As instructors, we all have moments in the classroom that embody why we teach. For me, one of these happened this past summer when giving a seminar on my research to 7th-grade students attending a two week SCHOLAR program at Yale.1
I would see these students just once and had wracked my brain to figure out how to make an aspect of infectious disease research interesting, eventually deciding to work through two of the major discoveries in my field with them. My class met in the late afternoon, at the end of a long day and right before the students would be eating dinner. They were a bit restless and a few pairs of eyes began to glaze over after ten minutes. Rather than spend more time continuing planned activities and risk seeing more unfocused gazes, I paused for a moment to talk to the students about the nature of science and discovery.
In many classrooms, milestones in biology are presented as facts that were simply uncovered by very smart individuals. None of the backstories and pains of discovery are mentioned, but it’s important for students to know that scientists are not born, but made. After a very brief exchange on the fact that science itself is actually very hard, but entirely worth the challenge, the students’ body language relaxed, facial expressions became more open, and (most excitingly!) levels of engagement increased. The students began working through major questions in my field and sharing ideas with each other. I even had a few students approach me at the end of the seminar to ask if they could do a research internship at Yale!
What was it about this quick discussion that made the students feel more open to participating? How could I capture that moment and replicate it multiple times during a semester? - I wouldn’t have the lexicon to discuss what I had a brief glimpse of in my classroom until a few months later while taking a MOOC entitled, “An Introduction to Evidence-Based Undergraduate STEM Teaching,” offered through Coursera .2. One strength of the MOOC was its focus on the affective domain and its influence in the classroom. Of all the content used to cover this, I found that the idea of being cognizant of the mindsets of students and how this impacts their learning resonated with me the most. The discussion not only prompted self-reflection on times when I was a student, but also reminded me of my experience with the7th-grade students this summer. I was so intrigued by this initial discussion that I decided to go back to the source of mindsets and read Dr. Carol Dweck’s fantastic book, “Mindset: The New Psychology of Success”.3.
Although I am still learning much about mindset myself, I’ve broken down what I gleaned from the book into two key takeaway points. The first will focus on what mindset is and how it affects learning. Secondly, I want to touch on how our interactions with students affect mindset and offer a few suggestions for supporting growth mindset in students.
What are the mindsets? How do they impact learning?
After extensive research on self-conceptions and motivations, Dr. Dweck and colleagues found that most individuals fall into one of two mindsets. One, the fixed mindset, occurs when people have a view that certain aspects of their personality, intelligence, athletic ability, etc are set and cannot be changed. At the other end of the spectrum is the aptly named growth mindset. People who have a growth mindset embrace the notion that they can push the boundaries of their abilities by working hard.
The mindsets affect all aspects of how people perceive themselves, but the rest of this discussion will be focused on the self-perception of intelligence. (I refer you again to Carol Dweck’s phenomenal book3 if you are interested in learning more about mindset.)
Pupils with a fixed mindset feel that their intelligence is constant regardless of how hard they work. One manifestation of the fixed mindset is found in students who believe that they are “stupid” and refuse to try in class because nothing can change that. On the other hand, as instructors we might encounter students who have always performed well but have only had to put in minimal effort with coursework. These students believe that they are just inherently smart and when they are suddenly confronted with an academic challenge, such as beginning college, a crisis of self-perception may occur as they worry that they are not as smart as they believed. Ironically, these students often won’t put effort into their courses because if they don’t try they can blame their lack of success on the fact that they didn’t put in effort. After all, if you believe there is nothing you can do to increase your intelligence and you don’t understand a question right away is there any point in trying only to fail? This mindset prevents students from reaching their full potential by restricting them to the boundaries that their self-perception has created and making them afraid to try as failure is a reflection of who they are.
On the other hand, students who enter a classroom with a growth mindset will have a deep-seated belief that if they work hard, they can increase their knowledge. With this conviction, comes an appreciation of hard work and an idea that failure is not a bad outcome because the worst case scenario is not trying at all. These students are motivated by a challenge because when something is hard it only means they will learn that much more once they succeed. When students have this mindset, they are able to reach their full potential and will gain much more from their classes than peers with a fixed mindset.
When discussing my excitement about mindsets with a friend, she, being a good skeptical academic, questioned whether any instructor actually supports the idea of a fixed mindset. After all, isn’t there a paradigm that hard work can lead to success and haven’t we heard this time and again when we were students? Unfortunately, even after having taught for only a few semesters, it is apparent that many students have a fixed mindset about their intelligence. What is fostering this self-perception in students and what can educators do to help promote growth mindset in students?
How can we as instructors support the growth mindset in the classroom?
Instructors may stress the importance of hard work, but when we think about education and how we classify students’ intelligence levels, it’s clear that we begin pigeon-holing them from the very beginning. Test scores when children are very young determine whether or not they can move to the gifted-and-talented class, placing a label on those “gifted” and those who are not. IQ scores, GPA, PSAT and SAT scores, and AP and IB results are all numbers that students use to classify their intelligence levels. If we think back to our own high school and college days, the kids considered to be the smartest had maximum achievement with minimal effort. After all, when was the last time that you were praised for the process you worked through to solve a problem or the amount of effort you put into a task?
We are all so fixated on the end result that many times we praise students for the product, ensuring that their focus is on that number or letter grade. When that end product is so important, students believe it reflects their intelligence. They may even be driven to measures as desperate as cheating or lying about scores to ensure others don’t perceive them as less intelligent. All of the subtle messages students might obtain from teachers, parents, peers, and society at large about grades and test scores being a direct reflection of intelligence drives the formation of a fixed mindset. What are some ways that this can be ameliorated?
First, we as instructors must be conscious of how we speak to our students about their performances in the classroom. When students perform well, this should be acknowledged, but we should praise them not for doing well quickly or with a lack of effort, we should focus instead on the effort they put into their work. By praising the process the student worked through to get to the end product, you encourage the student to put in that extra energy again. In the same vein, we need to be honest with students when their performance is lacking either in effort or in reaching the correct answer. The fixed mindset does not accept constructive criticism well, but the growth mindset accepts this criticism as a tool for growth.
Students need to become accustomed to hearing the truth, in a helpful way, and not being constantly praised. Constant praise, which is something many parents and instructors may be guilty of, feeds the fixed mindset. If a student is already wonderful and is told this all the time, why bother changing? Instructors can help correct this stream of constant praise by ensuring that they are honest with students about their performance. This constructive criticism can help create a classroom environment where failure is an accepted process of learning. When students are no longer terrified that failure means they are stupid but just a part of becoming more intelligent, what reason do they have not to try?
Finally, make sure to model the growth mindset for students in how you talk about yourself and other professionals. Discuss any challenges that you had pursuing your chosen field and think about how you overcame them to succeed. Introduce students to personal skill sets that they will need to develop to be successful in certain disciplines rather than just focusing on what content or techniques they need to know. One example of a focus on discipline-specific personal development can be found in the pedagogical use of rubrics delineating STEM skill sets.4. The instructors in this example generated a rubric focused on specific traits students would need to develop to be successful in their courses, like perseverance with a difficult question and self-compassion. Periodically, students would be asked to evaluate where on the rubric they fell and think about or ask for concrete things they could do to build up these skills.
To conclude, I’ll refer back to the moment in my classroom with which I began my blog post. By having a conversation that good scientists are made and not born, I hope that some of the students realized that if they continued to strive at their studies, they could become proficient in whichever career path they would someday choose. This one instance was not enough to shape the growing psyche of students or change any fixed mindset opinions, but it was a start.
To continue this conversation, what are some ways that you have incorporated growth mindset (consciously or subconsciously) into your classroom? Have you ever run into the challenge of trying to “reset” the mindset of a student who believed their intelligence was a fixed trait?
1) Scholar Program link, http://onhsa.yale.edu/scholar-program-0
1) Scholar Program link, http://onhsa.yale.edu/scholar-program-0
2) Vanderbilt University, CITRL. (2014). An Introduction to Evidence-Based Undergraduate STEMTeaching. Fall 2014. Retrieved from https://class.coursera.org/stemteaching-001/wiki/Week1
3) Dweck, Carol. Mindset: the new psychology of success. New York: Random House, 2006. Print.
4) Measuring Growth, Part 1: Origin of the Self-Evaluation Rubrics. (2012, November 28). Retrieved November 9, 2014, from http://www.berkeleycompassproject.org/measuring-growth-part-1- origin-of-the-self-evaluation-rubrics/