Author: Jenny Terry, Project Officer – University of Brighton
It is the start of a new term at the University of Brighton. I am standing at the front of one of our larger lecture halls. The eyes of 200 Freshers are fixated upon me as I excitedly tell them what to expect from their upcoming Changing Mindsets workshops. My voice is clear, my hands steady, and I notice that this time there is no rush of adrenaline – I am not nervous. I look over to the seat that I was sitting in just three years’ prior and smile, for I can recall the thought that was crossing my mind; “I’d love to be an academic, but there is no way I’m smart enough; no way I’d handle the workload; no way I’d be able to stand up in front of this many people and talk.”. Yet, here I am.
So, what changed? Well, my mindset did…
I’ve been on quite the journey over the last few years. It began not long before I returned to university, and was the very reason that I did. In September 2013, I’d been going through a particularly difficult time. I was very unhappy in my recruitment job, which I was desperately trying to manage alongside the challenges of single-parenthood. I wasn’t coping well. With some encouragement, I sought help and through the fantastic counselling that I was offered, I found the strength and resources to overcome my problems. Having made it through such a challenging time in my life, I began to wonder what else I could achieve with the same level of tenacity. As I relaxed on my sofa one quiet evening that Christmas, something clicked. One of the interviewees in the documentary I was watching was explaining their belief that, to find happiness, we should seek out “the thing we can’t not do”. For me, that was always academic work, and particularly psychology. I grabbed my laptop and, with only a few days left until the deadline, rushed through my UCAS application. I was accepted into Brighton and, in September 2014, I became the Fresher in that seat in the lecture hall.
Looking back with the knowledge I now have, I can see that my experiences had triggered a change in my mindset – from fixed to growth (Dweck, 2000; 2017). That is, where I had once believed that we got what we were given, and that there was little we could do to change our situation in life, I had learned first-hand that this just wasn’t true. It certainly wasn’t going to be easy, but I was starting to muster the courage to dream the dreams I’d never quite dared to.
I made a success of my time at Brighton, but this wasn’t my first attempt at a psychology degree. My previous encounter with higher education was not quite as fruitful. I’d attended another university briefly back in 2003, but I left before the end of my first year. Much of what contributed to that decision, I can attribute to my fixed mindset. Much like the students in Blackwell, Trzesniewski, & Dweck’s (2007) research, I was terrified of looking ‘stupid’, and dreaded having to speak up in seminars. I also thought that, if I had to put effort in, that I was just demonstrating my lack of ability. I felt that I was expected to know everything already, and was under pressure to justify my place there by displaying an intelligence that I no longer believed I had. This also meant that I was nervous of making mistakes. I didn’t see them as an essential part of the learning process; didn’t understand that, with practice, I’d improve. Rather, I saw it as further evidence that I just wasn’t good enough.
My feelings at that time are also an example of the impact of stereotype threat – something that has been shown to hinder the academic performance of disadvantaged groups (e.g. Pronin, Steele, & Ross, 2004; Steele & Aronson, 1995). As a first-generation student from a working-class family, I was conscious that I was different to the majority of my peers. Moreover, I was part of a group colloquially associated with low IQ, poor education, and work-shyness. I assumed this is how I was being perceived. I didn’t know a single person that had been to university – none of my family, and none of my friends. I wasn’t conscious of it at the time but, looking back, it is unsurprising that I felt so overwhelmingly out-of-place, with no relatable role models. I thought everyone else was somehow worthier of being there, and that they were undoubtedly smarter than me. I thought I stood out like a sore thumb, and that everyone could see, just by looking at me, that I wasn’t cut out for university. It wasn’t long before I stopped attending and fell desperately behind. The University did try to reach out to me but I couldn’t get past these feelings and eventually, I withdrew completely.
Thankfully, by the time I started at Brighton, my growth mindset was itself growing. It wasn’t long after resigning myself to never becoming an academic that I heard a story about a lecturer on my course. She had once been so terrified of speaking in front of large groups that she’d been physically sick before giving her first lecture. Another confided in me that many of them had achieved 2:1s, not Firsts. Yet more told stories of managing their various degree workloads alongside single-parenthood and other commitments. They admitted to having the dreaded ‘imposter syndrome’, and of still not understanding everything first time around. Suddenly, the faculty were demystified… and I had role models. Learning all this about them showed me that we all have to start somewhere, and I started to believe that I too could begin to overcome some of the fears and worries that I had. Without this, I wouldn’t have been standing at the front of that lecture hall, and I wouldn’t have written this blog.
Blackwell, L. S., Trzesniewski, K. H., & Dweck, C. S. (2007). Implicit theories of intelligence predict achievement across an adolescent transition: A longitudinal study and an intervention. Child Development, 78, 246 –263.
Dweck, C. S. (2000). Self-theories: Their role in motivation, personality, and development. Psychology Press.
Dweck, C. (2017). Mindset: changing the way you think to fulfil your potential. Hachette UK.
Steele, C. M., & Aronson, J. (1995). Stereotype threat and the intellectual test performance of African Americans. Journal of personality and social psychology, 69(5), 797.
Disclaimer: the views, thoughts, and opinions expressed in this blog post belong solely to the author, and do not necessarily reflect the values of the University of Portsmouth or the extended Partnership.