Mindsets: Staff and student perceptions
Author: Jennie Jones, University of Brighton
As part of the Changing Mindsets project we conducted a (peripheral) qualitative study relevant to our university context. We wanted to identify ways in which the Mindset workshops influenced: students’ and staff perceptions and experiences of learning, teaching and support concerning: belonging, engagement, identity development, confidence and success. We adopted narrative interviewing methods to explore staff and undergraduate students’ learning journeys over time and ways in which these may be influenced by a fixed and growth mindset from past to future. Narrative interviewing “attempts to give voice to the unheard or marginalized in society” and allows research participants to reflect on their life histories “in their own terms” (Gergen, 2009, p66). We conducted narrative individual or paired interviews with 11 undergraduate students and 5 staff between November 2017 and May 2018. The sample included students from Media, Education, Pharmacy and Bio-molecular Science, Business, Health Sciences and Applied Social Science. Participants were from diverse backgrounds in terms of gender, age, nationality, ethnicity and socio-economic background, and so the sample symbolically represents individuals who come from a range of backgrounds and their diverse experiences in relation to the research topic of Mindset.
Influences of Changing Mindsets on participants’ sense of belonging
Several participants described how Changing Mindsets was an example of an overall university ethos and practice of welcoming students from diverse backgrounds and enabling them to feel part of the university. This is illustrated by the following quote:
It’s also made me feel connected to the university more…so it’s given like a –feeling of security and a safety net…you know… The culture of the place that you’re at does have a massive influence on how you learn and how you feel about learning and how you feel about failing or passing, so this is really positive, that the university are doing this and thinking about this and pushing this forward. If that’s a culture that they’re aiming for, if this is the way they’re heading, for this kind of culture shift, aren’t we lucky as students? So, yeah, it gave me almost like a sense of security. (Student Participant, Health Sciences)
As previous research argues, developing belonging is an important facet of successful undergraduate transition into higher education that contributes towards student success (Thomas, 2012; Masika and Jones, 2016).
Influences of the Changing Mindsets on students’ learning strategies and developing confidence
In summary, student participants gave the following examples of learning strategies related to adopting a growth mindset:
- Making positive affirmations regarding future goals
- Focusing on personal targets
- Increasing effort and time devoted to study in order to succeed
- Enhancing time management skills: e.g. setting short-term achievable goals or writing lists to help manage workload
- Asking for more support from academic staff/tutors/peers
- Remaining resilient when faced with academic pressure
- Critically reflecting on their own work
- Seeing failure as an opportunity to learn and grow
- Attempting activities outside their comfort zone
Most student participants in this research described varied ways in which they were adopting learning strategies after attending the Changing Mindsets workshops that related to developing greater confidence, resilience and independence.
“I feel more confident to say, “I don’t really know.” I also feel more confident to ask for help. So I’m able to be like, “I don’t understand this. Please can you help?” Whereas before I would’ve very much sort of internalised that and gone home and looked it up and probably not understood it still. So that’s been really nice.” (Student Participant 7, Health Sciences)
“I don’t think people should be afraid to get something wrong as well, because how on earth are you ever going to learn if you don’t get anything wrong? So, yeah, I think it’s quite good in that sense, that you can learn that it’s fine; you need to get things wrong in order to get them right in the end.” (Student Participant 5, Applied Social Science)
Previous research suggests that confidence is a key factor that contributes to undergraduate student success (Thomas, 2012). In this context, earlier studies also argue that developing a growth mindset can help students to develop resilience in academic situations (Duckworth et al., 2007; Yeager and Dweck, 2012).
Influences of Changing Mindsets workshops on academic staff development of teaching, feedback and support
Staff described examples of varied ways in which they adopted a growth mindset in teaching and support practices, and encouraged a growth mindset in students’ attitudes and learning. In summary, examples included:
- Continually reflecting on their own teaching practice and striving to improve it
- Learning from students as well as students learning from staff
- Enabling collaborative and interactive teaching/learning that encourages students to contribute to activities and discussion
- Adopting learning technologies as a means to facilitate collaborative learning
- Encouraging open discussions about equality and inequality
- Using inclusive language to promote student belonging
- Role-modelling to enhance students’ motivation and confidence
One key theme that emerged from the research relates to role-modelling. For instance, several participants described how by having a growth mindset themselves, they could then encourage others to cope with difficulties and be successful, as the following quote illustrates:
I’ve got some students who have been really struggling this year in terms of having anxiety problems and I’ve been trying to instil the same things that we’ve been talking about. I say “you can do it, we can work together and we can beat this, and you can finish this year, you can sit the exams, you can get through it.” … I tried to coach them through it,…I talked about my experiences with them, tried to show them that everyone struggles in life and tried to encourage them to say… “yeah I can beat this”. (Staff Participant)
This finding is supported by earlier research, which found that role modelling has a positive influence on female students’ success by reducing the effects of stereotype threat in relation to performance in maths and in other STEM subjects (Cheng et al., 2017).
Another key theme that emerged in this research is how constructive feedback provides a growth mindset in other people, whereas criticism without encouragement is perceived as demotivating.
And the mindsets can be established through feedback that they’ve been given and if they have feedback that indicated that they’re not doing well that tends to make them perceive themselves to be in a fixed mindset whereas if feedback is motivating they tend to grow. (Staff Participant)
Influences of mindset on participants’ developing identities and success within and outside the university
Most participants perceived their success as a holistic notion that was linked to their developing confidence and identities as people inside and outside the university.
“I didn’t realise just how many things it applied to. Like it can apply to literally every aspect of your life if you let it. I think it’s being willing and open to learn and to change that has really been such a hugely eye-opening thing for me. Initially I did think it was purely about academic stuff, like changing the way that you study and the way that that happens. In fact, you can apply it to work or to relationships or to pretty much anything that you do. So that’s just been hugely, hugely beneficial, which is amazing.” (Student Participant, Health Sciences)
However, most participants were aware that despite developing a growth mindset, their fixed mindset remained part of them and was deeply rooted. For instance, when they reflected on starting HE, participants often described periods of challenge in relation to academic study. Examples of challenges that participants mentioned included: not achieving high enough grades, struggling in group work, comparing themselves to students who were achieving more highly and feeling lacking in confidence about their ability to succeed. Dweck refers to this as having ‘fixed mindset triggers’ and says we can revert back to a fixed mindset when we witness people doing better than us, particularly when it is in regards to something that we strongly identify with / is especially important to us (2017).
So thinking back on it I feel like I’ve had periods where I’ve believed in the fact that anyone can do whatever they want. I still like to think I do believe in that. It’s only when I get times of crisis of confidence, I guess it’s only human when you get that block… oh no I can’t do this… everyone is so much better than me. So I feel like it has been quite embedded in the journey to where I am today. (Staff Participant)
In the past before starting HE, and in the recent past since starting HE, participants described events or phases where they were successful related to developing a growth mindset. This was often linked to participants facing challenges with resilience and making life-changing decisions. In this context, participants described how they had made decisions to find solutions to address problems.
Okay, so when I first applied to university to study this degree I didn’t get in. I got a letter saying you don’t meet the – you don’t meet the criteria for admission … Um, but instead of giving up I went and got another GCSE in four months and taught myself completely from home and e-mailed the university and said, will you consider me now? And they gave me an interview and then I got in. (Student Participant, Health Sciences)
Impact on wider society
Participants were aware that they were now encouraging other people outside university to adopt a growth mindset. In terms of research impact, this is important in that there is evidence to show how this intervention is having an impact on wider society. Examples discussed by participants included:
- Recommending the Mindsets concept to friends and family
- In their role as parents – role/modelling and encouraging children that it is acceptable to find learning and studying difficult, to make mistakes, face challenges, learn and succeed
The findings described show that:
- The Changing Mindsets workshops enables student and staff participants to develop:
- their growth mindset in relation to learning, teaching, feedback and support practices and strategies
- their sense of belonging to the university
- their increased academic confidence and resilience
- seeing life and learning as an opportunity for growth rather than perceived failure
- encouraging other people to adopt a growth mindset often through role-modelling
- Developing a growth mindset is related to student and staff participants’ enhanced personal as well as academic identity and success
- Developing a growth mindset has a beneficial influence on other people outside the university, and hence wider society, including friends and family
- Most participants perceived that having a fixed mindset is strongly rooted in their past and is related to: stereotype threat and implicit bias, which may be influenced by significant people in participants’ childhood/teenage years. (This will be explained in greater depth in a forthcoming report on participants’ individual narratives over time.)
- Most participants were aware that their fixed-mindset is still part of them and is deeply rooted.
- Most participants’ experiences of developing a growth mindset is linked to facing challenges, growing more resilient and making positive life-changing decisions.
- Finally, this research shows that Changing Mindsets enhances the learning and life experience of students from all backgrounds including those who may feel marginalised.
Watch this space … There will be a forthcoming report and publication on participants’ individual narratives over time as part of this study in 2019.
Cheng. A, Koptic, K., and Zamorro, G. (2017). “Can Parents’ Growth Mindset and Role Modelling Address STEM Gender Gaps?” Department of Education Reform, University of Arkansas, EDRE Working Paper 2017-07.
Duckworth, A.L., Peterson, C., Matthews, M.D. and Kelly, R.D. (2007). “Grit: Perseverance and Passion for Long-Term Goals”, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 92.6, 1097-1101
Dweck, C. (2017). Mindset-updated edition: Changing the way you think to fulfil your potential. Hachette UK.
Gergen, K.J. (2009) An Invitation to Social Construction, Second Edition, Sage, London, 2009, pp 57-108
Masika, R. and J. Jones. (2016). “Building student belonging and engagement: insights into higher education students’ experiences of participating and learning together.” Teaching in Higher Education. 21 (2): 138-150. DOI: 10.1080/13562517.2015.1122585
Thomas, L. (2012). Building student engagement and belonging in higher education at a time of change: final report from the What Works? Student Retention and Success programme. Higher Education Academy (HEA)
Yeager, D. S. and Dweck, C. S. (2012), “Mindsets That Promote Resilience: When Students Believe That Personal Characteristics Can Be Developed”, Educational Psychologist, 47:4, 302-314