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Mindset’s Impact at Elon

By: Olivia Smith

I still remember packing my belongings and heading towards the “resource room” in second grade. I never knew why my classmates thought I was taking a vacation from school work, when I was really getting extra reading and writing help. If they knew how much I used to secretly loathe the fact that I was academically behind, they wouldn’t have shot jealous glances my way.

What they didn’t know was that I was held back for a year in school in elementary school and was tutored over the course of two summers to improve my reading comprehension. While I was often doing math problems several grades above my own, I spent hours in that dreaded resource room, struggling through exercises I never seemed to be able to get right.

Somewhere along the way after being tutored, my abilities appeared to completely switch. In high school and college, I had an increasingly difficult time with math, whereas I began to excel in English language arts. If someone told my second grade self that I would eventually become a communications major at Elon University, where I mostly write, then I would have laughed in their face.

So what changed? Now, as a double major studying psychology, I am able to bring this into my experience. As a result, the power of mindset has become clear.

Psychologist Carol Dweck has devoted her life to examining the mindsets people hold and how these beliefs can impact motivation, achievement, and well-being. As Dweck’s pioneering work explains, fixed mindset refers to the belief that intelligence is fixed and unchangeable, whereas a growth mindset describes the belief that intelligence can change and be developed through effort, persistence, effective strategies, and mentoring from others.

Some benefits of maintaining a growth mindset include motivation to take on more rigorous learning experiences, and greater persistence in the face of a challenge or a setback. Whereas fixed minded individuals are more likely to experience depression. Exercises that shift fixed mindsets, or growth mindset interventions, can help alleviate anxiety and depression.

My experience with academics demonstrates how a previously growth mindset in math developed into a fixed mindset, which in turn greatly impacted my actual performance. On the other hand, my fixed mindset about reading comprehension shifted to a growth mindset, vastly improving my actual performance outcomes.

Dweck and colleagues recently investigated mindset throughout the study, “A National Experiment Reveals Where a Growth Mindset Improves Achievement.” The experiment addresses the beliefs students hold about “the nature of intelligence”, leading students to view their personal abilities “not as fixed, but as capable of growth.”

There has been a decade of work on mindsets, but most experiments happen in one laboratory or a few schools. What makes this study notable is the fact that Dweck and her colleagues accomplished an intervention on a national scale. They did that to answer this question: under what conditions and school environments would cultivate newly learned growth mindsets, as well as what conditions would hinder the process?

Dweck’s study describes a low-cost, online intervention treatment for fixed mindset beliefs that can be delivered in less than an hour to students, which can have a lasting positive impact on student academic performance later on, and thus, success.

Furthermore, the study addresses the role peers have on the effectiveness of mindset interventions. The intervention improved grades in situations where other students supported intellectual challenges, but showed less benefits within unsupportive peer environments, most likely because students in unsupportive settings may have taken on intellectual challenges in front of peers who thought it undesirable to do so, and as a result, paid a social price in the process. Overall, these findings reveal that some school environments may need to change in order for mindset interventions to be successful. This gain in science has the potential to greatly impact the mindsets of future generations across the nation.

As Dweck explains, “The message was about the benefits of understanding that we are all capable of meaningful growth, that people can further develop their abilities through sustained effort, good strategies, and lots of input and guidance from others.”

At Elon, this type of mindset work is deeply woven into academic support. Dr. James Holsinger is the Director of Learning Assistance within the Koenigsberger Learning Center (KLC). Within the KLC, Holsinger trains learning strategies tutors and works closely with individual students, disability resources, and academic advising. Holsinger is a great resource for Elon students who have different learning needs or have questions about ways to learn better.

Dweck’s research is well-known at the KLC.

Mindset is at the core of everything that we do. Mindset encompasses all aspects of the education and academic support that we provide,” said Holsinger.

For instance, the KLC held “start fresh after midterms” workshop marketed to first year students who wanted a boost after the first half of the semester. During this session, Holsinger asked students to reflect on the semester so far, leading them to build an understanding of where they might have fixed mindsets that held them back.

While the work of tutors at Elon is crucial, ultimately, students should grow into independent learners. “I tell tutors the goal is to help the student in that moment, so that the next time this concept comes up, they are hopefully able to do it on their own, and there’s great value in achieving this kind of independence,” said Holsinger.

Mindset has played a pivotal role in my own choice of major here at Elon. My fixed mindset surrounding math led me to change my interests and avoid pursuing a science major with math requirements altogether.  However, learning more about mindsets has caused me to be more aware of how flexible my beliefs can be.

“A major misunderstanding is the idea that if I am fixed minded, then I am and always will be fixed minded, which is, ironically, a fixed mindset itself. It is often freeing for students to realize that we are not always one or the other,” said Holsinger.

Now, if I ever find myself in the metaphorical “resource room” again, I know that changing my mindset may be the solution.

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