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  4. Thinking about intelligence and mindsets

Thinking about intelligence and mindsets

Have you ever wondered why certain people seem to cope more easily than others with the demands of academic study? Do you think some individuals are naturally more intellectual than others?

Many educators and psychologists are fascinated by the concept of intelligence and its effect on our ability to learn new skills and knowledge. Some theories suggest that intelligence can be measured - by IQ tests, for example. Debate also focuses on the validity of using intelligence tests to predict the likelihood of academic success. Many universities worldwide require students to sit psychometric tests as part of their standard application procedures.

Traditional thinking about intelligence has been challenged in recent years by new ideas with far-reaching implications. Theories about multiple intelligence and emotional intelligence, for example, are influencing trends in management and training as well as education.

The idea of mindsets was developed by Professor Carol Dweck of Standford University in the 1980s. She explored how perceptions of intelligence influence behaviour in educational settings. Her study of secondary school pupils revealed two distinct sets of perceptions, which she termed 'mindsets'.

Mindset: The New Psychology of Success - this is a podcast interview with Carol Dweck about her book. Source: Dweck, C. (2006) Mindset: the New Psychology of Success, Random House, New York.

Pupils with a fixed mindset regarded intelligence as innate and unchangeable, fixed from birth. They tended to

  • choose modules and assignments that seemed like safe options
  • worry about the possibility of failure
  • be concerned that other people would see them as less intelligent
  • find it difficult to ask for help or feedback.

Pupils with a growth mindset believed that intelligence could be cultivated and developed through effort and persistence. These pupils tended to

  • actively seek out new challenges
  • welcome opportunities for intellectual development
  • respond positively to feedback
  • feel comfortable in asking for help.

Dweck discovered that pupils with a growth mindset performed better in their studies and made more academic progress than their peers with a fixed mindset. In other words, people who believe in personal growth achieve better results than those who feel that their intelligence is unalterable.

Identifying your mindset: Fixed or growth?

You might find it interesting to reflect on your current mindset to help you to think about assumptions you make about yourself as a student.

This table shows some typical responses related to mindset. Start by thinking about your response to each question in the first column - you might like to jot down some notes. Now compare your answers with the comments associated with each mindset in the other two columns.

Question Fixed Mindest Growth Mindset
What do you think about intelligence? You're either born with it, or not. It's not something you can change. It's not determined by biology alone. It can be developed.
How do you approach new study tasks? I'd rather stick to the kinds of things that I know I can do. I'm excited by new ideas and activities.
How do you feel about assessments? I'm afraid that other people will think less of me if I get poor results. I feel pressured to work hard because I know it will make a difference to my results.
Are you willing to take risks? I'd rather not run the risk of making mistakes. If I make a mistake, at least I can learn from it.
You get a low mark for an assignment. How do you respond? This proves that I'm not really capable of doing this, or that I picked This shows that I need to work harder.
You get a high mark for an assignment. How do you respond? I'm afraid that I won't be able to maintain this standard in future. This shows what I can achieve when I set my mind on something.
How do you feel about seeking support from your tutor or other students? If I ask for help, other people will see me as not very competent. No problem. Other people are a great resource to learn from.

If your responses are similar to those associated with a fixed mindset, consider these questions.

  • How does your mindset influence you as a student?
  • What could be different?
  • What could help you to change your mindset?
  • If you seem to have a growth mindset, consider these questions.
  • How does your mindset affect the way you learn?
  • How can you make the most of this mindset?
  • What could help to reinforce and maintain this mindset?

Taking time to think about these questions could help you to develop your skills as a reflective learner.