left the rough draft of my senior thesis outside my adviser’s door and slunk away in shame. Pained by the dream I had failed to achieve, I locked my textbooks, lab reports, and problem sets in my father’s army footlocker and turned my back on physics and math forever. (Pollack, 2013, para. 1-3)

Even though the hard sciences and education overall have become more welcoming toward females, social biases against women’s “abilities” in the STEM fields continue to exist and negatively affect their professional development and their judgement of others, including their children (“the revolving door of fixed mindsets”). Once the mindset is instilled, people seem to perpetuate it for themselves and those around them. Studies have found that people judge others according to their own mindset. Those with a fixed mindset tend to engage in rapid trait-based judgements of other individuals (Molden, Plaks, & Dweck, 2006) and other groups (Rydell, Hugenberg, Ray, & Mackie, 2007). People who apply such trait-based labels have difficulty in accepting information that the label may be incorrect and are even willing to underemphasize or disregard contradictory information (Erdley & Dweck, 1993). This is important because students with a fixed mindset who label their teachers as being too harsh, expecting too much, or exhibiting unfair or unlikable characteristics may not be open to arguments or proof to the contrary – and vice versa. Resistance to the teacher influences resistance to the class and content, resulting in a lack of learning. An instructor would have great difficulty convincing the student that her resistance is self-damaging and that the instructor actually has her best interests in mind.

In comparison, those with a growth mindset tend to give more effort-oriented evaluations of their peers’ performance (Heyman & Dweck, 1998). Stated differently, people who have a growth mindset tend to evaluate the behavior of others in the situational context and on the basis of psychological processes, such as beliefs, needs, emotions, and goals (Molden et al., 2006). A change in behavior or new information would likely lead to a different evaluation. For example, students with a growth mindset may resist an expectation by a teacher, but when the teacher explains the assignment, its importance, and its relevance, they may embrace it.

Even though Dweck (2006) uses the term fixed mindset, it is important to realize that the mindset can be changed. The growth mindset did not grow in a vacuum but was shaped by experiences. Aronson, Fried, and Good (2002) conducted a rigorous study with mixed black and white college students involved in three one-hour workshop sessions in which the experimental group was asked to engage in advocacy in favor of a growth mindset position. After they had been informed about neural plasticity and brain development, students were asked to write two letters of encouragement to fictional middle school children who were struggling in school and, ultimately, to write and video-record a speech encouraging the younger students to think of intelligence as malleable. Although this intervention did not reduce their actual perception of stereotype threat (see chapter 5), black students in the experimental group, compared with black students who were not in the group, showed lasting improvements in their enjoyment and perceived value of academics and had higher grades. White students also benefited from the intervention, although not to the same degree. The authors suggested that combining this type of simple and quick intervention with other interventions shown to reduce stereotype threat might produce even more powerful results. This study demonstrates that helping students to understand the malleability of intelligence and developing a growth mindset can have significant benefits. Our brains do not stop developing at some specific point; learning continues as long as we live and make the effort to learn (Fuchs & Fluegge, 2014), an important message for students to hear.

Mindset and Neural Plasticity

Neural plasticity is the field of research into how, when, and why the brain develops (Stiles, 2000). The findings of that field go against the prevailing cultural narrative of fixed intelligence. Rather than reaching our intellectual potential in our mid-20s and simply staying there, our brains continue to develop in the areas that correspond to the skills we practice (Fuchs & Fluegge, 2014; Stiles, 2000). In other words, the field of neural plasticity provides strong scientific support of the core beliefs of the growth mindset. This is not to say that all mental abilities are the result of mental training. Recognizing limitations and differing rates of growth is also important for setting realistic expectations. Studies about happiness, physical fitness, and intelligence have found similar results regarding the contributions of genetics as opposed to training (Seligman, 1993). Some people will respond to training far more quickly than others, receiving double the impact from the same routine. Some people have a higher or lower “baseline” that determines where their abilities will settle with little or no training.

However, rather than thinking of students as having certain traits, it’s more useful to think of intelligence and skills (e.g., critical thinking, writing) in terms of proclivity and potential. All students share the potential to learn challenging topics and perform strenuous mental tasks, but some students may be able to reach a milestone with less effort than their peers (Seligman, 1993). In any given set of students, we can expect a range of intelligence types and proclivities. Variation in intelligence and proclivities will yield an approximately normal curve, and students at the top and bottom of that curve (consistently reaching new milestones before or after their peers) are likely to become frustrated, disinterested, and resistant. Although it doesn’t simplify the question of how to structure a class, it’s useful to think of students learning course content and key skills in the same way they might learn a complicated dance routine. Some will simply need more time and help than others, but all of them can make significant improvement.

Rob Blair

When I took a racquetball course, my general fitness was worse than that of my peers, so I began with a weak level of play. My peers picked up the new techniques quickly, while I found myself struggling to get the moves down; no matter how often I told my body how to position itself for the backhand swing, I couldn’t seem to get the motion down. When I indicated my inability to perform techniques we’d just been taught, the coach was frustrated with me. He repeatedly told me I was overthinking things. For him, it may have simply been as natural and fluid as allowing his body to do what seemed right (curse of knowledge).

I am tempted to say my slow growth was simply due to having never done something with similar movements, but the same was true of many of my peers. What’s more, I had faced similar struggles in dance. While the other dancers saw and repeated movements without issues, I tripped over myself. But I also knew from those experiences that my body, while slower to figure out certain movements, could pick them up eventually. For my racquetball course, I came in during free hours to keep practicing, eager to teach my bones how to make those unfamiliar movements. As hours of bonus training allowed me to pick up the core techniques, I caught myself smiling. “See,” I told myself. “You don’t stay bad forever.”

And here’s what I discovered: I am not a bad racquetball player. True, I’m slow to pick up swing styles, and my court movement required conscious effort. But after I had picked up the basics, my athletic proclivities started to show. I intuitively snapped my body into swings that made for fierce returns. My ability to hit complex multiwall shots, once I knew how to get my swing in a straight line, won grunts of frustration from my opponents. I have a strong intuitive awareness of how my strength will correspond to ball positions, which makes my serves deadly.

This came up again when I served as a teaching assistant (TA) during the poetry segment of a creative writing class. As experts, we often become frustrated, simply telling students they’re over- or under-thinking an issue instead of offering support for someone who learns at a different rate and in a different way than we do. How often do we give up on students who haven’t mastered the basics, assuming that a weakness in the narrow scope of intelligence involved in those basics indicates a weakness for the overall topic. In working with students unfamiliar with poetry, I have been astonished at the strengths demonstrated by initially “terrible poets.” Once they learn to hear lyricism and rhythm, as they learn what to look for in powerful images and metaphor, their natural proclivities emerge: a student’s rich ability to express sensory experience, a knack for using alliteration and assonance, an intuitive grasp of how others will respond to certain images, or an aptitude for syncopating poetic rhythm like a New Orleans jazz musician. Had I written students off when they showed a weakness for the basics of poetry, I would never have seen their strengths.



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