We Need a Growth Mindset for Learning Library Research | From the Bell Tower

Students are motivated to learn when they believe they have the need and the capacity to acquire and master a new skill. Students come to college thinking they’ve mastered research. How can we help them discover they still have room to grow?
Steven BellStudents are motivated to learn when they believe they have the need and the capacity to acquire and master a new skill. Students come to college thinking they’ve mastered research. How can we help them discover they still have room to grow? When you speak with faculty about the challenges they encounter with students, a frequent lament is lack of self-efficacy. What faculty want is students who are motivated to learn the course subject matter. Academic librarians are no different. When we step in front of a classroom we want students to demonstrate enthusiasm for learning how to conduct college-level research. Whatever pedagogy a librarian practices, there will be little permanent change in student research behavior if the learner has little or no motivation to dive deeply into the subject matter. What librarians often get is anything but motivation. More typically students question why they need to listen to someone telling them how to do research—or telling them how to do what another librarian told them last semester in another course.

Faculty advantage

Non-library faculty who teach general education courses are challenged in similar fashion, but not quite the same way. They have to contend with students who want to know why they need to take a course in global politics when what they really want is a computer programming job. Faculty have an edge. They can create opportunities to spark students in a way that stimulates motivation. There’s grading too, but educators tend to prefer intrinsic over extrinsic motivation. Students come to the class as novices and they know it. They can choose to tune out and do the least amount needed to pass the class. Alternately, if the instructor is able to light a fire, students can immerse themselves in the subject matter. Connecting in the affective domain of learning to create that type of change takes time, and non-library faculty have much more of it than librarians.

A tough sell

Librarians lack the luxury of classroom time with students. Generating motivation is much more difficult under such circumstances. They face students who, in addition to perceiving librarians as offering little of value to advance their career aspirations, believe they already have good research skills. Students arrive at college with a high school research experience that reinforces a self-perception of competency. What more do they need to learn about research to succeed in college? It’s an uphill battle to motivate a student to embrace an idea or practice when they think they already know what they need to know. Both non-library faculty and academic librarians know that students have significant learning gaps when it comes to college-level research skills. Why else would we invest so much time and effort to develop information and other research-related literacy initiatives? How do we get students to acknowledge this gap, and more importantly, believe they have something to gain by shifting to a growth mindset when it comes to their research skills?

Not good at this

Have you ever heard a college student say “I’m just not good at research?” I imagine that few academic librarians have. Faculty hear this all the time. “I’m not good at math.” “I just can’t write.” “My brain won’t let me learn Spanish.” The problem, as discussed in Carol Dweck’s research, is one of mindset. Those with a fixed mindset believe they have limited intelligence and lack the mental capacity to learn. Trying and failing to learn something new would confirm their deficiencies. Out of fear and in defense, they refuse to try. It is also unfortunately possible that a past educator convinced the student of their inferiority in a certain subject. Showering students with praise for smartness, as opposed to effort, can also set students up for future failures when the going gets tough.

Creating a growth mindset

According to Dweck, when students are told they’re smart, and then they hit a wall with a subject like math or languages, they convince themselves the problem is lack of intelligence. Why try when you are just not smart enough to learn? With the proper motivation and encouragement, students can develop a growth mindset. That means they believe they can learn through study, practice and effort, that tackling a difficult assignment is a worthwhile challenge and that there is value in getting out of their comfort zone. Dweck’s research provides evidence that what educators do in the classroom can make a significant difference in motivating students and helping them acquire a growth mindset. Are college faculty paying attention to the mindset of their students when it comes to developing research skills? If we believe there’s a problem, what can academic librarians do to offer solutions?

Fixed in a different way

To some extent, for those less experienced with them, the college library and its electronic resources can be overwhelming. We know as much from Project Information Literacy’s report on college freshmen and their transition to the academic library and research environment. But does this contribute to a fixed mindset? To my way of thinking it is fixed, but not necessarily the way Dweck intended. College students, I believe, do not consciously convince themselves they lack the capacity to expand their knowledge and skills in this more complex research environment. What’s fixed is the mentality they bring to research behavior. It’s stuck on the same resources, methods, and techniques that enable them to succeed throughout K–12. To what extent are faculty raising the bar and expectations with research assignments that go beyond the traditional term paper that allows for satisficing at best and plagiarism at worst—and inviting academic librarians to participate as coeducators? But as with other areas of learning, there are examples of students who believe in their ability to learn and who adopt the growth mindset. Those are the students who win our research awards. Academic librarians, in collaboration with faculty, need to help students shift their mindset from fixed to growth.

Providing motivation

Perhaps some of the answers can come from Dweck’s research. Students with a growth mindset believe their knowledge and skills can be developed and expanded. Dweck advised educators to rethink praise and how they deliver it. Rather than telling students how smart they are (or not), what should be emphasized is the effort they make to learn something new. They can be praised for seeking out help from experts—like librarians. Faculty can help by praising students for exploring new resources and creating assignments that encourage students to grow their knowledge of library and research resources, and that puts the academic librarian front and center as a guide for research growth.

Don’t surrender

There are no guarantees here, but adopting a strategy to move students from a fixed to a growth mindset for research could enable students to truly learn the skills that will serve them well after graduation, in their careers, and as lifelong learners. That’s a noble aspiration, to be sure. But let’s remember that we have a professional responsibility to adopt our own growth mindset as librarian educators. By that I mean we need to go into every classroom believing we can make a difference for students. If we allow ourselves to adopt a “if these students choose to tune me out and they don’t care to learn then that’s their choice” mindset, we’ve already failed. Let’s not surrender to the fixed mindset.
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Judy Gafford

I was a horrible student in High School. I never went to college and as I was having my family and they, too struggled in school, I realized I may have had some of the same learning disabilities as they did. But I did have a couple of teachers who never thought less of me and encouraged me in ways I can not even describe some 45 years later. I have been working in my local Library for 30 years now and love learning new things. I am not a librarian and near retirements, so a degree I will not have. But I have been encouraged by many here who treat me no different. I have worked my way up the ladder to a point that I would have to have a degree for more advancement. Learning anything is still a challenge at times, but because my desire to do so is there, it DOES come easier. Thank you for this article. My now adult children have been mentored much the same way I was and in fact they are still very close to those former teachers. Teachers do make a difference and sadly do not get the recognition they deserve.

Posted : Jun 19, 2016 03:40


That's a great story Judy. Thanks for sharing your experience about the impact that teachers can have when they develop a growth mindset in their students. You are a great example of a person who believes in their power to learn and keep growing.

Posted : Jun 19, 2016 03:40

Cynthia Strong

Excellent article. I think Dweck's research is powerful and very applicable to student research. Angela Duckworth's research on grit might be helpful, too. One thing I would tweak in the section titled "Providing motivation" is that faculty should be specific in their praise rather than employing a generic praise. For example, faculty might say, "the way you dug into the databases to find high quality resources is impressive." This sort of comment is far more effective in motivating people intrinsically that just saying, "good job."

Posted : Jun 16, 2016 06:06


Thanks for your comment Cynthia and for pointing out that's there's a better way to offer praise. For those who want to learn more about that particular technique, Dweck has more to say about how to deliver praise - if you want to support a growth mindset - in her publications.

Posted : Jun 16, 2016 06:06


Barbara's comment caught attention, "we’re less likely to work in those courses than in FYE because logistically it’s harder to build connections – multiple departments, more faculty ownership by faculty who are more likely to be not adjuncts with less autonomy, etc." For the sake of RESEARCH EDUCATION space needs to open up globally. The more closer they get, grows likelihood for Education process to happen and boosts wonders. Even Continents are getting at reach of fingers! Motivation continues to grow as Libraries system grow integrated such #OneWorldOneAcademicLibrary where all students interact independently, collaborate on RESEARCH (not search engines SEARCH) projects irrelevant to their geographic location. Faculties in their universality are ground for SHARING, collaboration without what the true enthusiasm for research might opens up to frustrations to loose wonders!

Posted : Jun 14, 2016 02:50

Barbara Fister

Too often our classroom time with students is at the exact wrong time - in the first year when they have no reason to want to know or any context for knowing what they could explore. It's practice for a future use - one that may not present itself for two or more years and which seems eye-rollingly pointless without a lit fuse of self-motivated curiosity. Students are far more motivated later in their studies, but we're less likely to work in those courses than in FYE because logistically it's harder to build connections - multiple departments, more faculty ownership by faculty who are more likely to be not adjuncts with less autonomy, etc. Thanks for your piece, Steven. I worried "growth mindset" would be something from the HBR ;)

Posted : Jun 12, 2016 06:14


Thank you Barbara for sharing your thoughts. I believe this is a concern you've shared in the past. I tend to agree - and that developing a growth mindset will take more time than just a bit of exposure in the first year. That's why I'd like to see a joint effort by faculty and librarians to help students shift to the grown mindset. Sorry, no HBR article to which I can refer you - but there is a TED talk.

Posted : Jun 12, 2016 06:14

William Badke

Some of the challenge of mindset comes from maturity levels. I teach a scholarly inquiry and research methods course in an adult degree completion program (average age about 34), and they are wildly enthusiastic about developing research skills. Our average undergraduates lack experience with the academic challenges they will face, and they are less likely to see the relevance of teaching them skills they are not sure they will need. We've tried some interesting experiments like having two librarians do battle on finding resources for a typical college research project - one using Google and the other a library database. The latter always wins, much to the amazement of watching students. Those sorts of challenges to high school level thinking can begin an awakening of interest in developing better skills.

Posted : Jun 10, 2016 01:00


Thanks William for sharing your perspective on the challenge of helping student develop a growth mindset.I would imagine that adult learners would take learning about library research more seriously. They can see the relevance. Sounds like an interesting activity for your students. Thanks for sharing it.

Posted : Jun 10, 2016 01:00


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