Student persistence January 11

Mindset and Stereotype Threat: Small Interventions That Make a Big Difference

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What if there were a simple classroom exercise that could create positive and lasting effects on the academic performance and persistence of students—in particular, students who are under-represented in your field?

It turns out there is. More accurately, there are a number of such exercises—let’s call them interventions—that research shows are effective.

The interventions grow out of two intersecting bodies of literature in social psychology and are described in drastically over-simplified terms below.

Mindset research, widely known as the brainchild of Stanford’s Carol Dweck (2006), holds that students’ beliefs about learning and intelligence profoundly influence their ability to persist in the face of challenges and setbacks. Students with a “growth mindset” believe that intelligence is malleable, learning is often effortful, and failure is a natural (and perhaps necessary) part of personal and academic growth. When students with a growth mindset fail, it does not threaten their sense of identity, so they are able to move on and persist. As a result, they have a capacity for resilience that ultimately serves them well in academics and in life. Students with a “fixed mindset,” on the other hand, view intelligence as innate and failure as a threat to their core identity (“But I’m an A student! How could I fail?!”). They are fine as long as they succeed, but tend to panic, give up, or even cheat when they encounter setbacks or find that learning is harder than they anticipated. In other words, they are brittle rather than resilient.

Stereotype threat research, championed by scholars like Claude Steele (2010), has a different but overlapping focus on issues related to identity. It shows that students from groups stigmatized or stereotyped on the basis of social identity (race, ethnicity, gender, age, etc.) experience stress when asked to perform challenging tasks that converge with known stereotypes. Think, for example, of women in STEM fields or the elderly performing memory tasks. The internalized pressure not to confirm stereotypes interferes with cognition, creating a kind of mental “noise” that negatively affects performance. Sophisticated experiments have shown that when a task-relevant negative stereotype is triggered in the minds of students from the stereotyped group, their performance measurably declines. However, when the stereotype is not triggered—or when steps are taken to actively reduce its salience—the performance of these students is significantly higher.

As powerfully detrimental as the effects of fixed mindsets and stereotype threat can be, there is good news coming out of both fields. Students with fixed mindsets can develop growth mindsets. In doing so, they can raise not only their short-term academic performance but also their long-term ability to bounce back from setbacks and persist in challenging fields. Stereotype threat, moreover, can be mitigated, and when it is, it can significantly decrease and sometimes outright erase the performance differential between stereotyped and non-stereotyped groups. In addition, reducing stereotype threat can help members of underrepresented groups overcome imposter syndrome and develop a stronger and more resilient sense of belonging and self-efficacy within a given field.

Still better news: simple interventions can address both issues simultaneously. And – this part is perhaps the most encouraging of all—they create positive effects that snowball rather than diminish over time, as positive outcomes generate confidence that lead to still more positive outcomes (Yeager and Walton, 2011). While these interventions seem almost magical, Yeager and Walton point out in their excellent review of the research (2011) that they’re not magical at all: they simply leverage what we know about the human mind, in particular how emotion and cognition interact.

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lecture hall November 11, 2017

10 Effective Ways to Connect with College Students in Large Classes

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Research indicates that students learn more and rate their class experience higher when they have a personal connection with the instructor. Here are ten practical ways to help that happen:

  1. Arrive early and stay after class. Shake some hands and welcome students as they enter. Wander to the back of the class and say hello. Ask how their day is going. Make small talk. Proactively get out from behind the protective podium! Say goodbye as students leave. Stay after class for 10 minutes. Tell the students you will be happy to answer questions, etc. We are all busy, but we can usually give 10 minutes after class.
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diversity and inclusion in the college classroom September 18, 2017

Inclusion by Design: Tool Helps Faculty Examine Their Teaching Practices

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Are there barriers to inclusion lurking in your courses?

After meeting at a diversity and inclusion session of the 2013 Professional and Organization Development Network (POD Network) Conference in Pittsburgh, the three of us set out to develop a tool to help faculty examine their courses through a diversity lens. We were driven by a lack of available resources that provide a practical approach to digging deep into the nuances of one’s course.


students working in whiteboard on first day of class July 19, 2017

First Day of Class Activities that Create a Climate for Learning

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There’s no discounting the importance of the first day of class. What happens that day sets the tone for the rest of the course. Outlined below are a few novel activities for using that first day of class to emphasize the importance of learning and the responsibility students share for shaping the classroom environment.


professor in front of large class May 10, 2017

Student Rights and the Role of Faculty

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I remember the first time I tackled the controversial subject of students as customers. It was in an in-house newsletter, well before the advent of the Internet and e-mail. Even so, I had numerous phone calls, memos, encounters on campus, and discussions about it in every activity the teaching center sponsored for the next year. I hadn’t even taken a side; I had simply listed arguments for both sides. But, as far as the faculty were concerned then and pretty much since, there aren’t two sides. Students are not customers. Tuition dollars do not buy grades. Education does not come with a money-back guarantee. And students don’t get to choose what they learn—well, they do, but if they don’t choose to learn what we require, the consequences are costly.


Male professor talking with students April 19, 2017

Building Rapport: Moving Beyond Teacher Characteristics to Actions that Promote Learning

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When it comes to connecting with students, good relationships and good rapport go hand in hand. The desired rapport develops when faculty are friendly, approachable, respectful, and caring toward students. And how do students respond to professors who’ve established good rapport? They “like” those professors, and that’s the point at which some of us experience a bit of nervous twitching. If students like us, does that mean they learn more? Does education hinge on the popularity of the professor? The ethical ground feels stronger if what students learn and take from their educational experiences results from actions that support learning. And that circles us right back to rapport and the powerful role it plays in determining how students respond to the content in our courses, their daily attendance, and the study time they devote to what we’re teaching. Student commitment to a course increases if rapport with the instructor is good. So, be nice, chat with students, and show that you love teaching.


creating climate for learning. Male professor April 3, 2017

Creating a Climate for Learning: A Survey for Students and Teachers

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How well a class functions is the result of both what the teacher does and what the students do. The way we solicit course evaluation feedback reinforces students’ tendency to see the teacher as the one who’s responsible for whether it was a good class. Teachers do play a significant role, but they don’t make or break a class without a lot of student input. We need to be using evaluation activities that make clear that what happens in class is a shared responsibility.

Here’s a feedback activity that highlights the roles played by teachers and students. It can be configured in a variety of different ways—three options are recommended here.

  • Students can provide input on the conditions for learning created by the instructor.
  • The instructor can provide input on how well students are functioning as a community of learners.
  • The students can evaluate the course in terms of how it functions as a learning community.

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Professor in front of class March 29, 2017

What Happens in a Course is a Shared Responsibility

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One thing about student evaluations that troubles me is how they give students the impression that it’s the teacher who makes or breaks the course. A few instruments query students about their own efforts, but I’m not sure those kinds of questions make it clear that what happens in any course is the combined result of teacher and student actions. Early in my teaching career, I heard a wise colleague tell students, “It’s not my class. It’s not your class. It’s our class, and together we will make it a good or not-so-good learning experience.”


student-led discussion March 21, 2017

Activities for Developing a Positive Classroom Climate

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Positive classroom climate can encourage students to participate, think deeply about content, and engage peers in intellectual debate. Creating a classroom climate conducive to that type of expression can be difficult. Classrooms are filled with a diverse cross-section of our society representing multiple learning preferences and expectations. Professors aspire to reach all students and engage them in meaningful, content-rich examinations of the subject matter, but peer-to-peer relationships, personal struggles, students’ perception of course content, and even the novelty of the college classroom itself can all impact the class climate. The key to overcoming these variables is the professor. The professor is the one piece that most students attribute their success or failure and their positive or negative experiences in a college classroom (Boesch, 2014). The following describes a pilot project completed in the fall of 2016 in a small liberal arts college.

After several courses in which I was dissatisfied with the frequency and depth of student participation, I designed two sets of opening activities for students to do at the beginning of class. These class starters would act as a conduit for developing a climate of respect, cooperation, and emotional safety (Matsumura, Slater, and Crosson, 2008; Shuck, Albornz, Winberg, 2007). I believed by establishing a positive classroom climate, students would be more willing to participate in content-based discussions and activities.

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students collaborating in class January 11, 2017

The First Days of Class: Building Authenticity and Community

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Regardless of whether you’ve been teaching for 15 years or 15 minutes, how to act and what to do on the first day of class seems to be something many faculty are constantly revising. The impact of the lasting nature of the first impression may lead to nervousness on the first day of the semester. Consequently, many of us may feel pressured to adopt a personality or plan that doesn’t necessarily resonate with who we are for the rest of the semester or in our outside lives.

We’ve discovered some ways that not only help you feel prepared for class but also create an authentic community conducive to learning in a non-threatening environment. What follows are a few of our best practices.

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