“Stop!” the attending blurts out as the trainee was about to make a miscalculated maneuver with her surgical instrument. The resident’s stomach flips as she realizes her potential error and readjusts. The attending, likewise, breathes a sigh of relief as the surgery is turned back on course.

As medical educators, we have all experienced high stakes moments like this one. But what is the best way to debrief this encounter? And how do we turn the “fight or flight” inducing stomach-churn into an educational opportunity? Sure, we can give feedback, and we should. However, to the learner, this experience may feel like a “mini-fail” and lead to feelings of guilt or shame, and possibly avoidance of similarly challenging scenarios in the future. Can we redirect a trainee’s learning trajectory just as we redirected the surgery? I think we can, with a secret ingredient called “growth mindset.”

Growth mindset is a mental perspective approaching failure as a learning opportunity.2 It is kind of like finding the “glass half full” angle or “silver lining” in a seemingly negative situation. However, the purpose of adopting this mindset, is not simply to feel better about a situation, but to actually inspire oneself to persevere through the challenge and in doing so, hopefully improve. It is taking a moment to reflect on your initial reaction to a situation and attempting to reframe it in a more constructive way. For example, when a manuscript is not accepted for publication, a growth mindset approach would be to consider and incorporate reviewer feedback into a revised version, and resubmit it. Whereas, the opposite, “fixed mindset” reaction, would be giving up after receiving the rejection. Similarly, if a research study fails to show evidence in support of the outcome you were anticipating, a growth mindset would recognize the skills developed in the process of conducting the study and how they can be applied towards future research endeavors. Conversely, a fixed mindset response would be to abandon the study all together. So the reframing of one’s mindset leads to personal growth. Growth. Mindset. Get it? 

The world of social psychology has promoted “growth mindset” in personal, professional, and educational settings, but how can it be applied to medical education?

Applying growth mindset to ourselves as medical educators

The best way to teach growth mindset to our learners is to embody it ourselves. As healthcare professionals and educators, we should always strive for self-improvement, and growth mindset can help. Rather than reflexively criticizing a learner’s incorrect answer to something we recently taught them, we could consider how we may have presented the information in an alternate way to be more effective. In our clinical practice, when we have a suboptimal outcome, we can model for our trainees how to learn from the situation and apply it to future patient care, rather than rationalizing or avoiding a discussion on it. We have to show our learners that failure is inevitable, but we can learn from it. With a growth mindset, we can also learn from our learners! 

Applying growth mindset in medical education of trainees

Teaching growth mindset to our learners can help foster resilience in the high stakes healthcare learning environment. We can also incorporate growth mindset into how we teach. For example, if a learner’s response is incorrect, but well-reasoned, we should reinforce their critical thinking, rather than focusing on the fact that the answer was incorrect. In doing so we turn the learning experience into an “intelligent failure,” and hopefully motivate the student to continue to develop their skills, instead of inhibiting future learning. Going back to the original example, a growth mindset approach as the educator would be to praise the training surgeon for responding to instructions promptly so that the surgery could be safely redirected on course. Of course, feedback on how to manage this situation going forward should be provided, but the growth mindset reaction will encourage continued learning.

With the flourishing of technology, medicine is experiencing an exciting time of advancement. However, with this knowledge renaissance, comes the responsibility for educators to stay current and incorporate this knowledge into their curricula. Adopting a growth mindset, a mindset approaching a failure as a learning opportunity, is a helpful strategy to facilitate lifelong learning, at a time where it is critically needed.

How can you incorporate growth mindset into your medical education roles? What are your experiences with encouraging growth mindset among your learners? Comment below and join the conversation!


Did you know that the Harvard Macy Institute Community Blog has had more than 190 posts? Previous blog posts have explored topics including education as a catalyst for health care transformation, drive theory, and educating physicians to navigate the complexity and uncertainty of clinical care.

Nisha Chadha

Nisha Chadha, MD (Educators, ’19) is an assistant professor of ophthalmology and medical education and the director of medical student education in ophthalmology at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai. Nisha’s areas of professional interest include incorporating technology into medical education and curriculum development. Nisha can be followed on Twitter or reached via email.