In the last couple of weeks I’ve done a lot of thinking about learning strategies and mindsets. I’ve been aware of the two main mindsets detailed in the picture above for a while (Fixed VS Growth), but I’ve never really connected this information with students’ attitude after exams or simply in class. You see, this semester I’m teaching part of the Ecology lectures that I TA for and have TAed for a lot in the past six years. This is all part of the Teaching Certificate here at UK (I can’t recommend this program enough by the way) and the last piece of this is a practicum class I’m taking this semester … hence, I’ll teach some lectures as practice. All that to say that the students in this class just took their first exam. Of course the grades were spread out and the principal instructor curved the grades up, nothing unusual. However, it got me thinking, why wouldn’t students ace this exam? I’ve been to lecture, I teach those kids in lab (half of them only I concede), I know how I would prep for this exam and I think I’d be successful at it … so why is it that not all students do well?
Beside considerations of my bias perspective on this class since it is right up my alley (I’m a stream ecologist after all), which I agree with by the way, I think there are two things at play on the students’ side here. First, they were never told how to prepare for an exam or even how to learn in college. No, not once they have a class dedicated to “how do I learn” in college … Second, they were never told how to deal with setbacks, hurdles, under-performances, etc. What happens when you let people figure things out on their own? Some of them got it, some of them don’t, some of them struggle and get it, some of the struggle and give up, and everything you can think of in between. I was lucky enough to get it, don’t get me wrong, there are a lot of factors explaining why I “got” it (it being how to learn in college): my family supported me, I was in France so no debt to go to college = no working during classes, I had a professor who actually taught us how to learn in college, I already had some intelligence/intuition that worked for me.
If you pay attention in the list of things I’ve listed above, only one is my own and only mine (and even that is arguable). The point I’m making here is that I didn’t make it on my own and on top of that I also failed along the way. But I got back up and persevere … once again thanks to the same set of factors listed above … I hope you’re catching my drift by now —> intelligence (aka learning skills as define here) is not entirely innate! Let’s address the common critic that “it’s been like that forever, not everybody can cut it, sorting needs to happen, etc.” Well, let me say this: why do we need to keep doing things the way they were done? Also, my job is to teach and to make students learn, so I’ll do what I can to make this happen and if this means more kids get through my classes with better grade … as long as learning takes place I’m OK with this. The world will keep spinning and things will go on regardless so why not?
The table above is one presentation of the different mindsets about learning: entity and incremental theories (corresponding to fixed and growth mindsets respectively). Interestingly, what comes to mind for me when I’m looking at this table is not how much students’ position along those lines inform us of their learning capabilities … no, I believe what is much more interesting here is how much students’ positioning between the two mindsets tells us about their strategy when it comes to facing failure. As human beings we all fear failure, at every stage of our lives. However, we don’t all react to failure similarly. Some get back on the horse after falling and some don’t, why is that? In both cases, after falling from the horse, the rider needs to decide what they want to do about what happened: the horse isn’t feeling riding today, it’s rainy so slippery, a bug went into their eye, etc. OR I could have controlled the horse better, I made a mistake there but now I won’t anymore, I can ask an instructor for help, I can change horse if that one isn’t cooperative, etc. Bottom line here, our attitude toward failure informs our attitude toward learning!
To keep this article short, let me summarize what I think (only in my opinion) needs to happen for fostering growth mindset and ultimately student success:
Universities need to implement courses on how to learn in college and make those mandatory for freshmen. Subjects covered in those courses will span from “How to read a textbook” to “How to read a popular/scientific article” to “How to take notes during class” to “The science behind learning” (more on this below) to “How to write an email to a professor asking for help” to “How to deal with exam results and inform learning strategies consequently.”
Students need to be told failure is OK and the classroom is the place to fail repeatedly at low cost (this assume teaching is properly done with formative assessments and not only summative assessments). The laboratory classrooms are even more suitable for failing so TAs should be appropriately trained in helping students fail and learn from failures (a lot more than I can say here would need to be said about TA training, I’ll probably cover that in an upcoming post though).
Professors need to address the elephants in the room in their courses —> contact students who failed or are failing, let the entire class know what the science of learning is and what a growth mindset can help them achieve, provide ample opportunities for failing (formative) before testing students (summative assessments), and provide material/study guides/practice quizzes/etc. for students to train before the real thing.
So I know some teachers already implement these suggestions, yet some students still fail in their classes. Keep in mind though that there is part of the onus on each of the actor in a college classroom and each actor can only control one thing: their own actions. Hence, the persistence of student failure should not deter you from working on growth mindsets with them as long as you see progress in their learning (if not, seek help at your local teaching center, on the POD network listserv, wherever you want). I’ll leave you with the full diagram on fixed versus growth mindsets (below) and this handout detailing a little bit of the science of learning (it’s short, great, and from the mindsetworks.com - great place so check it out). Feel free to use any of those materials in your classes (teachers) or for your learning (students), simply credit where it is due.