Heather Russino By Heather Russino • April 25, 2018

Fixed Mindset vs. Growth Mindset: What’s the Difference and Why Does It Matter?

So, you’re back in college after several years.

This new experience may seem a bit daunting. Reviewing the course requirements and various assignments at the start of the semester can feel overwhelming and, just maybe, some of these unsettling fears are beginning to cloud your focus.

What if I’m not ready to return to college?

What if I’m not “smart” enough?

What if I can’t handle the pressure?

I’m not a “math” person – how will I pass a college-level math course?

What if I… fail?

 Take a deep breath and think, what if you do well?

What if I approach this challenge as an opportunity for learning and growth?

What if I make a decision right now that sets my mind up for success?

How would you feel if I told you there is a secret to building your confidence and ensuring that you will succeed in your college journey?

The Key to Success: Establishing a Growth Mindset

In Carol Dweck’s book, Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, Dweck explains that there are two kinds of mindsets: a fixed mindset and a growth mindset. She then shares extensive research to prove that establishing a growth mindset is the key to success.


In a fixed mindset, people believe their intelligence or talent are fixed traits; they believe talent alone contributes to their success without putting in any extra effort or going the extra mile. With a fixed mindset, people believe they are “smart” and don’t have to work as hard since they are born with intelligence or a specific skill set. For example, a fixed mindset believes there are people who are good at math and those that are not. They believe that you are good at math because you were born with talent or intellectual ability, and, therefore, you will be successful at math because you have an innate ability.

However, a growth mindset believes people with basic abilities can reach success through hard work and growth – the love of learning and hard work help to attain a certain skill or level of ability. In this mindset, intellect or talent is only a starting point. In fact, a growth mindset doesn’t believe there are “smart” people or people good at math, for instance. In fact, anyone can be good at math as long as you have a growth mindset and work hard toward achieving your goals.

Essentially, it’s setting your mind up for the challenge that equates to success.

A perfect example provided in the book is when a teacher gave a group of children two sets of puzzles. Children with a fixed mindset stuck with the "safe" puzzle, the one they knew they could complete without making a mistake. However, children with a growth mindset chose the more difficult puzzle from the onset. Even if these children weren't sure they could complete the puzzle or made mistakes along the way, they welcomed the challenge.

How to Encourage a Growth Mindset

So how can you encourage or foster a growth mindset, especially in terms of your academic journey? Focus on these principles:

  1. Approach each and every challenge as a learning opportunity – one for growth.
  2. Don’t get caught up in fear of failure or fear of not performing well. Instead, focus on the learning experience itself.
  3. Don’t seek direct approval or validation from others – you are on your own path, so let the validation and acceptance come from within yourself.
  4. Don't be afraid to take risks.
  5. Welcome any new challenge.
  6. Learn from criticism and your mistakes.
  7. Find inspiration in other people’s success.
  8. Embrace each problem presented and view it as a new experience, one to learn from.
  9. Work hard to find solutions to problems.
  10. When frustration sets in, don’t give up!
  11. Continue to challenge yourself.
  12. Growth mindset = lifelong learner. 

Remember, effort and attitude are the characteristics that determine success, not fixed abilities.

So the next time you begin to feel overwhelmed at the start of the semester or intimidated by a challenging course, take a breath and focus on your mindset. Having a growth mindset will help you to approach any new challenge with confidence.

Key takeaway: Work hard at anything you put your mind to. You can do it – it’s all in your mindset!

Editor's Note: This article was originally published in 2018 and has been updated for accuracy.

Heather Russino

Written by Heather Russino

Heather Russino is an instructional designer in The W. J. Seaton Center for Learning and Technology, an innovative and trailblazing learning environment center that serves self-directed students through the use of current and emerging technology and outcomes-driven curriculum design. A Columbia University graduate and educator for over 20 years, Russino enjoys writing about her areas of expertise in teaching, learning and course design.

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