Promoting a Growth Mindset When Teaching Entrepreneurship

growth mindset

While many entrepreneurship instructors often emphasize the entrepreneurial mindset in their teaching, a different conceptualization of mindset may be even more critical to helping students achieve success in courses, programs, and ventures.  Growth mindset and fixed mindset are terms coined by Carol Dweck, a developmental psychologist and professor at Stanford University. According to Dweck, who conducted the majority of her research with children, mindset refers to our “implicit theories about the malleability of human characteristics.”

In other words, do we believe that our personal characteristics can be changed or do we believe these characteristics are static? If we have a growth mindset for a certain characteristic, we believe that with training and practice, we can improve and change that characteristic. In contrast, if we have a fixed mindset for a certain characteristic, we believe that training, practice, or experience will have no impact on that characteristic.

Many definitions of entrepreneurial mindset conceptualize it as a set of different skills. For example, in a recent VentureWell blog article, entrepreneurial mindset is defined as: “a set of attitudes, skills, and behaviors that help students to succeed academically, personally, and professionally that include initiative and self-direction, empathy, risk-taking, flexibility and adaptability, creativity and innovation, critical thinking, and problem solving.”

Within this multifaceted nature of entrepreneurial mindset, one might have a fixed mindset toward some attributes and yet have a growth mindset toward other attributes. For example, research has shown that creativity can be further developed with practice and training.  Yet many students view themselves as uncreative and do not feel that they can become more creative, holding a fixed mindset toward creativity. Some of these same students may hold a growth mindset toward other attributes that comprise entrepreneurial mindset, such as risk-taking or problem solving.   

How can innovation and entrepreneurship instructors teach to promote a growth mindset? Below are some suggestions to consider.

Provide opportunities for success

Prior successes and failures can be one reason an individual develops a growth or fixed mindset. Instructors can help to promote a growth mindset by helping students to experience successes by attributing these achievements to effort, rather than ability or luck.

While experiencing failure is often an important part of teaching entrepreneurship, instructors can focus on the process rather than a failed outcome. Instructors can emphasize what was learned and gained through failure, provide feedback for improvement, and highlight that successful entrepreneurs also fail and learn to overcome these failures. Helping students to realize that failure happens for a variety of reasons and emphasizing that failure is not a result of an innate characteristic can help to promote a growth mindset.

Teach students that entrepreneurial characteristics can be learned

In addition to prior successes and failures, messages from teachers and parents can also impact what type of mindset develops for a particular attribute. Several colleagues and I conducted a study on beliefs of entrepreneurship instructors. Instructors were asked to comment on whether they felt that the entrepreneurial mindset could be developed or was innate.

While the majority of the instructors who participated in the study felt that entrepreneurial mindset resulted from a combination of innate and learned influences, the perceptions of relative importance of nature versus nurture varied.  These perceptions regarding whether an attribute can be learned or not may result in subtle messages that emerge during instruction. Consider the following quotes from participants from the study:

“Lots of potential entrepreneurs are born. Few are developed. There is a whole big pool of people who are born that could be entrepreneurs and you’ve got to find them, train them, and teach them.  But again, people who weren’t born to be entrepreneurs, no amount of academic training is going to change that.”

“I think there are some characteristics that cause people to move a little easier into entrepreneurship, but I don’t think the lack of those characteristics really excludes anyone from the opportunity or the ability to be successful in [entrepreneurship].”

These underlying beliefs of instructors could potentially impact students’ mindset, through the use of language that suggests attributes may be innate or learned.  Instructors need to emphasize that the attributes of the entrepreneurial mindset can be learned and that being a successful entrepreneur requires hard work and effort. Instructors are encouraged to reflect on the language they use in their courses, particularly when talking about what is required to be a successful entrepreneur and the personalities of those who have been successful.

Consider issues relating to diversity and inclusion

Entrepreneurial startups are lacking in diversity both in terms of women and people of color. One of the reasons that individuals from underrepresented groups may not pursue entrepreneurship is the lack of role models. If an individual does not see someone that they can identify with in a successful entrepreneur role, that individual could potentially develop a fixed mindset for not becoming an entrepreneur.

Instructors are encouraged to consider who they feature when discussing successes and to consider diversity.  Highlighting successful entrepreneurs who are women and individuals of color can help students identify with them and increase the likelihood of the development of a growth mindset.  Other strategies relating to teaching for inclusion, such as creating a positive and welcoming classroom and monitoring students’ roles in team projects, could also potentially impact students’ growth mindset toward entrepreneurship.

Final thoughts

The consideration of growth/fixed mindset in entrepreneurship education has potential implications for both teaching and research.  While growth mindset and entrepreneurial mindset are distinct concepts, some interesting research avenues could be formed to discover connections between the two and further help students on the pathways to becoming entrepreneurs.

For those of you who teach, I have a challenge: Rather than worry about the definition of entrepreneurial mindset, consider the impact of your instruction on students’ growth versus fixed mindset.  Develop the objectives for your course and identify the attributes of the entrepreneurial mindset that are important for these objectives. Then, focus on having students develop a growth mindset for those attributes by emphasizing messages of inclusion and diversity and reflecting on the language you use in your teaching and course materials.

Zappe had an article further discussing entrepreneurial mindset including its distinction from growth/fixed mindset in the Fall 2018 issue of Advances in Engineering Education ( Read Zappe’s article, Defining and Assessing Entrepreneurial Mindset: Ingredients for Success on our blog.

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Sarah E. Zappe, Ph.D. is Associate Research Professor and Director of Assessment and Instructional Support for the Leonhard Center for the Enhancement of Engineering Education at Pennsylvania State University. She holds a doctoral degree in educational psychology emphasizing applied measurement and testing. Her primary research interests involve assessment of entrepreneurship education activities and integrating creativity into the engineering curriculum.

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