Dr. Cathy Box

Learning Academy - Dr. Cathy Box, Director


How did this iteration of the QEP start, and when did you get involved?


CB: SACS decided years ago that there should be a mechanism instituted by the different institutions to help ensure the quality of education. From that initiative, the Quality Enhancement plan was born. Our first one, beginning eleven years ago now, was our Thinking Critically initiative. During the last phase of cycle, Rod Blackwood, our Provost, started gathering data two years before we needed to have a new topic for that initiative. He formed a team to gather data, searching for what students need from their time in college that they aren’t necessarily getting enough of. One of the things that kept surfacing was that students needed to be better able to work through tough situations, specifically speaking academically. They realized that this was important for our students to be able to face hardships and power through those situations.

At some point in their research, they came across information about growth mindsets, and they recognized in that committee that it is something that I’m very familiar with. As a secondary education professor, I’ve been teaching on growth mindset for years, so when they approached me and asked for me to help explore the concepts with them, I was excited. It was so thrilling to me, because I felt so passionately that this was what they were deciding was to be our topic. It was at that point, about a year ago, that they asked me to be the director for the QEP—and obviously, I was thrilled.


What are some of the big targets that we’re pushing towards with this QEP?


CB: While we want this to impact all of our students, we decided that the most effective way to start implementing the initiative would be to start with our incoming freshmen, from the first moment they’re learning on our campus. Every freshman goes through the UNI 1100 class, and we want to instill within them a growth mindset—we want them to understand what growth mindset is, to understand how their brain works, and to know that test results aren’t always an indicator of how intelligent they are. So many other things play into it—preparation, knowing how to study, and knowing what helps them learn. Teaching our students that the brain is malleable, that they can improve, and helping instill that mindset is really a huge goal. This is one that all incoming freshmen will go through.

In our Phase 2 classes—those that students commonly struggle with (English, college algebra, Old Testament Bible)—the professors are targeting those metacognitive skills, or the skills to help them regulate their own learning. At the beginning of the semester, they take some data, looking for what their students struggle with, and then they work with their students on those issues and help them with strategies to overcome them. They look at how to manage time, how to check for understanding, what to do if they don’t think they’re picking up the material. Those professors give the students those concrete skills.

So, in essence, it’s a two-step approach. The first is learning about growth mindset and how the brain works, and then the second carries that knowledge over and applies it to helping the students learn what helps them learn in the most effective way.


How has this affected the teaching styles in those classrooms?


CB: If you have a growth mindset, which is focused on getting feedback and then improving, and using that in a cycle to continually grow—that doesn’t work well with a traditional teaching style. If the class is all lecture, and only has one midterm and one final exam, then there’s not the room that the students need to assess how they’re taking in the material and then to work to improve in the areas that they’re struggling with. As professors, especially those in the Learning Academy who have been looking at this material and learning about growth mindset themselves, these instructors have been working to teach in a more student-centered way. They expect their students to self-assess and peer-assess, and set goals, and that has really changed how we teach. We have been looking at learner-centered instruction, which really helps drive home the things we’re hitting on with growth mindset.


Has there been much resistance to changing teaching styles to work in that structure?


CB: Well, all of the learning scholars are here voluntarily—we don’t make anyone sign up. It’s really been remarkable as I’ve seen the growth mindsets that they have. None of them have said, “This is the way I teach, the way I’ve always taught, and this is how it’s going to stay.” They’ve all been able to look at what they’re learning, evaluate how that fits into how they’ve been teaching, and say, “Let’s see how I can use this to become a better instructor.” Now, that may not be easy—in fact, it’s often very difficult—but I’ve seen every single one of those professors make the effort and work to improve the way that their classroom functions in light of their studying of growth mindsets and their knowledge of how learning is best facilitated. We know that conceptual change, whether in a student, professor, or anyone else, doesn't really happen until they have a chance to try the new method and see for themself whether it works or doesn't work—and that’s what the Learning Scholars have been about from the start.


What effect have you seen these efforts have in our classes?


CB: I wish you could see the texts and pictures I get to see of students collaborating, up out of their chairs and debating, all working together to learn. According to these professors, this had never happened before. Students had sat at their desks, the professor would lecture, and then the students would leave, go home and do their homework. Now, the engagement is just amazing. To watch these professors go from a traditional method of instruction to a more student-oriented mode has been really exciting, and we  are already seeing results in these classes.

We’re in our second cohort of learning scholars now, with four science, one math, and three new English professors—all faculty who are well-respected on campus, and who have shown a deep interest in this material and the initiative overall. Our fellowship covers eight scholars, but we even have others volunteering to join the group as well, who’ve just been coming because they want to. We’re expanding, and it’s incredibly encouraging.