My College:

Does your student have a growth mindset?

Amy Baldwin, Ed.D.

Spring is a perfect time for cleaning out closets and throwing out items that no longer serve us. It’s also a good time to check in on what no longer serves our students as they get through another semester.

One of the areas for college students that often needs a little “spring cleaning” is what researchers call “mindset,” or the way someone views learning and the struggles that can accompany studying something difficult.

As a college professor and parent, there is not a day that goes by that I don’t hear a student (or my own kid!) express concern about the challenges they face. It’s their response to the challenges, or their mindset, that can help them overcome and learn from the challenges they will face throughout life. Some students may need a little help clearing out the cobwebs of doubt about their abilities.

Carol Dweck, a psychology professor at Stanford who has spent decades studying what makes some people more successful than others, calls the belief that everyone can improve a skill with hard work and focus “growth mindset.” You may be familiar with growth mindset and its counterpart “fixed mindset,” which is the belief that talent or intelligence is inborn and there’s nothing one can do to improve it.

Consider the following statements:

“I’m not good at ______.” (Fill in the blank with the academic subject that’s giving them trouble.)
“I’ll never get better at _____.(Fill in the blank with whatever they’re struggling with.)
"This is hard, and I don’t like the course anyway."

Students who say they are "bad at math," for example, have a fixed mindset about learning math, which could have a negative impact on their grades.

Cleaning out the fixed mindset statements and replacing them with growth mindset mantras takes time and support. If your student expresses attitudes or beliefs about their abilities similar to the statements above, then you have an opportunity to help them throw out those statements and replace them with better ones:

“With practice, I can learn how to become better at math.”
“By practicing problem sets and learning from my mistakes, I can learn how to answer questions correctly.”
“What I’m learning in this course will help me in other courses and in my life.”

How to foster a growth mindset in your student:

  • Listen for statements that reflect a fixed, unchangeable state of mind that accepts mediocrity or failure as inevitable. Examples are, “I can’t learn. I will never get better.”
  • Coach them to rephrase those statements in the process of learning. Suggest that they instead say, “I can learn with more practice. With each practice session, I get better.”
  • Praise the effort and learning, not the outcome. Say, “I can tell you worked really hard this semester and learned a lot.”
  • Expect them to need reminders to reframe their thinking. Remind them of past successes. “Remember how hard you worked to learn physics? You can use the same strategies in this new situation.”

The results are clear: Getting rid of negative self-talk and replacing it with growth mindset statements will set the stage for college success.

Amy Baldwin, Ed.D., the former Director of Student Transitions at the University of Central Arkansas, currently teaches student success and literacy to first-year students. She is co-author of a number of books, including A High School Parent's Guide to College Success: 12 Essentials and The College Experience. Amy and her husband are parents of a college student and a recent college graduate. She also blogs at
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