A Mindset for Learning: The Dispositions of Academically Successful Students

Scott Gaier
Associate Professor, Academic Enrichment
Taylor University

Deep learners engage beyond the surface of memorization and the disconnected learning of individual facts. They have a desire for learning that goes beyond good grades and “correct” answers. These students are driven by curiosity and interest. They have a passion and desire to be genuine learners.

What would it be like to have a classroom full of students who are deep learners? What happens if we already do—but students do not how to awaken this inner learner, are not aware of how to deepen their learning, or perhaps even worse, we are keeping them from it?

A Growth Mindset

Through decades of research on motivation, success, and achievement, Carol Dweck found “that the view that you adopt for yourself profoundly affects the way you lead your life” (2006, p. 6). This view is known as mindset. She details the importance of mindset in her book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. According to Dweck, there are two distinguishable mindsets. A fixed mindset perceives “that your qualities are set in stone” (p. 6); whereas a growth mindset is “the belief that your basic qualities are things you can cultivate through your efforts” (p. 7).

Students with a fixed mindset view their ability to learn as a function of their unchangeable traits—they are either smart or not. Failure is attributed to these fixed traits and typically restrains or ends learning. For example, students struggling to learn math may claim they just are not “math people” then readily give up. These students are typically displaying a fixed mindset for mathematics, believing their success is dependent upon their innate math smarts.

Students with a growth mindset attribute success to hard work or effort. Failure becomes a natural part of the learning process and is not an ending point. Futhermore, failure indicates that effort needs to be increased. Struggling math students with a growth mindset are much more likely to expend more effort and persist in learning because they believe their math ability can improve.

Teaching Students Dispositions for Learning

Stemming from Dweck’s work on mindset, I began researching if there were dispositions associated with a growth mindset. For the purpose of my research, a disposition was defined as a prevailing cognitive and emotional state towards the content being learned and toward the learning process. It assumed that a disposition was not a fixed trait. Rather, a disposition could be learned or acquired and was dynamic and flexible.

Our research found that students who were succeeding academically possessed certain dispositions towards learning. Preliminary results indicate that successful students have dispositions for learning such as: active engagement, curiosity, joy, intentional effort, learn from failure, persevere, and seek help.

We are also finding a relationship between deep learning and students who use these dispositions to help learn. Consequently, to help facilitate deep learning, we need to intentionally integrate into our course design and content teaching students how to take responsibility for their learning through specific dispositions. In this article I will discuss the dispositions: active engagement, curiosity, and failure.

Active Engagement

Female Pupil Sending Text Message In ClassroomWhen learning is at its best, active engagement is a natural response. Unfortunately for most students, textbooks and other assignments are active.  They can often be very disengaging. For example, students frequently read to fulfill a requirement, plodding through, trying to understand and retain the material. Their minds are not engaged with the presented information.

Students with an active engagement disposition set their mind to learn and to bring the energy to the learning process. They choose to engage learning when learning is not naturally engaging. In What the Best College Students Do, Ken Bain suggests, “[the best college students] remained active learners, no matter what the instructor did….In the midst of mind-numbing lecture, the active learners speculated about possibilities, applications, and implications” (2012, p. 232).

One of the best ways to equip students to be actively engaged is to encourage them to be engaged. For example, in our research and experience, we are finding that simply informing students about what active engagement is and its importance to learning increases the likelihood that they will practice it. Furthermore, teachers should encourage students to choose to be actively engaged in the learning process.  Students readily report that “changing their attitude” and actively engaging in learning made it more enjoyable, they performed at a higher level, and it took less time.

Curiosity: Beholding the Greatness of Learning

The best learners are curious. They often choose to see the greatness of the subject being studied even if they have no natural interest in the subject. Teachers should invite students to see the beauty of the subject. Parker Palmer (2007) labels this as the grace of great things:

By great things, I mean the subjects around which the circle of seekers has always gathered—not the disciplines that study these subjects, not the texts that talk about them, not the theories that explain them, but the things themselves….It is in the act of gathering around them and trying to understand them—as the first humans must have gathered around fire—that we become who we are as knowers, teachers, and learners. p. 110

Ken Bain (2004), in his book What the Best College Teachers Do, echoes Palmer’s idea of great things. He notes that the best teachers intentionally develop learning experiences that invite students to gather around the awe of what is being learned. An example of this is having a posture of humility where the teacher is not an arrogant expert but a fellow student. The teacher is in awe of the subject and displays an interest and enthusiasm that is contagious. Teachers who genuinely demonstrate energy and interest in their content naturally increased active engagement, including curiosity. Contrarily, if we visibly do not care about our subject or teaching, why would we expect our students?


Failure plays a natural and important role in all that we do, especially in learning. Fear of failure can keep all of us from taking the risks necessary to make discoveries, implement needed change, or face challenging situations. As teachers we should equip students to become more comfortable with failure in the learning process. I have found many students respond well to Schwartz’s (2008) concept of productive stupidity:

“Productive stupidity means being ignorant by choice….One of the beautiful things about science is that it allows us to bumble along, getting it wrong time after time, and feel perfectly fine as long as we learn something each time….The more comfortable we become with being stupid, the deeper we will wade into the unknown and the more likely we are to make big discoveries” (p. 1771).

Beautiful young woman and a man raising hands in classroomThe classroom can be a fearful place, both for teacher and student. Consequently, students are often reluctant to expose themselves due to fear of ridicule or being discovered ignorant. Teachers often possess the same fears, yet are unwilling to admit it. Teachers rarely discuss their failures in front of students or especially colleagues. Yet, we know that failure is a natural part of the learning process.

One of the most important ways to help students generate a disposition for embracing failure is to create a safe learning environment and to model our own failures. One great way to do this is through storytelling—share relevant stories throughout the class about times when you struggled as a student or about shortcomings and failures as a professor or researcher and how you handled these. The more that I have shared about my own failures, both as a student and as a professor, my students have been willing to confront their own and to embrace the learning process. In addition, mastery approaches to assignments, tests, and papers, is another way to encourage students to learn from failure. For example, I will often allow students to revise a paper based on my feedback for a grade change. Other ideas include retaking a quiz or test, repeating an experiment or a presentation to allow students to implement feedback.

A Desire to Learn and Deeper Learning

It is commonplace that students rely on the content, the charisma of a teacher, or the right bells and whistles to inspire learning. Consequently, students can become disengaged, expecting high results from little effort and low commitment of their own. Deep learners demonstrate dispositions associated with a growth mindset for learning and place responsibility for learning on themselves not their teachers, the content, or the environment. In essence, they cultivate their own desire to learn.

Deep learning is hard work. It requires active engagement, a sense of curiosity, and involves failure. However, it is splendidly rewarding. As teachers, do we invite students to be deep learners? Are we calling them out of their surface approach to learning and equipping them with the dispositions that facilitate a learner’s spirit? Do we have the belief that together with our students we can do great things? Intentionally teaching students the dispositions for learning is one way to help them become better learners.


Bain, K. (2004/2012). What the best college students do. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

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

Palmer, P. (2007). The courage to teach: Exploring the inner landscape of a teacher’s life (2nd ed.). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Schwartz, M. A. (2008). The importance of stupidity in scientific research. Journal of Cell Science, 121, 1771. http://doi.org/10.1242/jcs.033340

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