“Growth vs. Fixed Mindset” by Jessica Ottewell is licensed under CC BY 2.0


We’re a few days into a new term, and I’ve already received several emails from panicked students who are terrified about the upcoming writing assignments. These emails don’t contain questions or requests for assistance. They contain professions of inadequacy:

“I’m a terrible writer.”
“I’m not an English person.”
“I’ve never been good at writing classes.

I get these kinds of emails all the time. Unfortunately, students who email me things like this usually don’t do too well in my course. It’s not that they aren’t capable of putting together a cohesive essay. In fact, many of these naysayers have solid writing skills! They fail because they assume they will; they struggle because they believe they don’t have the ability to succeed.

You see mindset matters.

Students who label themselves as terrible writers have what we call a fixed mindset. In her 2006 book called Mindset, Psychologist Carol Dweck described a person with a fixed mindset as someone who believes their “qualities are carved in stone.” In other words, they believe you’re smart, or you’re not, you’re athletic, or you’re not, you’re an English person, or you’re not. Someone with a fixed mindset doesn’t believe that abilities or talents can be cultivated. Such a mindset can be problematic, especially if you’re a student.

Successful students possess a growth mindset. They believe that “everyone can change and grow through application and experience.” They work hard, learn from their experiences, and embrace challenges. If you want to get the most from your online learning experience, you need to transform your fixed mindset into a growth mindset. Here are some ways you can do that:

Accept and Use Constructive Criticism

Students with a fixed mindset see constructive criticism as a personal attack. If you’re interested in being the best student you can be, you can’t shy away from constructive feedback. Constructive criticism is essential to growth. Take your instructor’s comments to heart. Don’t be afraid to seek out additional feedback if necessary. Understanding your weaknesses is the first step to improving your performance.

Embrace Challenges

An individual with a fixed mindset doesn’t like to be challenged; she would rather stay within her comfort zone. However, if you’re serious about achieving academic success, you have to allow yourself the opportunity to be challenged. The brain is like any other muscle; it needs to be developed through rigorous intellectual exercise. So, take the hard elective; speak up in class even though you don’t feel 100% comfortable doing so; explore an unfamiliar topic for your research paper. If you run toward challenges instead of running away from them, you’ll get more from your college experience.

Don’t Get Hung Up on Mistakes

There’s a famous quotation that goes something like this: “Your last mistake is your best teacher.” Students with a fixed mindset see mistakes as the end of a learning experience. Students with a growth mindset, on the other hand, see mistakes as the starting point of a new learning opportunity. Don’t beat yourself if you goofed up on the final problem of your Calculus exam. Don’t panic if you made some grammatical errors in your term paper. Don’t descend into depression if you didn’t manage your time properly while you were working on your psych project. Make a note of these mistakes, and figure out the best way to avoid them in the future!

Most of us learned very young that talent and ability are the keys to success. However, that’s only partially true. Talents and abilities give you a head start. To be successful in the academic and professional world, you need to develop your talents through consistent and conscious effort.