How a Growth Mindset Makes Us Smarter

This week’s blog post is written by Jamie McMahon (she/her; Law & Business graduate in Spring 2021), a Peer Academic Coach at the Ted Rogers School’s Academic Success Centre (ASC). This Blog Post is part of the ASC’s “Teach Yourself How to Learn” weekly blog series based on Dr. Saundra Yancy McGuire’s book.

This week, we explore Chapter 6: Why your mindset about intelligence matters.

Growth versus fixed mindset

Do you believe you have the capacity to change your level of intelligence?

If you believe that your intelligence is something that you were born with, and that there is not much that can be done to change the level of your intelligence, then you have a fixed mindset about intelligence. On the other hand, you likely have a growth mindset if you believe that your intelligence can be developed and is an ongoing process rather than a static thing.

The mindset that you have about intelligence impacts your attitude and the actions that you take, in and outside of your studies. Let’s take a look at how students with a fixed mindset differ from those with a growth mindset:

  • If you have a fixed mindset, you likely have a desire to look smart and therefore avoid challenges, give up easily, see effort as useless, perceive errors as failures, ignore useful negative feedback and feel threatened by the success of others.
  • If you have a growth mindset, you likely have a desire to learn and therefore embrace challenges, persist in the face of setbacks, see effort as the path to mastery, learn from criticism and are inspired by the success of others.

Our mindset perspective is generally set during our childhood. And while it is possible to switch from a fixed mindset to a growth mindset throughout our lives, many children are influenced by the beliefs that their parents/guardians have regarding their abilities at the elementary school level.

Is intelligence fixed or can it grow?

The brain is biologically built for growth. Brain plasticity tells us that the brain is meant to change, meaning that intelligence can grow and is an ongoing process. The students who appear to be “smarter” are generally using learning strategies that other students are not. Any student can become “smart” by adopting learning strategies into their studies, such as using metacognition or Bloom’s Pyramid to master course content.

You, your friends or peers may have said, “I’m just not good at math” or “math just doesn’t make sense to me.” It’s important to recognize that this is a fixed mindset and a false statement. This is because any student can do well in a math class if they set clear learning goals and put in the effort to achieve those learning goals.

Students who focus on their learning in addition to their grades are more likely to achieve better grades than the students who focus solely on their grades. This is because the students who are focused on learning the material, rather than merely doing well in a class, want to learn and will take the steps to reach their learning goals. When taking a class, it’s important to think of everything that you do as a learning experience that will help you grow personally and professionally. Don’t approach studying or class assessments with the mindset of doing it “just because it is required.” Approach everything you do as a valuable opportunity to learn something new.

How can we change our mindset about intelligence?

If you feel that you currently have a fixed mindset, do not worry, because that fixed mindset can be turned into a growth mindset. If you are facing a difficult academic challenge, try writing down a list of challenges that you overcame in the past. This will serve as a reminder that you overcame difficult challenges in the past, so you can also do it now. In addition to that, think of those difficult challenges as an opportunity to learn, because that is what we are at university to do. This ties in with practising positive self-talk. It is easy to get discouraged when learning a challenging new subject, but positive self-talk can help us remind ourselves that we are capable of learning new material, and that our intelligence is not limited.

When I first began my university studies, I had a fixed mindset towards courses that placed a heavy focus on math, such as finance. I believed that I was “just not that good at finance and math-based courses.” Because of this mindset, I had little motivation to put much effort into my finance courses as I did not believe that my effort would give me the results that I wanted, which also caused me to give up on practice questions. I would simply turn to the solutions page of the textbook and would try to understand the solutions rather than attempting to solve the practice questions on my own. Those solutions in the textbook made sense to me at the time, but once the test came around, I would have no idea how to solve the questions.

This happened because I was not focusing on learning and developing my financial skills when taking these courses. Instead, I should have tried to solve the practice questions on my own. I know that this can be very frustrating and time consuming, especially if you have absolutely no idea of how to solve the question. Which is why starting with the easiest practice questions and slowly moving towards more difficult ones is a very helpful method for developing a growth mindset. It builds up our confidence before we attempt to solve the more difficult questions.

After all, it is much better to get a question completely wrong while studying than to get it wrong on the test. Remember that making mistakes while studying provides us with valuable lessons that will help us develop our learning to prevent us from making those same mistakes in the future.

References:

(2019, April 10). Exercise Your Brain Muscles Today. University of Wisconsin Green Bay. https://blog.uwgb.edu/hr/2019/04/exercise-your-brain-muscles-today/.

Dabrowski, J. (2020, February 08). Growth Mindset vs Fixed Mindset. Mindcoach. https://jdmindcoach.com/growth-mindset-vs-fixed-mindset/.

Kelly, K. and Ramundo, P. (2020, July 14). Talk Your Way to Productivity. ADDitude. https://www.additudemag.com/adhd-time-management-productivity/.

McGuire S., & McGuire, S. Y. (2018). Teach Yourself How to Learn: Strategies You Can Use to Ace Any Course at Any Level, Chapter 6. Stylus Publishing, LLC.