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Counselor explains how mindsets can affect success in life

Feb. 7, 2014 at 4 p.m.
Updated Feb. 8, 2014 at 8:09 p.m.


The way a compliment to a child is phrased could affect his or her mindset on how he or she performs later in life. That's the message shared by Marianne Auten, who spoke at Victoria College's 2014 Spring Convocation.

Auten, a faculty member and counselor at Paradise Valley Community College in Arizona, has focused on current research on why people succeed and how to foster success, especially in community college students. "Reading Dr. Carol Dweck's book, 'Mindset,' changed my life. I immediately saw the relationship of a growth mindset to success in my students and to my own life," Auten said.

While considering whether to pursue a doctoral degree, Auten said she didn't know how to write a 200-page dissertation because writing was not her best subject. "Then, it occurred to me I didn't have to know how to write a dissertation before I started; that's something you do by the time you finish," she said. "That's part of the growth mindset."

Negative mindsets, she explained, can prevent people from accomplishing what they are capable of doing.

Excuses heard the most from people are "I don't have time" and "I don't have enough money."

"We do have legitimate reasons for not pursuing a dream, but sometimes, they are a mindset, a perception or belief we have about what we can and can't do and the obstacles in front of us and whether we believe we can overcome them."

Dweck, a Stanford University professor, studied the differences between high and low achievers. She examined gender, race and ethnicity and socioeconomic background, but she found no correlation.

The growth mindset says "my abilities can be developed through effort and experience," she continued.

Auten had VC faculty and staff separate declaration cards on their tables into two piles: the fixed mindset and the growth mindset. The declarations included such things as "I think of ways to confront obstacles," "I pass up opportunities that have a possibility of failure," and "I am concerned with improving."

When people focus on their abilities and perceived shortcomings, this can produce much anxiety and "whenever we're anxious, we're often not thinking clearly," Auten said. "For some students, it's when they get to college. They coasted through high school, didn't have to take a book home and still did fine. When they get to college, it's 'I didn't do well on that first test, so I'm changing my major, or I'm dropping that class.'"

She cited a study of fifth-graders who were given an age-appropriate puzzle to solve. Researchers then said to some students, "you did well. You must be really smart." To another group of kids, researchers said, "You did well. You must have worked really hard."

The fifth-graders were then given a college-level puzzle that none of them could solve. They were all told "you didn't do very well on that one." The students were then asked what type of puzzle they would like next: the easier one or a challenging one like the one they didn't solve, Auten said.

The majority of students who were told they were smart chose the easier puzzle while 90 percent of those told they worked hard selected the challenging puzzle, she said.

"Isn't that amazing?" Auten said. "That one sentence of praise can cause you to play it safe and stay where you are, or to take a risk and challenge yourself."

"We think it sounds good if I tell you, 'you learned it fast, you are so smart!' But you could perceive it as 'if I don't learn it quick, I'm not smart.'"

VC Assistant Professor of History Ann Kapp found Auten's ideas interesting, saying she tries to plant seeds of growth in her students' minds.

"When my students do well on an assignment, I do praise their hard work," Kapp said. "I also like to say 'when you go to grad school' or 'when you go to law school' you will study this topic in more depth instead of 'if.' 'When' statements open up possibilities for students. Our word choices can have an impact on our students."

Kim Smith, VC's Title V director, described the talk as "phenomenal."

"It reiterated, for me, what we try to teach students in the strategies for success class," Smith said. "Skill sets, both soft and hard, can be developed. However, it is up to the students to participate actively in their lives to make that happen. As instructors, it is our job to give them the tools they need to do that."

Auten regularly does workshops on the power of the mindset with students, faculty, peer mentors, tutors, academic advisers, honor students and parent groups.

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