In this mental health and wellbeing mini-series post, Elwira Danak, a Learning and Development Advisor at Edinburgh University Students’ Association, describes how being aware of your mindset to learning can improve your mental health resilience…
Do you remember learning how to ride a bike?
I found it difficult and kept crashing my red bike into trees, lamp posts and unsuspecting passers-by. It was a frustrating task but I persisted, with some encouragement from my parents. And with every wobble and fall, I gradually learned a new technique, improved my posture and, in the end, I got there. It did not cross my mind that since it was a struggle, I was hopeless at riding a bike and should therefore give up immediately. As a result, while I will never reach the Olympic glory, I enjoy my daily cycle to work and I am grateful for sticking with it all those years ago.
Little did I know at the time, but I was encouraged to take ‘a growth mindset’ approach to my learning and believe that, with the right support, I could get better and develop my skills. As Dweck suggests (2007), the way we view ourselves and our innate abilities has impact on our mental wellbeing and almost every aspect of our academic and future professional lives. To summarise her findings briefly, Dweck (2007) identifies two types of mindsets:
- A fixed mindset, which assumes that talents and intelligence are innate gifts. These are static and can’t be changed, which means that people with a fixed mindset view challenges as failures and feel validated only if they are seen as smart and successful. A typical statement could be: I’ve always been bad at maths so what’s the point trying.
- A growth mindset, which assumes that talents can be developed, and views challenges and difficulties not as failures but opportunities for continuous learning. A typical statement could be: I don’t understand how this algorithm works so I’d better ask for help and try again.
Now, think about a time when you were disappointed with your exam result. How did you feel about it? Did you decide you were not smart enough and gave up? Or did you work with the feedback and aimed to get better next time? Only by understanding your own reactions to perceived failure can you develop effective strategies, shift your fixed mindset, and improve your mental wellbeing.
It is hard work because it is not always easy to reflect on our mistakes and change how we view them, so here are a few ideas to get you going:
- Reflect, learn and reflect some more
Set time aside to regularly review your goals and results. What feedback have you received? What do you need to pay attention to? What have you learned so far? What could you do differently next time? Participating in an Edinburgh Award is a good start!
- Watch your language
Whenever faced with a difficult task or a low grade, note your inner ‘voice’. Is it full of ‘you’re not good enoughs’? If yes, try to reframe your thoughts to, for example, ‘OK, I’m not there yet. What can I do to get where I want to be?’ Remember to be realistic.
- Be honest with yourself
Know your strengths and imperfections and work with what you have got. Learn from your mistakes and share these lessons with others. Even better, learn from the mistakes of others. Also be kind to yourself and celebrate your growth by making a conscious effort to see your time at the university as part of a lifelong learning adventure.
Engaging in a reflective practice and changing your mindset to a more open and flexible one will help you develop greater capacity for mental health resilience at university and in your future professional life.
Your full potential is not set in stone, and you will never know what you can accomplish with sweat, toil and determination unless you try it!
And if you’re interested in finding out more, here are some additional resources to read, watch and listen to:
Dweck, C. (2007). Mindset. New York: Ballantine.