By: Paul Dexter, Director of Academic Retention Initiatives & Cristina Kerluke, Learning Commons Academic Support Program Specialist

Our weekly column is titled “Learning: It’s What You DO That Matters.” This catchphrase aims to level the playing field, as all students can improve their learning and academic performance by employing intentional, evidence-based, action-oriented strategies. We recognize, though, the link between our thoughts and our actions. Of particular importance is our “mindset.” There are many ways to explore the concept of mindset in relation to learning. In this article, we will consider three perspectives: our academic goals, our self-concept, and whether we have a “fixed” or “growth” mindset.

Let’s begin with what drives much of our time and effort in life: our goals. Imagine what life would be like without goals to guide and focus our daily time and energy. When it comes to academics, often there are at least two categories: performance goals and learning goals. Examples of performance goals include, “I need to get at least a B on this exam,” and, “I want to make Dean’s List this semester.” There is nothing inherently wrong with performance goals, as they can provide motivation to apply our effort. However, if my ONLY motivation is a performance goal, it can actually create barriers to academic success. I may get discouraged more easily if I don’t do as well as I hoped on a paper or quiz. I may try to cram or cut corners because of the added pressure of the grade. Performance goals tend to be driven by external motivation, namely the grade. Learning goals, on the other hand, are based on how the information is relevant to my life, and how well I am mastering the concepts or content so that I can build upon that foundation in future courses, and along my pathway in my professional field. A learning goal considers what I want and need to get out of every reading, every class meeting, every practice set. When I can see the relevance of my work, and am willing to self-assess how well I know the information, my motivation becomes much more internally driven. In short, a performance goal places the most emphasis on the outcome. A learning goal emphasizes effort, since for any learning to take place, there needs to be a certain level of struggle. The good news is that a greater focus on learning goals leads to increased performance as well!

Now let’s explore the role of self-concept. How we talk to ourselves matters. We all have an inner critic, that little voice inside that says, “I can’t do this. This is too hard. I’m not smart enough. I give up.” Our mind is a very powerful tool, and we may underestimate the impacts our thoughts can have on our actions. In the book Crucial Conversations, the authors note the importance of distinguishing between the facts and the story we tell ourselves about the facts. For example, a fact may be that I did poorly on a math exam. The story I may tell myself is, “I can’t do math.” Or perhaps a fact is that I did not do well on a paper I wrote for one of my classes, and the story I tell myself is, “I’m a terrible writer.” As part of self-concept, it’s important to become more aware of what are the facts and what are the stories. In the first case, I did poorly on the exam, change the story to, “I can review how I prepared for the exam, and work with my professor or a tutor to clarify concepts.” In the case of the paper, the story can become, “The feedback my professor offered will help me become a stronger writer over time, and I’ll take advantage of the opportunity to submit a revised draft.” Again, how we talk to ourselves matters, and can either support or deter us from taking productive action. Take steps to create an inner coach stronger than your inner critic!

Finally, there is the notion of a “fixed versus growth mindset.” World-renowned psychologist Carol Dweck researches the power of mindset. Her many years of research demonstrates that our success can be significantly influenced by how we think about our abilities and talents. She describes the attitudes one has towards failure as either a “fixed mindset” or a “growth mindset.” According to Dweck, a fixed mindset typically involves performance goals, and a growth mindset usually entails learning goals. A student with a fixed mindset will believe that their talents and abilities are fixed traits, with no room for improvement. A student with a growth mindset will believe that their talents and abilities can be developed with time and effort, with a willingness to try new things.

What is your response to academic struggle? Are you tempted to give up easily or do you embrace a challenge? Students with a fixed mindset may be tempted to let one setback define them, whereas, a growth mindset is all about recognizing that setbacks or “bumps in the road” are part of the learning process. If you replace the “I can’t do it” with an “I can’t do it, yet,” the setback now becomes an opportunity for growth.

As you reflect on the link between your thoughts and actions, have confidence in knowing that mindsets can change. Your thoughts are one of the very few things in life that you have control over. Steps to consider:

  • Choose learning goals. Focus on the improvement of skills versus the “winning.”
  • Be aware of your thoughts. Recognize the difference between the facts and the stories you are telling yourself.
  • Use positive self-talk. Challenge your inner critic by talking back to it with your inner coach.
  • Choose a growth mindset over a fixed mindset. Learn from your setbacks and embrace the notion that with dedicated efforts, you can improve your abilities.

Are you interested in learning more about mindset? offers some great resources for you to explore. For additional academic resources and strategies, visit us at


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