Universities must cultivate a growth mindset in their students

Interdisciplinarity will not meet its problem-solving potential unless graduates are primed to embrace challenges, says Paul O’Keefe

May 3, 2021
Woman’s head full of ideas symbolising interdisciplinarity
Source: iStock

Although many colleges and universities promote interdisciplinarity, this is unlikely to be enough to create all the wide-ranging thinkers we now require.

The world faces many immense challenges – from social inequality to climate change – that cannot be addressed by individual disciplines and need to be examined through multiple lenses. For example, although medical science has developed vaccines for Covid-19, we must also leverage what we know about logistics and human behaviour to deliver them rapidly and to convince people to accept them.

In their efforts to create future problem-solvers, therefore, colleges and universities offer many excellent opportunities for students to explore a diversity of fields. Yet merely providing such opportunities may not be enough. In order to understand why, we need to consider what enables students to make interdisciplinary connections.

One key factor is their view about how human interest occurs. Some students possess what my colleagues and I call a growth mindset of interest, which sees interests as “developable”. Others operate with a fixed mindset of interest: the belief that interests are relatively set and unchanging. My earlier research, conducted with Carol Dweck and Greg Walton of Stanford University, showed that students who view interests as developed are more open to topics outside their existing interests. For example, arts students with a growth mindset expressed more interest in academic material from the sciences compared with those who had a fixed mindset.

In a new set of studies, published in Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, my team found that this openness also increases people’s tendency to see connections between their existing interests and other knowledge areas, leading to better interdisciplinary ideas.

For example, in one study, we recruited undergraduates who had a pre-existing interest in either the arts or the sciences. To test their interdisciplinary thinking, we then asked them to create novel academic majors by combining two or more existing programmes and to provide a rationale for each. Those with a growth mindset, we discovered, were more likely to generate majors that combined programmes across the arts and sciences, such as computational linguistics. By contrast, those with a fixed mindset tended to generate ideas that combined programmes from only one of the two areas, such as computational chemistry. Furthermore, those with a growth mindset generated ideas that were independently judged to be better overall.

In addition to offering traditional programmes that allow students to specialise, many schools now provide opportunities for them to cross-fertilise those fields with others. For example, the National University of Singapore recently launched its College of Humanities and Sciences, where students will experience more interdisciplinary learning and develop competencies across seemingly disparate fields. Other schools have launched their own interdisciplinary majors or double-degree programmes.

So the opportunities exist  but perhaps only students with a growth mindset will take advantage of them. Our research shows that even in schools where interdisciplinary programmes abound, many students still hold a fixed mindset.

Is it possible, then, to cultivate a growth mindset of interest? Like other beliefs people hold, mindsets can change. Colleges and universities can create a campus culture that affirms that interests can be developed and whose norm is to value and explore ideas from a variety of disciplines and to search for connections among them. For example, institutions can admit a student body with diverse interests, assign projects that require input from multiple disciplines, and hire faculty whose research and teaching stress the importance of interdisciplinarity. For students with a fixed mindset, such a curriculum may challenge their preconceived notions about whether new interests can be developed.

Our research findings also have important implications for life after graduation. In economies disrupted by the pandemic, graduates with a growth mindset of interest may find it easier to transition to a new job or industry. A marketing graduate who develops an interest in data science, for example, could pursue a research role in a data science firm. They could also integrate their marketing knowledge into their new job in creative ways. Such a career shift may never cross the mind of someone with a fixed mindset, thereby limiting their perceived employment opportunities.

Likewise, organisations may benefit from recruiting graduates with a growth mindset of interest, since they are more likely to generate innovative ideas or learn critical new skills. For such graduates, setbacks and difficulties are likely to be seen as part of the developmental process rather than a sign that the subject matter is simply not interesting.

The stakes are high. As our world becomes increasingly complex and interconnected, out-of-the-box problem-solving is increasingly needed. A growth mindset of interest may prove crucial for students in helping them see the connections and develop the effective, interdisciplinary solutions that will change the world.

Paul A. O’Keefe is an assistant professor of psychology at Yale-NUS College and assistant professor in the department of management and organisation at the National University of Singapore (NUS) Business School (by courtesy).

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Reader's comments (2)

I think the problem is less that the students need a growth mindset, rather it's more that academics (who are the ones generating the culture and expectations) need to acknowledge the latest research and educational implications. Most academics, including me, were educated before this was published or spoken widely about. I have any number of conversations with colleagues who take a fixed mindset approach to the level of 'ability' a particular student has. I do discuss growth mindset in my teaching and the students get it quickly - but I find bringing my colleagues around to accepting this is far far harder.
Since most - maybe all - students hope to adjust their cerebellum's content during academic study, is growth mindset a misnomer? An ID mindset may be more appropriate; but what's missing is the rationale of being an ID thinker: in logic, what must they do to justify the title? I'd also drop the phrase out-of-the-box problem-solving: it might chill discussion during an interview, unless the applicant likes rabbits and is eager to enter The Magic Circle. Anyway, among the higher ranks of AC12, a fixed mindset seems quite respectable.......There's only one thing I'm interested in.......... Neil R