Thursday, November 13, 2014

Mindset: What is it and why does it matter?

Megan Ericson
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,
2) Vanderbilt University, CITRL. (2014). An Introduction to Evidence-Based Undergraduate STEMTeaching. Fall 2014. Retrieved from
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  origin-of-the-self-evaluation-rubrics/

Monday, November 3, 2014

The Diverse Classroom: Stereotype Threat & First-Generation Students

Luke Mayville

Stereotype threat, defined as “a situational predicament in which individuals are at risk of confirming negative stereotypes about their group,” can be especially harmful in the classroom, where teachers and students alike often express negative stereotypes.

First-generation students—those without a parent who completed a bachelor’s degree—face unique challenges in a college environment that often seems foreign to them.

Ryan Cecil Jobson and I chose to combine these two diversity-related challenges in a single workshop because we found them to be interrelated in interesting ways. We wanted to invite workshop participants to think of the two issues side by side, giving rise to questions such as “How might first generation students experience stereotype threat?” and “How might we, as teachers, reach out to first-generation students to meet their needs without stereotyping them in the process?”

The workshop included two brief presentations in which we overviewed the unique challenges to student achievement posed by stereotype threat and first-generation status. Following these presentations we opened the workshop up for group discussion, asking participants how they might respond to these challenges. After generating a number of responses, we offered our own ideas. For example, participants were encouraged to engage first-generation students in the classroom with active-learning strategies, and to connect students vulnerable to stereotype threat with supportive university services. We ended the workshop by presenting four different problem-scenarios related to stereotype threat and first-generation status. Participants broke up into small groups to discuss how they would respond to the scenarios before sharing their ideas with the entire workshop.

After the workshop, participant feedback expressed a heightened sensitivity to the challenges associated with stereotype threat and first-generation status. Participants found the scenario activities particularly useful for helping them think through how they might discern problems when they arise and how to open up lines of communication with students at risk.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Five Strategies for Managing Your Fear of Public Speaking

Mark Twain identified two types of public speakers: those who are nervous, and those who are liars. Fear of public speaking afflicts us all.

This is not altogether bad. The nerves we bring to our speeches, presentations, and lectures can help focus our attention and can also give an air of gravity to our message.

Yet, as most of us have experienced, unmanaged fear can be an obstacle to effective communication and, in the case of the classroom, student learning.

Luckily, we need not simply accept and live with uncontrolled fear of public speaking. Here are five strategies for calming your nerves.

First, try cognitive techniques. If you’ve ever consulted a cognitive-behavioral therapist about your anxieties, you were probably advised to reinterpret your negative thoughts—to reframe the limiting beliefs you hold about your future. This technique can be highly effective for public speaking. Are you apprehensive about making mistakes? Reframe the thought by telling yourself that your audience will forget whatever mistakes you make, but will remember your best moments. To give another example, we sometimes multiply our nerves by overthinking them (“Why am I so nervous? I’m nervous about being nervous!”). Instead, we might reframe the thought by reminding ourselves that we need nerves to focus our attention.

Second, you might develop a pneumonic strategy. While we do not recommend rote memorization, a certain kind of selective memorization can calm your nerves by giving you a sense of control over your performance. Try memorizing the very first and the very last words of your talk. Starting of strong can build confidence for your entire presentation, and knowing exactly how you will end can provide a calming sense of direction as you move along. In between, try to hold in your memory key pivot points, or pegs, in your presentation. Perhaps these are moments when you transition from one section to the next, or when you emphasize a main point. Memorizing these strategic pegs will help you remain calm and focused throughout your talk.

Cognitive reframing and strategic memorization take practice. Fortunately, there are more readily available techniques you might employ right away. Mindfulness experts tell us that a number of simple physical techniques can help manage our nerves. Try inhaling and exhaling deeply and slowly through your nose while counting in your head “1,2,3” as you inhale and “1,2,3” as you exhale. Another helpful technique to use just before your talk is to tighten up part of your body that no one else can see (perhaps a foot or a hand under the table) and then slowly release the tension.

If the room or venue where you’ll be speaking is available before your talk, you might try a visual technique. Stand or sit in the exact spot where you will deliver. Look at the empty chairs and spaces in the room and imagine your audience. Keep this image in your mind later as you prepare. Visualization will help you avoid feeling overwhelmed by your audience when it comes time to speak.

Finally, consider an emotional strategy. Sometimes the best strategy for managing your fear of public speaking will be to counteract fearful emotions with positive ones. In the moments leading up to your talk, remind yourself of your genuine excitement about the opportunity to speak. What are the nuggets of knowledge that you are thrilled to leave with your audience? How are you determined to make your listeners a little bit different—even better—for having heard your talk?

Friday, March 14, 2014

Spring Teaching Forum 2014

Registration for the annual Yale Teaching Center forum is now open!

Registration: Please register here.
Location: Sterling Memorial Library (SML) Lecture Hall (Wall Street entrance)
For more details and information, please see our website.

We look forward to seeing you there!

Monday, February 24, 2014

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Can daily quizzes aid student engagement?

Marco Bonett-Matiz


I'm in the middle of an explanation, when Claudia turns to John and says: "..[look, John, I think Marco is trying to say that]...the electric-potential is to the potential-energy what the electric field is to the Coulomb force!...". a spontaneous intervention by then common in my class. There was a strong sense of confidence in her words, in contrast to her personality, which was very quiet, in fact. So, how did we get there?

Hola! I am Marco Bonett-Matiz, a PhD student and YTC fellow. I am passionate about teaching, and last summer was the third time I served as the instructor of an introductory physics class. Below, I want to share the results of my experiment: the evolution of quizzes in the course, and their contribution to the sense of camaraderie and rapport among my students.

It all started when, as an undergrad, daily quizzes had a strong influence on my study habits; based on the previous day's lecture, these quizzes forced us to stay on our toes. Right then and there I decided that I would implement them in my classes.

I co-taught the first version of my Phys 181 course with my best friend here at Yale (also a YTC fellow by the way). During the planning stages, one of my strongest suggestions for the class was to implement daily quizzes. In retrospect, I was not totally aware of their effect; my thinking was: this will keep them on their toes and primed for class. Later I realized the quizzes also made them arrive on time: they started at nine sharp without delay and with no make-ups permitted. Everyone was on their seats by the beginning of the lecture and this reduced interruptions due to late comers.

For the second version of the class, I felt confident and daring: I increased the frequency of clicker questions and allowed for Think-Pair-Share (TPS) activities. However, I did not change the structure of the quizzes. I cannot be sure what triggered it, but there was a time after the end of a quiz when I couldn't start the lecture because of the noise. My students were engaged in discussion about their answers. I was so pleased that, when they finally noticed me, I suggested they finish their deliberations without rush. This was their discussion and I was only an observer. Soon after it hit me: "Next summer I will have them submit their individual answers, followed by peer-discussion and then resubmission".

Full of positive feelings and excitement, I was ready to implement some changes into the structure of the quizzes. The third time I taught the class they consisted of: Three multiple-choice questions, four minutes total for individual submission, followed by three minutes of peer-discussion before resubmission. This strategy wasn't without its problems, and at first the students resented me for not giving them enough time. We struck a deal: they would have more time at the cost of staying five minutes later at the end of class. They accepted without hesitation. This third time however, there was a noticeable change: The students felt safe to intervene and engage with the material. As a class, we had pierced through that ice that sometimes prevents students from actively participating.

Having witnessed their engagement in a relaxed environment that we had built together was among the most rewarding moments with this class.

I don't think the quizzes by themselves were the only reason for their engagement. We also had TPS questions, strong encouragement to participate, and in-class activities. But I would dare to speculate that daily quizzes followed by peer discussion planted the seed that fostered a healthy environment for participation. They created an atmosphere where it is ok to be wrong, it is ok to intervene if you think you have the right answer, and it is ok to engage in cordial discourse. The consequence was enthusiastic participation by most, as they asked questions, answered them, or gave a better version if I, as the instructor, was not able to nail it with my answer.

At first, I naively thought all I wanted was for my students to be ready for my lecture. In the process, I discovered a tool that enabled them to engage with the material and helped create a healthy environment where it was safe to participate.

In case you hadn't noticed, I didn't mention the students' motivator...I had to make the quizzes worth 15% of their grade. Without it, the efficacy of the experiment would have been greatly diminished, I'm sure.

Please feel free to share; I'd love to hear your opinion.


Monday, January 20, 2014

Using Film (and Video!) in the Classroom

Claudia Calhoun
Film and Media Studies and American Studies

Everybody loves movies. Teachers across all of the disciplines integrate moving images into their classrooms, whether that means full-length theatrical screenings, television episodes, or videos from YouTube. Incorporating movies is a great way to attract student interest, appeal to different learning styles, and diversify classroom activities. Films can also raise their own questions, deepening content-area discussion.

Every screening, small or large, is also an opportunity to increase students’ visual literacy. Although students enter the classroom incredible knowledge of media, they often have not been asked to look critically, to understand how images create meaning. When you use media, think about encouraging students to develop these critical capacities. This blog post will introduce you to some ways to incorporate visual thinking strategies along with your content objectives.

1. Before you show a video or film, direct students as to what to look for.
Visual Literacy Incorporation Level: EASY.

Films have many elements, and they all move! This can make it hard to keep track. Asking students to pay attention to one aspect of a video will guide discussion toward your learning goals. Let’s say that you’re showing Jimmy Fallon and the Roots’ adaptation of the Sesame Street theme song as part of a lesson within a class on Puppets in Culture. Here are two ways to frame the video:
  •  Pay attention to how the theme is adapted for Fallon’s 21st-century audience. What instruments do they use, and how do they work together?   How does Black Thought’s rap revise the original song?
  • Pay attention to the performance of the puppets.  How are the characters arranged, and what is the impact of their placement? How do the human and puppet characters interact with one another in this non-Street space?
 As you can see, these questions will anchor two very different discussions, so be sure to think about what observations are most appropriate for your learning goals.

2. Have students support their observations with visual evidence.
Visual Literacy Incorporation Level: INTERMEDIATE.

Without specialized knowledge, students can use close looking, prior knowledge, and contextual associations to make strong observations.  In the Fundamentals of Teaching with Images and Objects workshops, we use a worksheet to guide a progressive (or “scaffolded”) discussion, which you can adapt for your own uses. You can download that document here.

3. Integrate film terminology into your discussions.
Visual Literacy Incorporation Level: ADVANCED.

You don’t have to be a film scholar, or even have taken an Introduction to Film course, to gain comfort using film studies terms. Learning the terminology is itself productive, as students gain the ability to express new concepts once they have the language to describe them.  There are a number of videos on YouTube that help to explain basic film terminology. One of the clearest and thorough (yet not overlong!) was posted by user Scott Bradley and is called “Intro to Film Technique and Terminology.

Using scenes from Lord of the Rings, the video clearly illustrates a glossary of film terms. One of the strengths of Bradley’s video is that he also describes the impact of certain choices.  For example, when explaining camera angles, a scene between Gandalf and Bilbo Baggins clearly shows how “Characters shot from low angles tend to be more powerful, commanding” while “Characters shot from high angles tend to be weak, vulnerable” (2:04-3:17).

(If you’re looking for more examples and definitions than Bradley provides, another great resource for film language is Yale Film Studies’ in-depth online glossary, the Film Analysis Guide. )

One note: While The Fellowship of the Ring is a perfect example of “classical narrative” (meaning that all of the formal elements function to support an engrossing story) the film or video for your class may be aggressively un-classical. An avant-garde or ethnographic film, for example, is often not primarily concerned with narrative. Not to worry! The same language applies to non-classical films, and students who come to class with a lifetime’s worth of Hollywood films in their head will be well-prepared to draw out the differences between narrative and non-narrative filmmaking techniques.

To help students dissect an entire film, one strategy that I have had success with is to assign different formal elements to different students in the class. (This is the advanced version of the earlier suggestion, directing students what to look for.)  Before the screening, I will write the terms that we have recently learned on the board (say: lighting, camera movement, editing, sound), and ask students to choose an element on which to focus their attention.  I have found that this greatly improves the quality of the discussion after the film, allowing  us to talk in specific terms about  how each of the elements work together to create meaning – or, even better!,  where elements seem to clash with one another, and that effect that has within the film.

The next time you want to integrate film into a course, consider adding visual literacy to your learning goals. If you ask students what they see, you’ll find out what they think, too!

Have you tried using film and videos in your classroom? What activities did you design? How did students respond?