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Habits are important to college success. But not just the habits of a daily routine. Habits of thinking can also have an important influence on your student’s experience.

In the academic setting, habits of thinking influence the ways students begin, manage, and explain the results of tasks, like projects and papers. Their mindsets—attributional beliefs about their abilities as either unchangeable traits or malleable abilities, conceptualized by Carol Dweck as growth and fixed mindsets—influence not just their views of themselves in the academic context, but also the ways they approach the problem-solving tasks of academic work overall.

In one study of mindset, undergraduate students in a pre-med course were given a mindset survey at the beginning of the semester. Their engagement and performance were tracked throughout the remainder of the course. Students with a growth mindset were found to work harder and improve in the course after doing poorly on one or more of their exams, whereas students with a fixed mindset continued to do poorly on subsequent exams after a first low performance.

What did the growth mindset students do differently? They managed their motivation and stayed engaged even when the course got more difficult, the textbook boring, or the teaching style uninteresting. Stated differently, they took a malleable perspective on their ability in the class. As a result, they were creative about the ways they stayed engaged. They tried different approaches to studying when one didn’t work. The belief that they could improve in the course resulted in different actions, and ultimately different results.

What’s important to note here for parents is that you can help your student cultivate this habit of thinking. You can help them prepare for a myriad of college tasks and circumstances by simply by: debriefing.

Here are a few sample questions you could ask your student to debrief an assignment, a class, an athletic game, or another performance-based task:

  1. How did it go?
  2. Why did it go that way? How did you get to that outcome? You’re looking for the process. What process led to the outcome?
  3. Why did you choose that approach? The recognition of their choice affirms their agency.
  4. What is one thing you might try differently next time? You can ask this regardless of success or failure, or mixed results. (Also, identifying just one opportunity for improvement can counter anxiety about future performances.)
  5. How can I help you make that happen? Recognizing that a respected guide believes in their ability to learn and improve can aid, and accelerate, a student’s belief in their ability to learn.

Changing a mindset—or strengthening a mindset—requires time and practice. The debrief conversations you have with your student in the next few semesters before college have strategic potential toward this end. Each iteration of reflecting together can strengthen your student for the academic challenges they will encounter.

Even as you’re preparing a pathway to pay for your student’s college experience, this is also an ideal time to prepare them with the habits of thinking that will sustain their engagement when they’re there.


Dr. Jennifer Tharp is an alumna of Azusa Pacific University where she earned a Ph.D. in Higher Education. Dr. Tharp teaches at the graduate level and consults nationally in the area of student success.