As a part of the university's new Quality Enhancement Program (QEP), LCU has implemented a program for strategically-selected faculty and staff members to help introduce them to material centered around growth mindsets and how to cultivate a culture of academic tenacity, encouraging students to pursue, persist, and grow through challenges. This interview explored this initiative with four of the participating faculty members, all of whom teach English classes on campus—Professor Jana Anderson, Professor Shenai Alonge-Moore, Professor Micah Heatwole, and Dr. Matt Byars.
How did you get involved with the QEP and become a learning scholar?
JA: The team that created this program made the decision to implement growth mindset principles into classes for every freshman. The QEP wanted to target incoming students in freshman English, college algebra, freshman Bible, and through the library staff. This way, every single freshman student in the 2017-2018 academic year will have contact with this material through a multi-disciplined approach.
What are some of the most impactful or surprising things that you’ve learned as you’ve looked through the growth-mindset material?
MB: I know, at least for me, a lot of it has been the actual biological and physiological changes that take place when people learn and the neurons that are formed and the synapses. They did studies with mice, where they put some in a very bland and non-stimulating environment, and they put others in an active and more-stimulating environment. After some time in each, they weighed their brains, and the brains of the mice in the latter had heavier brains, because they were denser. There’s a similar situation for our students. By exposing them to more stimuli and learning environments now, rather than throwing information at them and giving them set assignments, it promotes a desire to continue to learn down the road and give them that continual growth mindset that we’ve been looking at.
JA: I think it’s also interesting to see that all of us, whether a professor, student, or staff, have both fixed and growth mindsets. So where students could feel confident and proficient in freshman writing, for example, they could shut down in math, because they have learned over the years that they're just not very good at math. They have rehearsed that narrative in their minds, and they believe it.
A growth mindset tries to turn that fixed belief on its head, saying that the brain is always capable of learning; our brains can grow and produce new synapses and new pathways. For all of us, that means that while we don’t know something now, we just don’t know it yet. It’s all about not knowing it yet. As a learner, students can figure out what strategies work for them, and implement those in their classes. Students can learn new, hard material and they can be successful. A growth mindset may not mean that you can be an astrophysicist; but it does mean that you can earn an A in college Algebra, where before you saw yourself as a C or a D student.
MH: I think one of the things that has been challenging is that, as we are working on actively encouraging our students to have growth mindsets when they encounter something difficult for them, as professors, we also have to have that same mindset for them as they come in with different levels of ability. How do we shape our classroom environment to be more beneficial to those students who don’t have that prior knowledge when they come into our classroom? For me, it’s made me more active in thinking about how I can change my presentation so that it can reach those people who have less experience, but at the same time, challenges those who have more.
How have you grown as an instructor?
JA: I think that, since this is on the front-end of this experience, we’re still figuring it all out—we’ll be doing more implementation and application in our classrooms next fall. For me, I'm not focusing on a specific assignment, at least not yet. It’s more about being aware of my language and making sure that I’m using phrases that promote a growth mindset versus a fixed mindset. I’m trying to be very careful about that orally, but also in my written comments on papers. I’m also very aware that, in some ways, having a growth mindset can really seem like being a cheerleader who's giving false praise, and I want to be especially careful about that. Having a growth mindset doesn’t mean that everyone can do everything—what it does mean is that there are always opportunities for students to improve and do better, to be positive and hopeful about the learning process, and to remove the self-imposed limits that keep them from achieving more.
SAM: With regards to giving feedback on essays and assignments, I’ve tried to be very intentional to say what they’ve done well and how they’ve improved and tried to be more specific with that feedback. Before, it was a lot more generic, maybe saying, “great revisions,” or something like that, where now I’m trying to press, “Hey, I noticed you were struggling with x, y, or z, and now I can see you’ve been working on that.” This gives feedback that can reinforce positive improvement while not giving false hope or praise, still being concrete and allowing for further improvement. I’ve seen that make a difference for a few of them already, and that is exciting.
MH: I’ve been more conscientious about trying to create environments where students have more options to be successful in the things that I’m trying to get them to do. I’m not changing any of my major assignments, but I’ve changed the way that we do class work by having them do the same concept repeated in different ways. Each week, we look at different topics. For instance, this week we are working with classifications, so we’re looking at incorporating classification into an argument. I’m giving them an opportunity to discuss stuff among themselves in class, to give them ways to learn together, and to feel safe in not understanding everything right away.
JA: That last phrase—“feel safe in not understanding everything right away”—is key, because a fixed mindset operates out of fear, and a growth mindset doesn’t. If we can help student feel like they’re not under a microscope, then that can really help them feel more secure in their learning.
What impact does having a growth mindset have on your students, versus a fixed mindset?
SAM: I just had my students do a writing assignment for me, where I asked them, "What is one thing that you wish your friends knew about you? One thing you wish your professors knew? One thing you wish your parents knew?" because I noticed that a lot of them are struggling with a lot of different things right now. One girl—and this really stuck out to me because I used to identify in the same way at her age—who hasn't turned in much in weeks said that her expectations for herself are so high she doesn't think she can ever achieve them, so she doesn't even try to achieve them, even though she is capable and what little work she has turned in was done well. Instead of trying and being crushed because she couldn't do it, she'd rather just give up and have it be one big failure instead of a string of trying and failing. It was incredibly sad to see, because if she's doing this in all of her classes, then obviously she will fail, which will just make all of that disappointment worse. As safe as we try to make everything, she still doesn't feel safe enough to try and get feedback and learn so that she can get closer to those goals.
On the other hand, in that same class, I have another student who sits very near the first one. She is not the best writer, but she will always do the work, and then come in and ask questions, always inquisitive and trying to improve. So she'll work on things and bring them back and ask, "Okay, you told me to try this—is this what you meant? Is this how this works?" It has been interesting watching these two next to each other. In one class, I have a very real representation of a fixed mindset, which has only gotten worse through the semester—to the point she barely even looks up in class and is afraid because she doesn't know or she feels like she should already know—next to the other girl, who is struggling but is working really hard, is eager to learn, and is open to learning. It's such a vivid representation of these two mindsets.
JA: I think that’s key—that fixed mindset people feel like they should already know whatever they’re supposed to be learning. If they go into a classroom and kind of already know the material, then bells go off, and they feel accomplished. They don’t see learning as approaching new material; they see it as covering old ground. I have some students who come in as great writers who do really well, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that they have a growth mindset, because they’re going over the same material they’ve already mastered. When those same students approach something that’s unfamiliar, they aren’t quite sure how to handle that. Students can have a fixed mindset and still be making As—good grades aren’t necessarily connected to the mindset.
MB: I don’t want to start off my comment with the binary distinction of “smart” and “not smart,” but there are students who you look at and can say, “Yeah, they’re an intelligent kid,” and you can tell that learning has come easily for them. And I find more often that the fixed mindset presents more readily in those students than in those students who struggle, because the students who struggle are more willing to embrace that struggle, and know that they’re going to have to work hard, but actually do it. Conversely, a lot of those “smart” students who, the first time they encounter something hard, think, “This shouldn’t be hard—if it’s hard, I’m not going to do it,” or just shut down because they haven’t had to deal with that adversity before. It’s a matter of getting students to look at challenges and adversity as something to embrace rather than fear.
Specific to your discipline, what insights have you gained in the classroom from this experience?
SAM: In terms of what I teach, because I have such specific goals in my freshman classes, things get passed through quite quickly, and I've learned that I need to have more depth. This stuff is important to learn, but not to just check off that they've done an annotated bibliography, that they've done a works cited, that they have a 14-page final draft. We want to make sure that these concepts are sticking. It's not just checking things off a list to get things done in their courses, it's to make sure that they're taking things that they can use in other classes and beyond.
MB: When I tell people outside the university that I’m an English professor, I always get the “ah, I was terrible at English!” response, all the time, and I know the math people get it as well. And part of the issue, too, has been confronting that fixed mindset that “I am terrible at English” or “I am terrible at math.” If you don’t like one or the other, it could be just that you haven’t encountered it in a positive way or in a setting that was conducive to learning. I see it, especially in poetry, even among “English people.” So, then my challenge becomes to confront those fixed mindsets and present the material in a way that is more friendly and accessible, and gives them a way to relate to it so that they can connect with it more. I think the same could go for math, especially the things that don’t seem as relevant outside of the university or outside of the classroom.
JA: Two things come to mind. First, students just having language to describe their feelings can be huge for them. Being able to say, “Oh, this isn’t something wrong with me, this isn’t something insufficient in me,” but instead embracing the idea that gaps in their knowledge can be corrected and that they can be coached is a huge lightbulb moment for so many. Specifically, in freshman composition classes, we want to help them think about strategies for learning. We all have strategies that we know work in certain areas to help us learn. Being able to say, “You know what? This strategy will work in my math class, too,” never occurs to a lot of students. They never think to cross-apply that information to other classes. That knowledge is also a lightbulb moment—it can be that simple. Students can think that “I’m broken, I’m deficient, I’m from a bad family background, I don’t have the financial resources—so clearly, this all leads to the truth of “I can’t,” based on things outside of themselves.
MB: Too many times, students think that “I don’t get it” means “I can’t get it.” That’s just not the case.
JA: We read a blog article early on that had a line that has stuck with me, which we discussed earlier: “I can’t get it yet.” That’s the sentence that I keep rehearsing with my kids at home when they hit obstacles, and it really seems to making a difference there, too. It’s encouraging.