The Right Mindset to Succeed

The Right Mindset to Succeed

Shimon Sarraf
In our recent Annual Results 2016 publication, we highlighted new research indicating that college students benefit from a growth mindset – a belief that intelligence and other personality characteristics can change with effort and experience. This finding is not new. Researchers, especially Carol Dweck from Stanford University, have been ringing this bell for quite some time.

So why should you pay attention to this?

If you are involved with higher education and student development, you likely want students to be more open to learning, willing to confront challenges, and able to persist past social and curricular hurdles while in school. These are just some of the benefits that come along with having a growth mindset. In contrast, fixed mindset individuals believe that one’s intelligence is generally immutable, which leads them to feeling as if they need to prove their intelligence more often, shy away from feedback, and avoid challenging learning opportunities.

To our knowledge, no other research has explored how NSSE constructs of engagement relate to a college student’s mindset. The current study fills this gap in the literature. With about 11,000 first-year and senior students from a diverse group of 38 U.S. colleges and universities, we looked at the relationship between mindset and engagement closely.  It came as no surprise that the majority of college students in our sample believed intelligence is malleable, suggesting a growth mindset. In fact, depending on the survey question used, well over half to three-quarters agreed or strongly agreed with this basic premise (see below).

Selected Questions about Mindset


Note: Data included both first-year and senior students

We anticipated that three particular NSSE measures would relate to mindset: Learning Strategies, Reflective & Integrative Learning, and Perceived Gains. Among seniors, there were substantial differences between fixed mindset and growth mindset groups on the three NSSE measures favoring growth-mindset students. Students in the top mindset quartile averaged about eight points higher on these various measures compared to those in the bottom quartile.

Interestingly, we also found similarly strong positive relationships between mindset and two other Engagement Indicators: Higher-Order Learning and Effective Teaching Practices. It may be that growth-mindset students are more inclined than others to choose challenging courses taught by well-regarded faculty in their quest for learning. Students with a growth mindset were also more likely to describe their courses as challenging them to do their best work compared with those with a more fixed mindset.

These results suggest that mindset influences how students approach learning during college. Compared to those of a more fixed mindset, growth mindset students appear to be well served by high levels of engagement in effective educational practices in college. Although further inquiry into the relationship between mindset and learning at the college level is warranted, efforts to promote student awareness of the malleable nature of intelligence promise to pay dividends.

For more details about this investigation, see our Annual Results publication.