Parallels: Instructors’ Metacognition Practices and their Mindsets


by Lauren Scharff, U. S. Air Force Academy

A week ago my institution held our annual Outstanding Educator’s Award Ceremony, at which the Chancellor of the University of Colorado – Colorado Springs, Dr. Pamela S. Shockley-Zalabak, gave the keynote address. Her presentation was engaging and right on target for the event. It helped honor the winners of the awards, and at the same time it was applicable to all the other faculty members who were in attendance. But what is prompting this blog piece is the parallel I found between her points about instructor mindset and our efforts to explore and develop metacognitive instruction (check out our Phase I research project summary).

As many of you are likely aware, and as cited by Dr. Shockley-Zalabak, Dr. Carol Dweck has led the research on the concept of mindset with respect to how it might impact educational (and many other) behaviors. She found evidence for two types of mindset: fixed and growth. Individuals who show a fixed mindset believe that characteristics such as scholastic ability, leadership potential, and speaking skills are innate rather than developable. In contrast, individuals with a growth mindset believe that such characteristics can be developed, and they seek opportunities to do so. These mindsets impact the likelihood that individuals will seek out challenging experiences (growth mindset) as opposed to seeking out experiences that will reinforce their current level of skill and avoid failure (fixed mindset). (Here is a nice review of Carol Dweck’s book, Mindset: The New Psychology of Success.)

Typically, research on mindset and efforts to shift mindsets from fixed to growth are focused on students. For example, see the nice review and developmental activity shared in Charity Peak’s blog post from February of this year. This emphasis on student mindset is similar to the emphasis on student rather than instructor metacognitive practices. While a student focus is extremely important (ultimately students are the target population of our educational efforts), we shouldn’t neglect to acknowledge, study, and develop instructors with respect to their mindset (and their metacognitive practices).

Dr. Shockley-Zalabak’s keynote presentation pointed out that attending to instructor mindset, and not just student mindset, is key to creating great educational climates. Once you think about instructor mindset, the implications become obvious. Instructor mindset can have large influences on student learning because mindset can impact instructor expectations about their students’ abilities and about their own teaching ability.

Instructors with fixed mindsets tend to believe that students either are or are not capable within their discipline. It’s not hard to imagine that students in such a teacher’s course might not thrive unless they showed early promise and were tagged as “talented” by their instructor. For a teacher with a fixed mindset, it might be difficult to understand why effort should be put into those students who don’t seem capable. Such instructors prefer to only work with the top students, not realizing how much potential they might be overlooking and inadvertently not developing.

Instructor mindset can also apply to instructors’ views about teaching ability. If they believe that great instructors are born, not made, then they will likely resist opportunities for professional development. New approaches and pedagogies are threatening because they present the possibility of a decreased sense of efficacy as they move out of their comfortable routine. Growth mindset teachers, on the other hand, will continuously seek out new approaches, and if they don’t work well, view those experiences as learning opportunities.

Take a moment to evaluate yourself and your mindset tendencies. Where do you think you fall in the fixed-growth spectrum? (As with many evaluation tasks, it’s probably easier to roughly categorize some of your colleagues as having more fixed or growth mindsets about their students and their teaching than it is to accurately examine yourself.) Although it’s not always easy to attain, self-awareness is foundational for effective and intentional self-development.

Self-awareness is also one of the key components of metacognition, which leads me to wonder…   Will metacognition lead someone to recognize that she needs to develop a growth mindset? Will a growth mindset lead her to become a more metacognitive instructor? These questions lead me to believe that future phases of our metacognitive instruction research project should include explicit efforts to develop awareness of one’s mindset in addition to awareness and self-regulation of the teaching strategies that one chooses.*


* If you are interested in participating in a future phase of the metacognitive instruction study, please contact one of the two lead investigators: Dr. Lauren Scharff ( or Dr. John Draeger (


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