Growth Mindset

  • Take control of your life and embrace your potential.
  • Understand that good writing is not a natural talent, a gift of one’s birth, DNA or zip code.
  • Understand the benefits of adopting a Growth Mindset rather than a Fixed Mindset.

by Charles MacArthur

Growth Mindset refers to a personality construct theorized by Carol S. Dweck. People with a Growth Mindset assume traits such as intelligence and talent are a product of hard work, grit, determination.


Have you ever heard anyone say or have you thought yourself, “I’m just not good at math,” or “I’m just not any good at writing?”

Statements like these show a ‘Fixed Mindset.’ If skill at math or writing is based on natural talent or intelligence, then the case is closed: One is good at writing or not. This attitude is probably most common in math, which is why most of the research on changing mindset has been done in math classes. But it’s also very common in writing. And it has negative consequences for learning, leading to anxiety and avoidance behaviors. In an interview study with first year college students, Cox (**) found that most students expressed anxiety about their writing ability, and that anxiety led to avoidance behaviors. Students failed to submit assignments because they were fearful about the feedback they would get; the anxiety became a self-fulfilling prophecy. Students with a fixed mindset also tend to de-value the importance of writing, for example, by saying it is not important for their intended career. 

In contrast, a Growth Mindset encourages a positively reinforcing cycle. People who believe that their efforts and strategies can lead to success are likely to engage in learning activities and take on challenges with some enthusiasm, so they learn more, which reinforces their belief that they can learn to write well. In fact, according to some psychologists (Bandura, **: Pajares. **), this confidence, or self-efficacy, is central to motivation and learning. Students who are confident in their writing skills will work harder and persist through difficulties and, thus, will write better and learn more.

Here, we are not saying Attitude is Everything. As argued at How Can You Become an Effective Communicator?, writers need declarative knowledge about the discipline of Writing Studies, including, for example, knowledge of Collaboration, Genre, Information Literacy, Invention and Revision, Mindset, Organization, Research, Rhetoric, Style and Editing

However, we do believe having a Growth Mindset rather than a Fixed Mindset is incredibly important when it comes to writing well. After all, the writer is at the very heart of the writing process. The reverse–being preoccupied with negative thoughts–can make writing extremely aversive. The bottom line is learning to write well is tough. It requires a growth mindset.

Fixed Mindset 
People with a “Fixed Mindset” assume people’s intelligence and talent are static. They assume these traits a product of one’s birth and zip code.  You have probably heard people say, “I’m just no good at writing” or even more commonly “no good at math.” This is a fixed mindset. 
Dweck’s research  found people with a fixed mindset “spend their time documenting their intelligence or talent instead of developing them”  (https://mindsetonline.com.)

Growth Mindset
People with a “Growth Mindset” assume that traits such as intelligence and talent are a product of hard work, grit, determination.

When they are critiqued or face failure, they take it as a challenge to improve: they try new strategies, set goals, or seek help in learning. This leads them to engage in learning activities.
Writers who adopt a Growth Mindset are more likely to succeed long term in their efforts to research, write, collaborate, revise, and effectively communicate.

Dweck’s theorizing about a Growth vs. a Fixed Mindset sparked considerable academic research in psychology and educational theory (a true exemplification of Scholarship as a Conversation). Since Dweck’s original ground breaking research, mindset has been a vigorous domain of research by STEM educators, learning theorists, and cognitive psychologists. 

Recently, for example, after conducting an extensive review of research published in peer-reviewed journals, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (2017) concluded mindset and self-efficacy are correlated with success in school:

  1. Academic self-efficacy—a student’s belief that he or she can succeed in academic tasks.
  2. Growth mindset—a student’s belief that his or her own intelligence is not a fixed entity, but a malleable quality that can grow and improve (2017).  

(For a discussion of this research, see Research on Mindset & Intrapersonal Competencies.)

Over the past twenty years, a tsunami of books have been published on mindset, grit, and motivation. Angela Duckworth’s Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance rested on the New York Times best seller list for 20 weeks. At the Apple store, you can purchase apps that are intended to help you transform your thinking so it’s more positive and growth orientated.

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At Writing Commons, we are eager to publish research and theory as well as pedagogical exercises that help students develop a Growth Mindset. Please see Contribute to learn about how you can collaborate with us and help students along the way.

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