Focus on Your “Learning Process” rather than Your “Ability” to be Successful

Compiled by Kaveh Farrokh (Ph.D.), Counsellor & Learning Specialist at Langara College Counselling Department.


Carol S. Dweck is a pioneering field of motivation and learning with her recent article (“The Secret to Raising Smart Kids”) having appeared in the Summer 2017 Special Collector’s edition of Scientific American Mind (citation of the article is provided in “references” below).

Dweck’s article cites several findings of relevance to university students, relationships and workplaces. To summarize this discussion in advance: students who have a Growth Mind-set (abilities and performance can be improved with effort and strategy) focus on the “process” of learning. These students tend to become higher achievers than students who have the Fixed-Mind set (ability and “IQ” are fixed and cannot be changed or improved). Interestingly, students with the Fixed Mind-set tend to focus on their “IQ” and “ability” rather than applying effort and strategies to change and improve their performance.

Fixed Mind-Set: Focus on “IQ” and “Ability

A span of 35 years of research has revealed the following: students who ignore the importance of the quality of their effort (work) and overemphasize their “IQ level” or “talent” are more often vulnerable to the effects of failure. This is due to two maladaptive beliefs about intelligence or “IQ” known as the Fixed-Mind Set:

1) “Intelligence cannot be improved: This is the notion that Intelligence is a fixed trait that can never be changed. In this belief, the person assumes that their “IQ” as fixed and innate (“I was born with this and cannot change or improve it”). As a result of this belief, the person concludes that there is no point in working hard to improve their abilities.

2) “If You work hard to get good marks, then you are not Smart: This is the notion that “No/Little effort = Smart” and is strongly tied to Belief 1. These students are more concerned with “looking smart” rather than focusing on the learning process itself. To these students, “Being Smart” or “Gifted” means that one can get high marks without working or studying. Conversely if a person studies and works hard to get good marks, this then means that that person is “not smart”. As a result they have negative views of applying effort to do well in school.

When students with a Fixed Mind-set get poor marks, they will assume that this is because they lack “ability” or even “IQ”. Interestingly when this happens, Fixed Mind-set students engage in one or a combination of the following behaviors: (1) they actually study less on the subject area in the future (2) will not retake the course (even if they actually need this as a prerequisite for other required courses) and (3) will consider cheating to get higher marks.

Note that when students attribute their poor performance to (lack of) ability lowers the motivation to fix errors, improve performance and learning in general. Giving negative comments about one’s skills such as “I’m not good at math…” or “…I have a terrible memory…” can actually lead to the deterioration of one’s problem-solving skills.

Students who overemphasize their “in-born talent” or “IQ” are much more vulnerable to failure: they actually fear a challenge and will often avoid working to improve their deficiencies. Mistakes are seen as being due to their “low ability”, which they think they cannot change or improve because they believe that they have a “fixed” (or limited?) amount of intelligence. As a result, these types of students avoid challenging work, because this often leads to errors and mistakes, which the student will see evidence of their lack of ability or being “less intelligent”.

People who are most vulnerable to this are often those who coasted through high school with little effort and got good grades. This then leads to the false premise of “I’m Smart” and or “I’m Gifted”. This goes right along with the (equally false) notion that “Smart people do not need to study to get good marks”. As noted by Dweck, this is the (false) Mind-set of:

No Effort Academic Achievement = Smart and/or Gifted

As these types of students believe that their “IQ” is fixed, it is more important to actually “look Smart” than to take the time and effort to improve one’s abilities. Ergo: students with a Fixed Mind-set have a distinct unwillingness to look for ways to improve the quality of their work. Many will actually view work needed to improve their performance as threats to their ego (e.g. “I’m not Smart because I have to spend time and effort to learn this”). So what often happens is that these types of students quickly lose their motivation and confidence whenever they face tasks that are challenging for them, simply because they are not “easy”.

Student resilience is adversely affected by the Fixed Mind-set. As noted by Peter Gray in his article “Declining Student Resilience: A Serious Problem for Colleges” published in Psychology Today, college faculty in general describe that a large number of students display:

“…an increased tendency to see a poor grade as reason to complain rather than as reason to study more, or more effectively. there has also been a decrease in the ability of many young people to manage the everyday bumps in the road of life. The lack of resilience is thwarting the emotional and personal development of students. Students are afraid to fail; they do not take risks; they need to be certain about things. For many of them, failure is seen as catastrophic and unacceptable. External measures of success are more important than learning and autonomous development.

Interestingly the Fixed Mind-set also affects the person in life in general: they often have difficulties in work and relationships. This is because they are less willing to admit to their errors and finds ways of improving their situation. The work and personal relationship aspect and relation with Mind-set will be discussed further below.

Growth Mind-Set: Focus on Effort and Strategy for Improvement

Students who adopt the Growth Mind-Set focus on the process of learning. This means that instead of focusing on their “IQ”, students with the Growth Mind-Set concentrate on improving their performance by focusing on the Process (Effort + Effective Strategies):

1) Applying Effort: put simply, this means putting in the work and the time to achieve your learning task. This is the appreciation that to learn a concept, one is obliged to work to understand it at a deep and meaningful level. Time management strategies can be highly effective here to help maximize the use of time in the most efficient fashion.

2) Working with Effective Strategies: This entails the use of effective strategies for learning (e.g. learning and memory techniques, note-taking and reading strategies, etc.). This is always a work in progress as strategies are constantly being improved and adapted with experience and feedback.

Having a constant focus on improving skills and fixing errors leads students with a Growth Mind-set to generate constructive thoughts such as:

  • This is an exciting challenge…
  • Let’s break this into steps that I can work with…
  • This is an opportunity to learn something new…

Challenges are seen as energizing rather than as something negative to be avoided. Errors or mistakes are seen as a learning opportunity. More specifically if one gets a poor mark on an exam, this often leads to working harder as well as changing/improving one’s study strategies. The aim is mastery of the material.

Because students with the growth Mind-set view intelligence as an entity that can be improved, they will see mistakes as originating from insufficient effort, lack of perseverance and a lack of skills that can be acquired. To these types of students mastery-learning of the material is more important than simply getting good grades.

Growth vs. Fixed Mind-set: How this affects School Performance

There are several studies that have examined the differences in academic performance with respect to students having a Growth versus Fixed Mind-set. Examples discussed below are performance in English proficiency exams and performance in Chemistry courses.

A 1999 study by Carol S. Dweck and three researchers examined 168 first-year university students entering the University of Hong Kong, where the primary language of instruction and coursework is English. The primary domain examined was low test scores in English proficiency exams (like Langara’s LET or UBC’s LPI tests) and the different approaches taken by students with a Growth versus a Fixed Mind-set. The results are as follows:

  • Students with a Growth Mind-set: When these students got a low mark on their English assessment, they were much more open to taking English remedial courses and working to improve domains such as syntax, grammar, vocabulary, essay writing, etc.
  • Students with a Fixed Mind-set: When these students got a low mark on their English assessment, they were much less willing to take remedial courses in English and to work on improving domains such as syntax, grammar, vocabulary, essay writing, etc. The researchers note that this is because these students have a fixed view of intelligence thinking they cannot improve their abilities. As a result they fail to see the opportunities of taking an English remedial course and work at improving their skills.

Dweck and Heidi Halvorston (Columbia University) examined the relationship between mind-set and academic achievement in 2003 among a group of 128 university students enrolled in a challenging first-year Chemistry course (similar to Langara’s CHEM 1120 & 1220). The results were interesting. While all of the students certainly cared about their marks in the course, there were marked differences between students with respect to those who held the Growth Mind-set versus those who held the Fixed Mind-set. The results of this study can be summarized as follows:

  • 1st year Chemistry students with the Growth Mind-set: these placed the highest importance on their learning process, which meant that they focused on constantly improving their learning and study technique strategies, paid attention to the quality and amount of their efforts and remained persistent in learning, especially when faced with challenges. These same students often got the highest grades as well.
  • 1st year Chemistry students with the Fixed Mind-set: these often were concerned with respect to whether they were “smart” in Chemistry and paid less attention to their learning process. Despite placing a high premium on high marks, these students also got lower grades overall than their peers who held a Growth Mind-set.

Growth vs. Fixed Mind-set: Relationships

Dweck and Lara Kammrath (Wake Forest University) conduced a 2006 study exploring the relationship between Mind-set and (Growth versus Fixed) and relationships. They found that Mind-set affects the quality and duration of relationships and the willingness to heal interpersonal difficulties:

  • Persons with a Fixed Mind-set: These often believed that human personality characteristics are fixed (i.e. “he/she will never change”, “People never change”, etc.). As a result these persons do not believe that relationships can be improved or repaired as a result of misunderstanding, etc.
  • Persons with a Growth Mind-set: These believe that people, regardless of their background and experiences, have the potential to learn and to change. As a result they not only have more confidence in facing problems that may arise in relationships they are also constantly working to improve the quality of their relationships.

Growth vs. Fixed Mind-set: the Workplace

Peter Heslin (University of New South Wales, Australia), Don VandeWalle (Southern Methodist University) and Gary Latham (University of Toronto) have explored the relationships between Mind-set and the workplace. The findings can be summarized as follows:

1] Workplace with the Fixed-mindset: employees and managers with this type of Mind-set are characterized by inefficient communication between each other and stunted progress (individually and as a collective) overall. Managers with a Fixed Mind-set are less likely to welcome suggestions and feedback from employees and colleagues. This is largely because these types of managers view feedback, etc. as reflecting their (lack of) competence. Employees with a Fixed Mind-set will also downplay, discourage or even ignore adaptive (or constructive) feedback, advice and constructive suggestions. Managers with a Fixed Mind-set also assume that people are incapable of improvement and change, which explains why they are less likely to constructively mentor their employees. Employees with a Fixed Mind-set will also downplay, discourage or even ignore adaptive (or constructive) feedback, advice and constructive suggestions.

2] Workplace with the Growth-mindset: employees and managers with this type of Mind-set are characterized by open, honest and direct communication between each other. Managers with a Growth Mind-set welcome suggestions and feedback from employees and colleagues. Feedback, etc. is viewed as useful for improving their performance. In a sense they see their performance as a “work in progress” always with the potential for improvement. This type of (Growth Mind-set) leads to consistent progress both individually (employees and managers) and also as a collective.

Heslin, VandeWalle and Latham also provided managers a seminar of the merits and applications of the Growth Mind-set. The managers benefited from the seminar in that they became motivated to reach out to and mentor their employees and to also provide them with constructive suggestions and feedback.

The Liabilities of Intelligence Praise

Intelligence praise” is in two forms:

  1. the student is constantly told that they are “smart”, “brilliant”, “genius”, etc. by their parents and teachers.
  2. high-achieving persons (e.g. top mathematicians, polymaths, etc.) are constantly described to the student as having been “born that way

Research suggests that persons, who as children received Intelligence praise from their parents and/or teachers, will develop a Fixed Mind-set. In contrast persons who as children receive praise for their effort and strategies will develop a Growth Mind-set.

As noted previously students with the Growth Mind-set will persevere in the face of errors and setbacks. In contrast, students with the Fixed Mind-set will often not persevere in the face of challenges and become quickly discouraged by failure die their belief that they are “not smart enough”.

The Most Effective Student Success Workshops: Strategies + Motivation + Brain Awareness

Studies have demonstrated that simply teaching students effective study strategies and time management skills will not help them achieve higher success. The most effective student success programs are those that combine effective study strategies with motivation training – especially the Growth Mind-set. As seen further below, Dweck has added another new module for brain training for enhancing learning effectiveness.

Dweck has successfully applied Growth Mind-set Classes in which she has her students discuss an article entitled “You can grow Your Brain”. This article teaches students that:

  1. The brain is like a muscle that gets more powerful with constant practice
  2. Learning stimulates the neurons in the brain to grow more connections
  3. They are agents of their own brain development

Dweck sites a 2002 study by Aronson et al. in which the student success model (study skills strategies + Growth Mind-set training) was provided to College students. Results revealed that students enjoyed their coursework much more than they used to, valued the learning process much more and also got higher marks and GPAs.

Dweck also has a five-module interactive computer program known as “Brainology”. This program (at present designed for school children only) teaches students the following:

  1. How the Brain works
  2. How to make the Brain perform more effectively

Students in the Brainology program learn to virtually “see” (on an interactive computer screen) how their brain region neurons make connections as they learn academic content.

The Langara College Student Success workshops offered through the Counselling department offer the following clusters of workshops for Student success:

  1. Study & Learning Management Strategies (workshops on Time Management, Learning & Memory Strategies, Note-Taking and Reading tips, Test-taking Strategies, etc.)
  2. Motivation (workshops on motivation, concentration and focus)
  3. The Brain

A New Definition of “Genius”: Passion, Hard Work and Strategies

People whom we know as “geniuses” such as Albert Einstein, Amadeus Mozart, Marie Curie, Sigmund Freud, Stephen Hawking, etc. attained their achievement through a combination of passion, enthusiasm, discipline, perseverance, hard work, and openness to new ways of thinking (strategies). These types of persons have a Growth Mind-set and enjoy focusing on the “Process” of Learning.

The below quote by Leonardo Da Vinci (1452-1519) helps conclude this article:

It had long come to my attention that people of accomplishment rarely sat back and let things happen to them. They went out and happened to things.


Dweck, C.S. (2015). The Secret to Raising Smart Kids. Scientific American Mind: Mysteries of the Mind (Special Collector’s Edition), Volume 23, Number 4, Winter, pp.77-83.

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