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How mindset influences (study) motivation

In the previous video, Paul introduced a theory on motivation: the self-determination theory. This theory assumes that in order for people to function well, three universal and innate psychological needs must be met: competence, autonomy and relatedness. You can meet your students’ need for competence by providing them with constructive feedback. But how?

This article provides an answer by elaborating on another theory on motivation: the mindset theory. Before you continue, just take a minute to consider the following questions.

  1. To what extent do you think that students’ intelligence and talents determine their study success?
  2. To what extent do effective study methods and hard work influence study success?

What are mindsets?

Carol Dweck makes a distinction between two approaches that people take to human capacities and character traits. She refers to the first as a fixed mindset. People with a fixed mindset see their capacities, for example their intelligence, as static. They believe that your capabilities, for example your level of intelligence or musicality, are largely determined by natural talent that can only be developed to a very minor extent, if at all. She refers to the second approach as a growth mindset. People with a growth mindset see their capabilities as innate potential, which is there to be developed (Dweck, 2006).

Consequences of your mindset

A fixed mindset goes like this:

‘My achievements (academic achievements) reflect who I am, in terms of my intelligence and character. You are born with a certain level of intelligence and a character, and they are virtually unalterable. So if I do well, it is because I am clever or because my character has helped me to succeed. If I do badly, it is either because I am stupid or because I do not have the required character traits. If I find something easy, it’s because it suits me. But if I find something difficult, it obviously doesn’t suit me and there is no point trying to learn it. If I have to work too hard for something, it’s a sign that I am not intelligent enough or not suited to the task. Other people’s success is difficult to deal with as it forces me to see my own shortcomings. As there is nothing I can do to change this, I tend to avoid situations that require me to do something I’m not good at or in which other people excel.’

A mindset like this makes it difficult for people to make progress. If we find something difficult and assume that we cannot change, there’s little point in trying to improve. As a result, we avoid difficult situations that would perhaps help us to get better at something, and in turn, this strengthens our conviction that we are unable to learn.

A growth mindset goes like this:

‘My achievements (academic achievements) reflect what I have learned and the effort I have made. Intelligence and character can be developed. Whatever I am like at the moment, I can always get better. This applies to my level of intelligence and my skills set. So if I do well, I have followed a smart learning strategy and done my best. If I fail, it’s because I didn’t find the right learning strategy or didn’t do my best. If I find something difficult, I need to work harder or find a different learning strategy. If someone does better than me, I feel motivated to learn from that person. I prefer being in challenging situations, because when something is difficult it motivates me to learn and learning is what I enjoy most.’

So a person with a growth mindset approaches a situation quite differently from someone with a fixed mindset. A fixed mindset makes it very difficult to develop and improve, whereas a growth mindset is conducive to learning and improvement. Being convinced that it is possible to improve is a condition for actually improving.

So in this respect, people’s convictions have serious consequences. People with a fixed mindset regarding a particular capacity tend to focus on proving that they already possess this capacity rather than on the process of learning. They neglect the learning process, which obviously stunts their development and affects the way they function. People with a growth mindset, on the other hand, tend to make an effort to learn and develop strategies for learning and improving their long-term performance.

Feedback influences mindset

The way in which we give people feedback affects the way we think about our ability to develop our capacities. Feedback often contains implicit messages that can either encourage or discourage the recipient. Giving positive feedback can help to motivate people. Negative feedback threatens their feelings of competence, is generally discouraging and can affect the working relationship. Positive feedback can make people feel more competent, strengthen the working relationship and boost performance.

Research by Dweck (2002) reveals that the way in which we give positive feedback is also important. She compared two types of compliments: personal compliments and process compliments. If you give someone a personal compliment, you are complimenting them on a character trait, an internal more or less fixed quality, such as ‘Wow, you’re so clever’. If you give someone a process compliment, you are complimenting them on something they have done well, such as: ‘You went about that in exactly the right way’.

Both types of compliments initially evoke a sense of pride and satisfaction. However, personal compliments (‘Wow, you’re so clever’) stimulate a fixed mindset. This is how it works: if you compliment someone on a personal character trait (such as intelligence), they may start to concentrate on this aspect of their character. As a result, they often focus on demonstrating the character trait in question; they want to keep the positive feedback. On the other hand, if you give someone a process compliment (‘You went about that in exactly the right way’), this will initially make the recipient feel proud and satisfied, but will also stimulate a growth mindset. The person will concentrate on demonstrating the behaviour that he/she was complimented on, rather than a character trait.

References

  • Dweck, C. S. (1999). Self-theories: Their role in motivation, personality, and development. Philadelphia, PA: Psychology Press.
  • Dweck, C. S. (2002). Beliefs that make smart people dumb. In R. J. Sternberg (Ed.), Why smart people do stupid things (pp. 24-41). New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
  • Dweck, C. S. (2006). Mindset: The new psychology of success. New York, NY: Random House.

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