by Princy Quadros-Mennella, PhD, Associate Professor of Psychology, Director of the Neuroscience Program, Bay Path University
and Thomas Mennella, PhD, Associate Professor of Biology Director of the M.S. in Applied Laboratory Science and Operations Program, Bay Path University
The Question: How Do We Improve Learning Outcomes for All Students?
Even though innovative new pedagogies and educational technologies lead to enhanced student engagement and improvement of the classroom experience, we consistently see the learning outcomes of low-performing students remain largely unaffected (3, 7). Meanwhile, high-achieving students continue to learn effectively in more “traditional” lecture-based formats, despite the relative ineffectiveness of that pedagogy (7).
Why can’t we seem to improve learning outcomes for all students?
More cynical instructors may believe that “some students get it and others don’t.” However, we reject the notion that some students are not smart enough for college-level work. Although some students do not apply the minimal effort needed for academic success, the vast majority of struggling students work hard and strive to be successful, but often fall short of achieving that success. So why can’t we seem to improve the learning outcomes of these hard-working students?
The Answer, Part 1: Encourage a Growth Mindset
We believe the answer to this question lies in students’ mindsets.
While investigating why some middle school students seek challenges and others prefer easier solutions (avoiding the risk of failure), developmental psychologist Dr. Carol Dweck of Stanford University discovered that the only difference between these two groups of students was their perspectives on learning. She described their perspectives as growth mindset and fixed mindset, respectively (6):
- Fixed mindset individuals believe that intelligence and ability are innate. Their early lack of success in attempting anything new often supports the preconceptions about their skills and abilities, making their failure a self-fulfilling prophecy. Believing that failure might expose a lack of talent or ability, these individuals avoid challenges and give up easily when they encounter failure. Fixed mindset individuals often compare themselves to others, seeking external validation for their abilities. They do not see the value of criticism or feedback because they take criticism personally. These students rarely read feedback and are primarily focused on the grade for the assignment.
- Growth mindset individuals, in stark contrast, believe that abilities and talents can be developed through effort and hard work. Because they realize that failing is a normal part of learning (in order to learn, we must fail), they seek challenges even in the face of failure. They know these challenges will help them grow. Criticism or feedback is welcomed, because criticism provides pathways to further develop their abilities and achieve future successes.
Students who work hard and achieve successes likely exhibit a growth mindset. Conversely, most students who put in the hours but still underachieve are likely struggling with a fixed mindset. (It isn’t that they can’t learn the concepts, but that they believe they can’t.) We contend that most students want to be successful and work hard, but that their different mindsets lead to different outcomes. If students alter their mindset, they can become more proficient.
The Answer, Part 2: Help Students Cultivate Academic Grit
However, failing — even failing in order to learn — is a hard thing for students to experience, and the emotional impact of failing can lead students to develop a fixed mindset and focus on failure avoidance (rather than learning) in the future. The best armor against the emotional toll of failure may be resilience or “grit.” In her popular TED talk on the subject, Angela Lee Duckworth claims that a growth mindset may be the path toward developing grit (3), but it may be the other way around. Maybe students need to cultivate grit in order to achieve a growth mindset.
Duckworth defines grit as both the passion and perseverance needed to follow through on commitments and achieve long-term goals. Duckworth presents two powerful formulas that illustrate her findings:
Talent x Effort = Skill
Skill x Effort = Achievement/Success
Duckworth notes that effort counts twice. Working hard, and continuing to work hard despite failures, gets students from talent to success. She also found that grit is more reliably predictive of success than either talent or IQ — and that grit, like a growth mindset, can be learned and developed. With grit, students can allow themselves to fail. And with failure, students can grow.
5 Ways to Help Students Develop These Qualities
If we accept these ideas as valid, then a few relatively small changes on a faculty member’s part can have a major impact. Here are a few examples that we, as educators, can follow to encourage a growth mindset in our students.
1. Share these concepts with your students.
Stress the benefits of a growth mindset. Students can bring mental “baggage” or preconceived notions about their abilities and skills, notions that have been developed through years of fixed-mindset-type feedback and education experiences. By sharing the concepts of fixed and growth mindsets and challenging students’ beliefs about their abilities, we can increase both students’ motivation for academic improvement and their academic performance. This isn’t simply optimism; introducing students to the idea that intelligence is malleable and not static resulted in improved math test scores in a group of 7th graders (1).
There are many pre-existing lesson plans available on the Internet that can help instructors share the concepts of fixed and growth mindset with students of all ages.
2. Consider offering a pre-assessment in each course to gauge each student’s “starting point.”
Allow this pre-assessment to temper your expectations. Students with a weaker foundation cannot be expected to reach the same achievements as their better-prepared peers. We can avoid placing unrealistic expectations onto our students by assessing their foundational knowledge. It can also be useful for an instructor to know how many students need remediation or a greater review of a previous course’s content, before moving to the more advanced concepts in the current course. Rather than encourage students’ feelings of inadequacy for not reaching a benchmark as quickly as their peers, an instructor can provide additional resources to those students who need them, empowering them to reach mastery of course concepts along with the other students.
3. Consider the type of praise and feedback you offer.
For example, rather than saying, “This still needs improvement,” consider saying: “This is much improved over the last time, but could be made even better.” Many of us would agree that students now are much more fragile and closed to criticism than in the past. While we should be making an effort to build grit in our students, showering them with criticism that they are not prepared to receive is not likely to be the most effective way to do this. Doling out criticism more gently and diplomatically, at least in introductory first- and second-year courses, could encourage students to see themselves as resilient and capable of improvement.
4. Provide low-impact opportunities to fail and learn.
Offer low-impact/-point value assignments or quizzes where students can fail with little consequence to their overall grade. Weekly quizzes that are worth few points allow students to test their recall and understanding of concepts they just learned, while giving them opportunities to recognize holes or flaws in their understanding. Receiving a low score on these low-impact assessments serves as a wake-up-call that more effort is needed to improve their understanding.
While no student enjoys getting low scores, once it is explained to students that a failing grade on a quiz represents (for example) 1.5% of their final grade, many students cope well with this small failure (while still remembering its sting). It’s better for a student to fail a low-impact quiz and have the opportunity to remediate their learning than to proceed without knowing of gaps in their understanding and then fail a high-stakes exam. At that point it is often too late to undo the mistakes in their learning.
5. Scaffold assignments that contain multiple drafts, then award quantitative scores only on the final product.
Student writing is often the skill most in need of improvement. Writing at the collegiate level requires a complex set of skills including not only writing proficiency but also competencies in research, integration of sources, synthesizing content, citing sources, drafting, and revising. We should be coaching the development of these skills in our students. Term papers should be scaffolded to provide a guide to students as to how such papers are written and assembled.
We have found the following scaffolding pattern to work well in our courses:
- After choosing a topic (stated in the form of a question that the students will answer with their thesis statement or paper), students should be required to submit an annotated bibliography.
- Next, a skeletal outline should be required, followed by a full outline.
- The next assignment could be a rough draft, and then a final draft.
Robust and detailed feedback — but not necessarily a grade — should be provided on the earlier assignments. As a means to help students improve their writing, we encourage instructors to use features such as “suggestions” in Google Docs or “track changes” in Microsoft Word. These features allow students to see what was changed and how it was changed, modeling how they can improve their writing in the future. Students should be guided through this process and regularly encouraged to incorporate feedback and suggestions into later and later assignments, allowing early failures to become later successes. Failures in early assignments are not highly penalized because of the pass/fail or low-point nature of the grading. This will likely lead to increased grit and resiliency in accepting correction and criticism, and also more closely mimics the actual process of academic writing.
Remember where this article began: with the relative lack of dividends realized by innovative and effective pedagogies, and with the realization that hard-working students often still falter. When we look at how some students’ hard work is not translating into academic success, we believe that the root cause is their fixed mindset, reinforced by an educational system that teaches students that they are only as smart as their grade.
To be clear, we are not advocating for a student’s “effort” to be the only measure to pass a course. Students must still show knowledge gains and demonstrate learning. However, each student’s individual starting point should be taken into account and their success measured by how much they have learned and improved from that point.
We believe that systematic change is needed in both K-12 and higher education. Currently too much emphasis is placed on single snapshots of assessed skills rather than on the gradual development of these skills. Instructor feedback is often quantitative and comparative instead of individualized to measure a student’s own growth over time. Instead of students being compared to a subjective standard, we look forward to a time where, from kindergarten to college graduation, they are recognized for their growth and development.
- Blackwell, L. S., Trzesniewski K. H., Dweck, C. S. (2007). Implicit theories of intelligence predict achievement across an adolescent transition: a longitudinal study and an intervention. Child Development, 78: 246-63.
- Cyr, A. A., & Anderson, N. D. (2015). Mistakes as stepping stones: Effects of errors on episodic memory among younger and older adults. Journal of experimental psychology: learning, memory, and cognition, 41(3), 841.
- DeSantis, J., Van Curen, R., Putsch, J. & Metzger, J. (2015). Do students learn more from an exploration of the efficacy of flipped and traditional lessons. Journal of Interactive Learning Research, 26, 39–63.
- Duckworth, A. (2016). Grit: The power of passion and perseverance. Simon and Schuster.
- Duckworth, A. (2013). Grit: The power of passion and perseverance [Video File]. Retrieved from: https://www.ted.com/talks/angela_lee_duckworth_grit_the_power_of_passion_and_perseverance
- Dweck, C. (2006). Mindset: The new psychology of success. Random House: New York, NY.
- Mennella, T. A. (2016). Comparing the Efficacy of Flipped vs. Alternative Active Learning in a College Genetics Course. The American Biology Teacher, 78(6), 471-479.