CETL Learning Tips: On mistakes — growth mindset is everything

We all need to cut ourselves some slack as we end this crazy semester. It has either been hard, really hard or nearly impossible. But it is also a crucial time to reflect on how we view our ability to grow, especially as there are always more opportunities to learn and challenge ourselves. 

Growth vs. fixed mindset: The distinction between growth and fixed mindset was established by psychology scholar Carol Dweck and studied mostly in the context of learning. When you have a fixed mindset, you view yourself as having permanent capabilities from birth that cannot be changed. When you hear someone saying they are “just bad at math,” they are expressing a fixed mindset that says they are wired not to be good at math, period. Someone with a growth mindset believes their abilities can grow with practice, regardless of one’s natural strengths and tendencies.

Dweck, among other researchers, found that when students approached difficult learning with a growth mindset, they significantly outperformed those with a fixed mindset. (Dweck also discusses growth mindset in a 10-minute TED Talk.)

Here’s an example that might be more relevant these days:

  • Fixed mindset: “I’m just not cut out for online learning.”
  • Growth mindset: “Online learning is not my forte, but I can get better at it. How can I get more out of this?”

If you are struck with the realization that you have strong fixed mindset tendencies, this isn’t your fault. Our environment often reinforces fixed mindsets even in ways that seem positive. When we are praised for being “so smart” or “so creative,” this unintentionally communicates that we achieve because of what we are instead of what we do (study hard, take care of ourselves, practice).

Fixed mindsets are also encouraged in cultures that discourage mistakes. When one exam comprises of most of our course grade, this measures an outcome, which leans toward fixed traits. When we have many grades with a lot of feedback and chances to improve, we are measuring growth. Regardless of how your courses are set up, you can adapt your learning behaviors to encourage a growth mindset by making mistakes visible, often and safe.

Make mistakes visible We often miss out on learning opportunities by making mistakes invisible through something called the illusion of competence. For example, when a teacher asks a question and we mentally note an answer, if the teacher reveals information that is contrary to our answer, we justify this saying that, yeah, technically, we knew that answer. This reaction is even more prevalent while reading. This is why I make a habit of writing down guesses and writing down spontaneous questions. Then, when the professor gives information that counters my answer, I see the evidence of my error, which normalizes mistakes. Plus, I’m more engaged in my learning activities and the right answers are more likely to stick.

Make mistakes often Unfortunately, mistakes are not lauded as often as they should be. Of course, we don’t want to praise mistakes in high stakes, costly situations, but we absolutely want to encourage mistakes when the stakes are low. By frequently making guesses during reading or a lecture, you’ll make more mistakes. If you’re not making mistakes, you’ve learned the material (hurray!), but you’re not currently learning as much (boo!). 

Make mistakes safe This one is crucial to the other two points — in the examples I’ve given, these are safe conditions for making mistakes. It’s no harm to your grade to answer questions wrong in your own notes or in practice problems in your book. You would rather make those mistakes in those situations rather than on final exams. Asking questions and making mistakes early decreases more painful mistakes later.

We may never get to the point where we enjoy mistakes, but normalizing mistakes can help us do and learn so much more.

Christina Moore

Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning

Find more Learning Tips at oakland.edu/teachingtips.