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 three of the participating faculty members, all of whom teach mathematics classes on campus—Dr. Ashley Cherry, Dr. Keith Rogers, and Professor Ann Sims.
AS: The committee decided early on that we wanted to emphasize this material in the beginning-level freshman classes, which included the freshman English, freshman math, and freshman Bible courses. The most common beginning math course is college algebra, so we were chosen because we three teach many of those courses and were most available for this training.
AC: The power of a person’s mindset and how it can enable students has always been something that I suspected to be true, because when I’m teaching students who are afraid of math, I feel like there is this mental wall that I’m having to break through to teach them. Knowing that, if I can help them break through that mindset and change their outlook on the subject to view it in a different light, they can improve. Knowing their intelligence can change is been an incredible realization for students. If they take advantage of the tools, opportunities, and resources available to them, and if they believe that they can get better, then they will get better. That doesn’t mean that they’re all going to become math prodigies, but they will get better. There is always room for improvement, and if I can get them to see that improvement in themselves, then they tend grow even more.
KR: I’ve learned that I’ve been teaching growth mindset unintentionally for a while now. When I teach, I don’t work out my problems beforehand—when I get to class, we work the problems together, and I’m not afraid to make mistakes, which is a given in math in general. When they happen, we point them out, we all laugh, and then I say, “Well, we could stop here… but we could also fix it, and then move on and finish the problem.” It has been a great reinforcement of the importance of way that we approach challenges.
We all had growth mindsets as children. No child learns to walk perfectly on day one without failing. Babies fall down repeatedly, sometimes painfully, but they always keep trying, and eventually, they get there. That, to me, is a perfect example of how we can take our setbacks and learn from them going forward, and still achieve great things.
I failed a college algebra test—I still have it, and I even bring it to class after I hand back my first test to my students, because there’s usually at least one who will have failed that first test. I bring it to show them that they can fail, and still go on to do what they want to do. I show it to them, show them my name, show them the 54 written at the top, and use that to show them that this one bad grade doesn’t mean that they can’t do better next time.
AS: Part of the training that Dr. Box is taking us through is exploring different methods of implementing growth mindset into our classes, so we’re actually going over that as we train. We’re learning a lot of different ways to apply the material to our classrooms. Dr. Box demonstrates some of them, and we as a class go over different ways that we can as well.
KR: Just last week, we went over a way to give better feedback on tests and papers. The learning academy meets on Tuesdays. I had given a test back on Monday with my usual simple grading where I just put minus a number of points for incorrect responses, and then after learning how to give better feedback on Tuesday, I went to class on Wednesday and had a student approach me about the test. She told me that she wasn’t sure why she had missed a particular question because all she had to go off of was the minus-three that I’d put on the test, and it really drove home several of those things that we’d discussed the day before. I’m working on doing better about telling them both when they’ve done well, as well as showing them where they may have made a mistake, and then showing how they can correct it. It really helps that, because what we’re learning is fresh in our minds, I’m now consciously aware of it when I’m in the classroom.
AS: Exactly—you recognize it a lot more, and a lot of times we’re able to apply it almost immediately.
AC: It has also helped me be intentional about doing things that I previously might have shied away from, simply because the type of student that I was might not have appreciated those approaches. I always like being left alone to do my math problems in silence, but I know that not all of my students are like me in that regard. One of the things that I’ve been trying to learn how to do is on giving feedback more continuously, not only on tests, but also on day-to-day work. I’ve gotten them all small white boards so that I can put a problem up on the board and then have them all work it on their own, and then they can look at each others’ work and find for themselves what they may have missed. Not only does it give me an opportunity to look over their work as they’re doing it, but it also can help them be more receptive if I ask if we need to do another example, because they can see that they could have gotten the last problem right, they might have just missed one small thing. It helps them gain the ability to be able to check their own work while they’re still learning it, rather than seeing their mistakes only after they’ve gotten a bad grade back on their test, and that makes them more receptive to the feedback earlier on.
AC: I think the biggest thing that I’ve been trying to get my students to understand is that mistakes are not a bad thing. Mistakes are not their enemies—they’re their friends, because that's a big part of how we learn. Students shouldn’t be afraid of making a mistake in front of their instructors, because we can help them if we can see what material they do not understand. If they don’t let me help them, then I can’t fix it. I’m constantly trying to emphasize that mistakes are just an opportunity for learning, an opportunity to improve—that they’re not a bad thing, that they’re things that we all make because we’re all human, and that we can and should learn from them. This is especially true in math, since we have to find out what we did wrong in order to continue working equations.
AS: Exactly. Something that’s true especially in mathematics is that students have to be able to figure out what they have done wrong in enough time to correct it before we get to the test. One of the things we’ve been covering in our research is looking at where we are now, and where we want to get to—looking at how to “close the gap,” as the material puts it.
AC: We’ve just started looking at some metacognitive strategies and neuroscience behind growth mindsets, and I really saw that in one student last semester. He was one of my students whom I could tell right off the bat feared math. He ended up failing his first test, and I could see that he didn’t think he could succeed. I told him that he needed to believe that he could do it, that he could improve if he worked at it, even if it was a little at a time. And little by little, he kept coming in, started telling himself that he could do it, and his grade slowly crept up higher as the semester went on, and he ended up finishing the class with a passing grade. It was a really great example for me of how having a growth mindset really can help a student improve and get better.
AS: Well, it’s a great definition of how you learn math.
KR: When they first told us that college algebra was going to be one of the first courses that they wanted to use to gather data on growth mindset, my first thought was that no successful mathematician has a fixed mindset. We’re always getting the problem wrong, and then going back through what we did, finding our mistakes, and learning from them. It’s the process of how we learn in mathematics. I don’t think that it’s possible to do that well while having a fixed mindset.
Lebron can play basketball better than almost anyone, but he still has to practice, and he still misses shots, and still has bad games. Michael Jordan said, "Twenty-six times I’ve been trusted to take the game-winning shot and missed,” but he still got the ball a lot when he was down by one, and he still took the shots.
AS: Exactly—I think it was Wayne Gretzky who said, “You miss 100% of the shots you never take.”
AC: I hope that it will help students not feel like they have to put themselves into a category, because I feel like that’s sort of what academic majors do for many students. Students are constantly trying to figure out what subject they want to major in, defining themselves based on a category. When they find their “thing,” then in their minds that’s the thing that they’re good at, and they’re not good at the other subjects. I’m hoping that this will help contradict that mindset, because they can be good at many things, and they can grow and get better. While they may be challenged by things that they are not as good at, they can be better than where they were when they came to us, and I hope that this can help them see that they can grow in subjects that may not be their favorite. We can do good work and be proud of it, even if it isn’t our passion.
KR: When I stumble over words during a lecture, historically I would laugh it off and say, “Well, I’m a math person; I don’t do well with words.” Since we’ve been studying this, I’ve caught myself and realized that perhaps that’s not the best mindset to present to my students, even if it is sarcastically and in good fun.
AS: And this has implications far beyond the classroom. We’ll see it all around in everyday life.
AC: Even in students dealing with addictions—I see a mixture of both mindsets when I meet with students who are dealing with tough stuff. Do they believe that they can change, and are we speaking the words to them that help them understand that they can change? We are supposed to keep growing—it’s biblical. We do it with our faith, in our lifestyles, and it can impact literally every part of our lives.