Developing “Talent”: Mindset Matters

I recently attended the First Year Experience conference—a conference put on by The National Resource Center for the First-Year Experience and Students in Transition. It was a great opportunity to get connected with others in the first year experience world and to learn more about what colleges and universities around the world are doing to help students transition to college life.

While I was inspired by many of the presentations and discussions, the keynote address given by Rishi Sriram of Baylor University was particularly interesting. During his presentation Sriram talked about the development of student talent. We often think about talent as something that is innate—we either have it or we don’t. But what if that isn’t really true? What if what we call “talent” is actually a result of a lot of practice and hard work? 

During his presentation, he referenced Carol Dweck and her research on mindset. Dweck’s research has been covered quite a bit in the popular press in recent years, so you may have encountered her work already. In case you haven’t, Dweck has studied the difference between a fixed mindset and a growth mindset. According to Dweck, people with a fixed mindset “believe their basic qualities, like their intelligence or talent, are simply fixed traits. They spend their time documenting their intelligence or talent instead of developing them.” Those with a fixed mindset tend to believe that doing something successfully means accomplishing that task with little effort. If effort is involved, it’s a sign of lack of talent. Those with a growth mindset, however, “believe that their most basic abilities can be developed through dedication and hard work—brains and talent are just the starting point. This view creates a love of learning and a resilience that is essential for great accomplishment.” (Source: Mindset)

So then it all comes down to learning and practice. Sriram noted that a growth mindset is necessary to work on developing skills. Students have to believe that they can become better (“talented”) at something. But that doesn’t mean it’s going to come easy. He also noted that it’s a combination of approximately 10,000 hours of difficult practice (emphasis on the difficult part), motivation, and positive mentorship that leads to skill development. (Note: the part about 10,000 hours of practice is also discussed in Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers.)

What does this mean for us? We often interact with students in shorter bursts such as library instruction sessions, consultations, or reference desk interactions. There are a few things we can do in the brief time that we work with students to help them develop library research talent:

  1. Ask students to set a goal for the session. What do they want to know or be able to do by the end of our short time together?
  2. Get students to perform: Have students practice what we’re asking them to do right there in front of us. Students need to have an opportunity to actually try out what we’ve modeled for them.
  3. Provide feedback: This one seems easy, but Sriram cautioned that little time should be spent on praising or criticizing. Rather, we need to provide direct, actionable feedback based on how they are performing or practicing during the session.

Instruction sessions and consultations always seem to end too quickly. I know I often catch myself thinking about all the things I need to “cover” during that time. I have to remember to focus on student learning rather than what material I will present. Sriram’s presentation provided a good reminder of concrete ways to accomplish this so that it is beneficial for students.

Helping students develop a growth mindset, even just a few small steps, is good for them in the long run. Engaging in the process of research and information evaluation isn’t always easy. Students can quickly feel overwhelmed or frustrated. They may even feel like they just don’t have the talent needed to carry out these tasks and subsequently give up. If we work with students by providing them opportunities for practice and to receive actionable feedback, and if we remind them that it’s totally normal to feel overwhelmed or frustrated during the process, we can help them develop the mindset and skills necessary to be successful researchers in college and beyond.

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