Monday, September 24, 2012

Can I Improve?

Students who seek assistance in writing centers often say something to this effect, “I suck at writing.” They believe this wholeheartedly. Be it from years of harsh criticisms, papers saturated in red ink, or a lack of positive reinforcement, students build layers of deep beliefs that they are innately designed to be poor writers. 

But what if someone were to simply tell one of those poor writers that they can improve? Would they?

Dr. Carol Dweck, Lewis and Virginia Eaton Professor of Psychology at Stanford University, says that “people with a fixed mindset believe that their traits are just givens. They have a certain amount of brains and talent and nothing can change that” ( This describes the “I-suck-at-writing” mentality often seen in writing centers.  

However, Dweck presents an alternative mindset: the growth mindset.  “People with a growth mindset,” says Dweck, “see their qualities as things that can be developed through their dedication and effort” ( Thankfully, Dweck argues that one can change from a fixed mindset to a growth mindset.

But how does one do that? How does one change a I-suck-at-writing writer to a confident writer?

On “This AmericanLife” host Ira Glass discussed a similar topic centered around education and cognitive development with researcher Paul Tough. Tough presents a small and simple program where college students meet a high school student a couple of times a year to relay only one message ( “The only thing they were to say to them,” said Tough, “is simply this idea: you can improve your intelligence”( Tough says that studies show that the program had a 100% success rate with students catching up to their peers in performance (
Students can change from fixed to growth mindsets and from poor to confident writers. And that's change we all need to believe in.

As the program Tough presented shows us, changing a student from a fixed mindset to a growth mindset can begin with the simple phrase, "you can improve." In other words, the first step to changing perceived 'bad' writers into a confident writer is through positive reinforcements and projecting a you-can-do-this attitude.

When a writing consultant hears the phrase “I suck at writing,” they should hear it as a wonderful opportunity to plant a seed to a growth mindset to rebuild students' confidence and start cultivating their minds.  It may only take a student to hear this message a couple of times a year and writing consultants in writing centers are in the perfect environment to capitalize on this approach!  
Listen to NPR's Dr. Moira Gunn interview Dr. Carol Dweck here to learn more about fixed and growth mindsets.
fort. Sure they’re happy if they’re brainy or talented, but that’s just the starting


  1. The voices in our heads are powerful. Thanks for the reminder.

  2. Although I wish Tough would have integrated research from Edward Deci about internal motivation into his book _How Children Succeed_, his writing that synthesizes research from Duckworth, Seligman, Dweck, and others is thought-provoking reading.

    And so is this post, Scott.

    If you haven't checked out Tough's book, I recommend it. In fact, I hope the book gets on the short list for the next round of EIU Reads.