Creating a Mindset for Collaboration

Because we know that active engagement in collaborative projects can create a synergy among students that often surpasses what can be learned individually, we find ourselves designing assignments that create opportunities for students to collaborate and learn from one another. Also, the ability to work together in teams is a skill needed in today’s workforce. So for many reasons, assignments that foster collaboration have become essential parts of a well-designed course.

Peer review has been a standard collaborative strategy in English for decades. The activity strengthens students’ editing skills, helps develop confidence in their own writing, and creates a sense of community among writers. With proper guidance students can give each other valuable advice on works in progress and come to rely on that extra set of eyes looking over their work. But building student trust in peer response takes time. Because students see the teacher as the most important source of knowledge as well as the person in charge of grades, they find it difficult to trust peer opinions. I have developed an assignment that hastens this trust building process as it shows students the value of collaboration, with the added bonus of establishing a sense of community in the class.

Although any text could be used for a collaborative assignment of this nature, I use Carol Dweck’s Mindsets: The New Psychology of Success because the content of the book reinforces many of the learning outcomes of the course. This book, a popularized version of Dweck’s psychological research on individuals’ attitudes toward failure and challenge, defines two types of mindsets, growth and fixed. People with a growth mindset accept failure as a challenge and a means to improve. Growth-mindset people believe that intelligence is expandable. Fixed-mindset individuals consider intelligence static and unchangeable and, therefore, see failure as a threat to identity. Fixed-mindset people are less likely to take risks for fear of appearing inadequate. The book, which is full of personal examples of famous people who demonstrate the two mindsets, provides a rich discussion platform for establishing attitudes about learning. It could be used in many different kinds of courses, such as first-year seminars or senior capstone courses.

The simplicity of the writing task makes this assignment easily adapted to many other non-composition courses. After reading the book, each student prepares and brings to class two paragraphs, one describing a person he or she knows who illustrates the fixed mindset and one describing a person who illustrates the growth mindset. We look at the paragraphs as a class and talk about their accuracy in relation to Dweck’s definitions. I then put the students in teams of four. Their assignment is to take the eight paragraphs that they have as a group and use them as the basis of an essay defining the two mindsets. They must include paragraphs from each group member, but the goal is to create an essay with a single voice, not a Frankenstein piece that sounds like four different people’s work sewn together. Their ability to work through the process and to substantially revise the original pieces is weighted heavily on the assessment rubric for the assignment.

For the composition class, this assignment provides an interesting rhetorical problem. Although the essay is easy in the sense that the body paragraphs have been created and the organization and content are fairly simple, the assignment poses significant challenges in relation to point of view and voice. The entire exercise is focused on writing as revision, another key learning outcome of the course.

Promoting positive attitudes toward learning
But as important for me is the effectiveness of this assignment in fostering community and promoting positive attitudes toward learning. In regard to community, the students exchange email addresses and phone numbers, share drafts via email, and meet outside of class in order to complete the project. Through this assignment, they develop acquaintances who frequently become study partners with whom they feel comfortable sharing work throughout the semester. This group experience makes students much less self-conscious about making mistakes, and they begin to ask each other for help and advice.

Too often students believe that their intelligence has been determined and that school is just a matter of validating whether they are smart or not. By looking for the mindsets in their friends and family, they begin to consider their own attitudes as well. They know from reading Dweck that although one might have a natural propensity for one mindset, mindsets can be changed. The students begin to understand that rather than viewing mistakes as validation of one’s inadequacy, they can use them to identify areas for growth and improvement. With the help of others, they can successfully address these challenges.

Students generally perform well on this assignment. The positive feedback they receive bolsters their sense of accomplishment and their belief in the value of collaboration and peer review. Long after we have moved beyond this assignment, we continue to make reference to fixed and growth mindsets as well as other learning-related concepts from the work. Dweck’s book sets the stage for learning and provides a valuable starting point for any course that intentionally focuses on student learning.

Dr. Roxanne Cullen is a professor at Ferris State University, Michigan.

Reprinted from The Teaching Professor, April 2008.