Mindsets and learning amongst veterinary students

Hazel Christie

One of the lovely things about working in the IAD is the opportunity to hear about the inspiring and creative projects that are happening around the University.  This week was no exception, and we had the good fortune to hear Rachel Whittington from the Royal (Dick) Vet School speaking on a project she’s running with the first year veterinary students.

Rachel’s project is based on ideas about ‘mindset’, derived from Carol Dweck’s influential book on the links between motivation, personality and development (Dweck 2006) .  Dweck’s arguments are well known: how individuals perceive their intelligence has implications for their learning behaviour, with profound differences being identified between those who have ‘fixed’ mindsets and those who have ‘growth’ mindsets.  Those with fixed mindsets believe that intelligence is a static entity and tend to emphasize performance goals, leaving them vulnerable to negative feedback and likely to disengage from challenging learning opportunities. In contrast, people with growth mindsets believe that intelligence is malleable, and tend to emphasise learning goals.  They also welcome feedback for the learning opportunities it affords them.

For Rachel, Dweck’s work had an immediate, and a powerful, intellectual and emotional appeal.  While it ‘gave her goose-bumps all over’, she also felt it offered her a powerful explanation for much of what she observed in the veterinary students where mental health problems are over-represented and where feedback is often experienced as a very negative process.  Could these outcomes be linked to the students’ mindsets, with a tendency towards more students having fixed mindsets?   A research project was duly born.  Is theVet School over-selecting students with fixed mindsets? What are the connections, if any, between the students’ mindsets, their psycho-social well-being and their attitudes to learning from feedback?  And what can the School do to move students towards a growth mindset?  Might this improve both the psycho-social well-being of the students as  well as their ability to engage with, and learn from, feedback in an open and constructive way?

Ambitious questions require ambitious research design.  Some three questionnaires were duly completed by 148 first year students – one on mindsets, one on well-being and a final one on students’ responses to feedback on assessment.  Clear findings emerged, most notably that students don’t cluster into either fixed or growth mindsets.  Rather there exists a continuum with most students falling somewhere in the middle, and a tail at either end.  A normal distribution, in fact, which was contrary to what Rachel expected to find, and which is an interesting finding in its own right.  It was also clear from the data that there were small, but statistically significant, differences between the psycho-social well-being of the students with fixed mindsets and those with growth mindsets: those with a fixed mindset had lower scores particularly on personal growth and purpose in life.  And these same students had lower scores for their response to feedback suggesting, again, that fixed mindset students are less likely to use feedback as a useful learning tool.

So what to do with all of this, Rachel asked?  She wanted advice and input about how best to take the research forward to encourage students to develop a growth mindset in the hope that this might this improve their psycho-social well-being as well as their ability to engage with, and learn from, feedback in an open and constructive way.  A wide ranging and lively discussion followed.  We touched on whether students should be told where they lay on the continuum of mindsets (most of us thought not), on how case study scenarios might be used to facilitate discussion with students on mindsets and learning behaviour, and on the difficulties of disentangling a desire for good grades from a fixed mindset.  It is likely that the next phase of the research will involve focus groups or interviews with the students, and we hope that our discussion helps Rachel to shape the research design.  Whatever the next phase, we’re looking forward to the update.

Further information can be obtained from Rachel at Rachel.whittington@ed.ac.uk

Reference

Dweck, C. S. (2006). Mindset: The new psychology of success.  New York: Random House

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