1 Mindset

How important is talent vs work in achieving success in CS? Is someone who spends 101 hours on it better at it than someone who spends 100 hours? Are some people born with a CS brain and others not, and not amount of education can fix that?

Consider the following chart:

      Success in CS is

all                      all
work                    talent

Pick a point on this scale you believe it the best match of reality. Commit to this: actually point your finger at a point on the scale.

The study of mindset (a term coined by its early researcher Carol Dweck) does not try to answer this question, which is a variation of the old argument between nature and nuture. Instead, it analyzes how peoples opinions about this question influence their actions, attitude, and behavior.

The belief that work is more important is called a growth mindset, based on the concept that more work = more ability = growth. The belief that talent is more important is called a fixed mindset, based on the concept that talent = innate = fixed. In truth the belief is not really the most important component; the active belief or focus matters more; but that distinction may be too nuanced for this presentation.

Mindset can be correlated with many CS- and education-relevant characteristics; a few are listed in the table below, with some brief explanation.

Situation Fixed mindset response Growth mindset response
Failure Likely to quit. Failure is evidence of lack of talent, meaning future failure likely; quitting is the sensible choice. Likely to try again. Failure is evidence of insufficient experience, which can be fixed by more work; a second try is likely to work out.
Cheating Likely to cheat. The test is a tedious way to show that I have talent; I know I have talent and cheating is more efficient. Unlikely to cheat. The test is guidance on what I need to work on next, and if I cheat I won’t get that guidance.
Stereotype threat Strong impact. If I show that people like me lack talent, no one will give us a chance. Weak impact. If people like me haven’t done well, that only means they haven’t had chances to learn. There’s no larger meaning.

Any of these three would be reason enough to want a growth mindset in our students, but the third is why it shows up in a week about diversity and stereotype threat.

2 Fostering growth mindset

TAs can have a large impact on student mindset. A few things to keep in mind:

  • Believe in and reveal your own mental growth. You know what you didn’t used to know; let the students see that. Talk about your own learning, your own struggles when you didn’t yet know, your ongoing growing intellect.

  • Use growth language with students. When they do well with something they once struggled with, point out how far they’ve come. If they express doubt in their own ability, add a yet (e.g. Student: I’m just not very good at this TA: …yet. You’ll get good at it with practice.); or point out that good, that’s who this class is for: people who don’t yet have this skill.

  • Use growth compliments. When you compliment your students (and I hope you do!) do you use fixed language, like

    • You are smart!
    • You’re so good at this!
    • You’ve got this!

    or do you use more growthy language, like

    • Good job!
    • You did so well!
    • You can do this!

    Little things like this matter. You can even go further into the growth space with things like you worked so hard, and it paid off!, though I find many TAs need practice to get to that point.

As an aside, every university has its own student culture; UVA’s has always struck me as very fixed-mindset oriented with lots of Because you are a UVA student, you will be a leader! and so on and very little UVA student’s study hard, work, and learn! Anything you can do to inject a growth mindset into that culture is worth doing.

3 Cognitive Personal Trainer

I personally believe work is far more important than talent, so it’s easy for me to preach a growth mindset. What if I am wrong and CS is actually mostly talent, not work?

On this point, I like an analogy of a personal trainer. If I go to a gym and my personal trainers look at me and say Oooh, too bad. You’ve got bad bones, a rotten metabolism, a weak spine; you’re just never going to be very fit or strong I will fire those personal trainers. Why? Not because they were wrong, necessarily, but because I didn’t hire them to tell me about my lack of good genes; I hired them to help me become as fit as I can be.

Educators are cognitive personal trainers. The portion of success in our field that is due to effort is our job. It’s what we talk about, it’s what we work on, it’s all that matters to us professionally. Even if you have a mystical ability to see how fit someone’s brain can become, you’ve got no reason to think about, disclose, or discuss that. Cognitive growth is our job.