Mindset: A set of beliefs or a way of thinking that determines somebody’s behavior and outlook. –Encarta English Dictionary

Mindsets—we all have them!  While many mindsets do not interfere with our lives, they always limit, to varying degrees, our ability to see different viewpoints or solutions to a problem. It’s almost as if we have brain damage that limits our creativity.

In engineering, approaching problems from different viewpoints is a highly valued and basic skill.  As engineering students tend to be linear thinkers, once they have an idea it is often the only idea, i.e., their mindset interferes with further creativity.

I developed an activity to increase students’ awareness of mindsets and how those mindsets can interfere with performance and problem solving, and finally, to give students an “aha” experience of going beyond a mindset.  The activity has students make simple three dimensional (3-D) objects out of two dimensional (2-D) cardstock—simple origami.  Making these objects “perfect” is a common mindset.  However, the actual stated goal is to complete all of the objects in a fixed period of time, and the only way to finish is to reduce the object quality and work faster.  Simply stated, students need to do their best work within the limitations of the time constraints. The challenge for them is to make wise choices in the present situation, unencumbered by mindsets created in the past.

Although I do this activity in an engineering class, students in all academic disciplines can benefit from increased awareness of their mindsets and how their mindsets interfere with achieving goals. In a math course, for example, the mindset “You’re either born with math skills or not” can stop a student from putting in the necessary time on task to succeed. In a writing course, the mindset “If I ask for help, people will think I’m dumb” may keep a student from seeking help in the tutoring center. What mindsets keep students from achieving their full potential in your course?  This activity can help them discover and revise those self-sabotaging beliefs.

I do this exercise over three classes taking a total of 2 hours and 40 minutes, but it can easily be modified for a much shorter time.


  • Increase student awareness of mindsets.
  • Make students aware of how a mindset can interfere with reaching their goals.
  • Make students aware of a personally held mindset and experience expanding their viewpoint to recognize different alternatives. 


  • Instructions listing 3-D objects to create.  (See Support Materials below)
  • 2-D to 3-D example showing how to do the problems. (See Support Materials below)
  • Supplies per student: scissors, a 12” ruler, a roll of tape (1/2” wide masking tape), and 8 plain file folders.


Day One: (Steps 1 through 4 -1hr and 40min.)

1. Hand out Instructions and supplies.

2. Explain Instructions via example.  “You will be creating simple 3-D objects out of 2-D sheets of file folders.  Each object to be created is shown as its plane view, i.e., side views.  In addition to creating the object, you need to draw a 3-D sketch of the object and a 2-D layout of what the 3-D object would look like if unfolded into 2-D.”  Explain the rest of the assignment using the details on the handout.

3. After 20 minutes into the assignment tell the students:  “The goal is to complete the task by the end of class.  As with many tasks, we have to sacrifice a little quality to speed up the process.  How much quality reduction?  Business and industry use the 80% rule, i.e., by reducing the quality to 80%, you should be able to reduce production time by ~20% of what it would take to create a product of 100% quality.  To be clear, you will not be able to complete the task unless you reduce the quality.  However, you still have to do 80% quality!”

4. Collect the projects at the end of the class.

5. Homework (due at the beginning of the next class): “In your journals write about your experiences with using the 80% rule.”

Day Two:

6. Discussion: “How was it using the 80% rule and reducing quality to meet the goal of finishing the job on time?”  Write responses on the board.

7. Ask, “Why was it so stressful, uncomfortable, [use students’ words]?”  (Steps 6 and 7, ~ 10 minutes)

8. Introduce the concept of a mindset, illustrating it with the students’ mindset that they had to produce their best quality product despite that not being the goal for this particular assignment.  (5-8 minutes)

9. Say, “Switch roles—you are now the manager who has been told explicitly by the customer that getting the product on time is absolutely critical and a small reduction of quality is ok. Take the next 2 minutes and write down how you feel about this new view point and how it relates to the idea of using the 80% rule.”  (3 minutes)

10. Have students read what they have written and discuss how some of the students were able to be ok with this new viewpoint. (10 minutes)

11. Homework (due 1 week at the beginning of class): “Over the next week observe instances of mindsets within yourself or others.  This could be reflected in people’s speech, behaviors in specific settings, or emotional responses.  In your opinion, how did the mindset affect the situation? In your journal detail your observations and conclusions about mindsets.”

Day three:

12.  Discussion: “Who wants to share their observations?”  Look for students’ ability to identify a mindset and their perception of its impact.  (10 minutes or as long as valuable)


Day One:

The students begin the task as any other engineering class, i.e., developing skills of visualizing 3-D objects.  In the beginning, the students are very meticulous in developing their objects. The class is quiet; students are intent and focused on doing quality work.  In contrast, by the end of the class there is a cacophony of voices mixed with rapid cutting and taping not to mention the sighs as they slap together the objects in an attempt to finish.  The most common sentiment is, “I would’ve gotten it done if you gave us more time!”

Day Two:

In response to the question “How was it using the 80% rule and reducing quality to meet the goal of finishing the job on time?”, students contributed “very stressful,” “frustrating,” “uncomfortable,” and “I did not like it.”  Many students echoed one student’s response: “It’s totally unfair to have an assignment that we can’t get done!” Another student questioned the assignment: “Why would anyone have us do a lousy job just to get it done quickly?” Throughout, I encouraged them to explore their responses through questions such as “Why was it so stressful?” or “What constitutes a lousy job?”  This had the side benefit that I was not arguing with them which most likely would have heated the emotional level.

When the discussion died down, I asked, “What if we look at the problem differently?  Consider that the goal was to get the job done on time and not to produce perfect objects.”   The response was mixed, and at best they thought they would be okay with it but they still would not like it.  They expressed more in their body language and tones than through their words.  

Then I gave them a specific and realistic local example. 

“Students in the senior design class were building an elaborate animated Halloween set.  What would happen if the students focused on making everything perfect but as a consequence delivered the set on the day after the party?  Or would it be better for some things not to work perfectly but be delivered on time?”

Their ability to see this new viewpoint was not only expressed as “Of course you have to deliver on time,” but also, I could see the aha’s in many of their faces. 

From this point, we discussed the concept of a mindset and how it can interfere with their ability to see problems from different viewpoints.  We related this multiple viewpoint to the basic concept of brainstorming in engineering, e.g., taking a problem and developing as many potential solutions as possible.  In a nutshell, mindsets interfere with creativity!  The students seemed to go right with this—“yah of course!”

I then gave students the journal assignment to record and reflect on their observations and experiences over the next week involving mindsets.

Day Three:

After a week of observations and experiences, students had a huge list of mindsets.  Many examples brought laughter while others elicited aha-nods of agreement.  Students offered mindsets such as what is appropriate dress, what constitutes good looks, parents’ belief of how they should behave, racism, abortion rights, and gun control.  One student connected moving beyond a mindset to developing a pros and cons list about a subject, as we had done earlier in the semester. 

Journal Responses: Use of the 80% rule:

Although I did expect students to express difficulty with reducing the quality to increase productivity, I did not anticipate the level of emotional impact. Expressions of this impact were “I hated it.  It is not what I have always been taught,” “I think it’s a really bad idea …,” “I talked to my dad about this [80% rule] and he said ‘It’s a really bad idea. Don’t listen to your professor’,” and “… it is stressful just writing about it.”

Two Weeks Later:

The Halloween example turned out to be an excellent learning opportunity—the cannon blast system for the pirate ship did not work properly.  However, everybody absolutely loved the set, unaware that anything was amiss!  When I told the students about this, it clearly reinforced the alternative viewpoint.  As this experience occurred two weeks after this exercise was performed, it appeared that the students readily accepted the use of the 80% rule in this specific application where a time constraint was more important than 100% quality.


The journal entries on observing mindsets clearly showed students’ ability to identify mindsets and speculate on their potential interference.  For example one student wrote about her parents who would not let her go on a field trip to New York City .  They felt that “It was too dangerous because of terrorists.”  Also, in subsequent classes they pointed out mindsets, particularly when they interfered with group progress.  For example, in a project setting, one team member insisted on using his very first idea and essentially, refused to continue brainstorming.  Even after his group told him that one idea does not meet the criteria of brainstorming, he was so attached to his idea that he persisted with it.  In response, group members began saying “Mindset; Mindset” whenever he would bring up his design idea.  I had not expected this level of integration nor the light heartedness of the environment.

Another example was a student who questioned a point deduction in a lab due to a safety violation.  He immediately started arguing that he should have been given a warning, but then stopped and said “Oh, I’m just being a victim.”  This showed recognition of his habitual behavior based on his belief that “if the excuse sounds good, then it should get him what he wants.” Here he stopped himself from continuing with a predetermined behavior and through awareness of his present situation chose a different path. 


The most obvious lesson, to me, is students’ ability to absorb and integrate foundational skills when developed in a holistic, experiential manner. One does not have to address each specific mindset and try to teach the student to change it.  As a result of this activity, they began to recognize some of their own mindsets and were now in a position to choose whether to change or not.  Another lesson reinforced is how students go beyond the integration of a skill to modify or reinvent it, such as adopting the shorthand “Mindset—Mindset.”

–Peter Shull, Faculty, Engineering, Penn State University, PA






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