Defend against the dangers of a fixed mindset: If past behaviour is the best predictor of future behaviour, why do A-grade students fail?

The interview of Anita Campbell and Enzokuhle. She discusses some aspects of developing a growth mindset. Although written in the context of Mathematics education, the article contains several valuable insights that potentially have a much broader application.

Illustration by Cayla Basson

Enzokuhle[1] sits opposite me in my office. It’s halfway through the semester and we’re discussing how this mathematics course can still be passed despite low achievement so far. [1]  Although Enzokuhle was the most common South African name for males and females in 2018, I have never had a student with this name. This scenario is based on similar discussions I have had with many students.

Enzokuhle explains how personal circumstances interfered with study plans this past term, but, “Things are sorted now, I can focus. I know I can do better and I’m very motivated to complete this engineering degree, for myself and my family”. I ask, “What changes will you make from last term?” Enzokuhle replies: “Attend all classes, ask the tutors or classmates for help when I’m stuck, come to your consultation times every week to check my understanding of that week’s concepts, work with friends in the group study space at my residence, retake the weekly online quizzes until I can master the work, and I will take care of my health by sleeping enough, eating healthy food, exercising, and keeping up with weekly meetings of a support group”.

I struggle to think of any more advice I can offer. Enzokuhle seems to know what steps to follow to improve. 

For a week or two, Enzokuhle seems to be following the plan. In a consultation time chat, I gently point out an error in Enzokuhle’s work and explain why this was a common misconception. I feel the consultation went well. But soon Enzokuhle’s attendance became patchy, further consultations are missed and online quiz results are poor. Enzokuhle avoids communication with me, making and missing consultations. Sadly, the outcome is a ‘fail’ grade.

I’ve seen many variations of this scenario, including ones where students follow through on their plans and succeed. Colleagues and I have puzzled over struggling students who seem to have it all – high past academic performance, strong motivation, supportive family and friends, knowledge of the steps to take to improve – not to mention a caring lecturer who is doing all they can to make the course interesting and supportive (winking emoji).

What keeps some students from doing what they want to do?

There are so many possible reasons: emotional baggage from personal problems may not be sufficiently cleared; addictions to social media, series, gaming, alcohol, sweets, drugs, sex may interfere with study plans; relationships may disrupt the effectiveness of study group meetings; a simple lack of time engaging with course content. In 2015, as I was starting my PhD, I come across a new reason that seemed so well suited to engineering students I was teaching that I made it the focus of my PhD studies. In a nutshell, it was that behaviour is driven by beliefs, and beliefs are stronger than willpower. Students with deeply held beliefs that work against their planned actions are unlikely to start or stick with planned action if it goes against their beliefs, even when they are not consciously aware of their beliefs.

Carol Dweck describes the beliefs-drive-behaviour phenomenon in her best-selling book Mindset. Her work is based on decades of her research on student motivation and applies beyond academics to sports, business and relationships. She describes a continuum of beliefs. When we are on the fixed mindset end of the spectrum, we believe that abilities are innate and that a main goal in life is to find what you are good at. Statements like, “I can’t draw/cook/do maths” align with a fixed mindset.

The opposite end of the spectrum is the growth mindset, where a main goal is to be a successful lifelong learner. Self-improvement, rather than displaying talent, drives growth mindset behaviour. Apart from certain sports where physical qualities give a distinct advantage (like shorter height in gymnastics), growth mindset beliefs say, “You can continuously improve at anything with the right strategies, practice and feedback.”

I’m guessing that many people reading this benefitted from fixed mindset beliefs about their ability in mathematics at school. Mindset theory does not say that people are all the same. If solving geometry problems came easier for you than your classmates, then teachers and friends may have made comments that made you feel you had a valuable gift that others did not. Developing yourself in a direction that you already have a head-start in is likely to keep you ahead of your peers and reinforce a fixed mindset. 

Perhaps, like at least one Stellenbosch mathematics lecturer, you were told that you could do maths because you were “a hard worker”. Ambitious fixed mindset people would take that as a sign to look for a different field where they were more naturally suited. Of course, naturally talented people are also expected to work to develop their talent, but the assumption is they should not need to work hard. In a fixed mindset society, natural brilliance is valued more than learning and development. However, fixed mindset beliefs come at a cost to mathematics students.

Illustration by Liani Malherbe

Dangers of a fixed mindset

Here are some unspoken and damaging fixed mindset rules:

  • To be worthy of approval, demonstrate that you have natural talent.
  • Avoid situations where you won’t shine. Competing and losing is worse than doing nothing. This includes choosing study directions. Stick with safe subjects you can achieve high grades for, even if it means repeating content. Interest in the topic is of small importance compared to trying something different that makes you look untalented.
  • If you don’t understand, hide your ignorance. Asking a question in class is a sure way to get branded as low in natural ability, from which there is no recovery – unless the question is just an excuse to impress others with your advanced knowledge.
  • Cut deadlines fine. If your performance is poor, you can blame a lack of time rather than lack of ability.
  • Do not take responsibility when you get a low mark. It’s someone else’s fault, usually the teacher who hasn’t learnt how to make the most of your raw talent or who set unfair, tricky questions. You can also blame parents for not giving you better genes, developers of addictive games, producers of addictive series, neighbourhood noise, Eskom, the weather, …
  • Looking over marked tests is a waste of time and painful. Assessment is for checking who has talent. Reviewing mistakes is only necessary for hard workers.

What is a growth mindset?

One reason that growth mindset beliefs are less appealing is that they de-emphasise tags like “gifted” that make us feel special, and who doesn’t want to feel special? When the game is to continuously improve, how do you know when you are a winner?

Here are ways that growth mindset beliefs affect learning:

  • People have different starting points, so obtaining 80% doesn’t have a lot of meaning without context. What matters more is, what did you learn?
  • If the game is continuous improvement, a low score just shows where you have misunderstandings, either about the work or your preparation. It is not a judgement about your worth.
  • Making mistakes is a sign that you are challenging yourself. Getting something wrong is only a problem if there is no learning from it.
  • Correcting mistakes is a very effective way to learn.

If, like me, you recognise some fixed mindset characteristics in yourself, the bad news is that long-standing beliefs supported by society are not easily changed just by knowledge. I was enthusiastically convinced about the benefits of having a growth mindset, spent five years on a PhD on mindsets, and yet still catch myself saying things that align with a fixed mindset, like ‘good girl’ when I do something well. It’s not just me. Even after researching and teaching about mindsets, Carol Dweck would slip into fixed mindset talk!

How do we develop a strong growth mindset?

The five-stage model of behaviour change starts with Pre-contemplation, corresponding to hearing about mindset theory without intending to act on the knowledge. In Contemplation, we would play with the idea that we might be better off with a growth mindset. Preparation is a stage often lasting about six months in which we start planning changes, before we start to make the changes in the Action stage. There are likely to be ups and downs as we notice successes (like taking on a new challenge, asking for help, reducing procrastination, labelling actions e.g. “I used the wrong equation”) and failures (like calling ourselves names that imply fixed ability e.g. “Stupid me”, blaming others, and lapping up praise about our brilliance rather than our brilliant work from fixed mindset others). The Action stage is likely to be long and bumpy. In the final stage of Maintenance, your self-talk will reflect growth mindset beliefs and relapses will be quickly noticed and corrected.

Change starts with being willing to look inside oneself. If we are too discomforted by self-reflection, it is unlikely that we will make quick progress towards the growth mindset end of the mindset spectrum. Perhaps we feel reassured that we have some intrinsic ability in mathematics that sets us apart from others. Letting go of that belief may be scary. Letting go may also be especially valuable to top performing students who find themselves in a first-year mathematics class of hundreds of other top performing students, or to lecturers receiving rejection letters from journal editors.

A fixed mindset of myself as a maths person served me well. When I was at school, perhaps there were subtle cues from teachers that encouraged me more in maths than in other subjects. I felt confident that I could do maths and I enjoyed the satisfaction of solving maths problems. After I switched from studying dietetics to applied maths and physics, and then failed my first maths exam, I had no doubt that I could improve – clearly working through the night before an exam was a bad plan, and I recognised that understanding tutorial questions was not the same as being able to do them. That experience developed growth mindset beliefs that I could improve given time and the right work habits.

And there is the word I think may be most important on the journey to a growth mindset: habits. How do we unwire entrenched thought patterns? By building stronger alternative ones. For me, this has involved identifying common cues or sayings that have a fixed mindset leaning, like “You’re an A-grade student.” We need to act on the awareness raised by a knowledge of mindset theory. Relapses are likely, and that’s okay, because the game is to improve.  

Our education system is currently not set up for every matriculant to study their degree of choice at university. Achieving high marks is necessary to qualify for university, even if it comes at the cost of reinforcing fixed mindset thinking. Perhaps with the opening of online education due to the pandemic, there will be more opportunities for students to learn topics missed at school at their own pace, potentially opening different avenues for furthering their education.


Anita Campbell

Academic Development Lecturer,

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