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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group exams July 12, 2017

Group Exams and Quizzes: Design Options to Consider

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Although still not at all that widely used, there’s long-standing interest in letting students work together on quizzes or exams. Upon first hearing about the approach, teachers’ initial response is almost always negative. Here are the most common objections.

  • Grades are measures of individual mastery of material. With a group exam or quiz, some students may get a better grade than they’ve earned. Group grades do not measure individual learning.
  • A group can settle on wrong answers and thereby lower the score of the single bright student in the group who knows the right answer.
  • Group exams and quizzes make it too easy for students. They don’t have to think for themselves but can rely on others in the group to do the thinking for them.
  • It’s cheating. Students are getting answers they don’t know from other students. They’re consulting another source rather than putting in the work and developing their own knowledge.
  • Certifying exams (various professional exams such as those in nursing, accounting, the MCAT and GRE, for example) are not group exams. Group quizzes and exams do not prepare students for these all-important assessments.

On the other hand, those who do allow group collaboration on exams and quizzes may respond to the objections with a corresponding set of set of advantages associated with their use.

  • Group exams and quizzes reduce test anxiety. Pretty much across the board, students report that anticipating and participating in group exams and quizzes makes them feel less anxious. And for students with exam anxiety, that can be a significant benefit.
  • Collaborative quizzes and exams show students that they can learn from each other. Many students arrive in courses believing the only person they can learn from is the teacher. But as they talk about test questions, share answer justifications, discuss what content the answer requires, they get to experience what it’s like to learn from peers.
  • Group quizzes and exams provide immediate feedback. Students don’t have to wait to get the exam back. They get a good indication from those in the group why the answer is or is not correct.
  • Working together on test questions teaches students how to identify credible arguments and sources. Given the opportunity to change answers based on what someone else says directly confronts students with the tough issues of who to believe and when to trust their own judgment.
  • Collaborative quizzes and exams model how problem solving in professional contexts usually occurs. Professionals collaborate, they have access to resources, they can contact experts, they argue options, and evaluate possible answers. Collaborative testing gives students the opportunity to see how and why that results in better decision making.
  • Group quizzes and exams can improve exam scores and sometimes, but not always, content retention. The improvement in scores is an expected outcome of collaboration, but the improvement is also present when students collaborate on exam questions and then answer questions that deal with the same content on a subsequent exam taken individually. Effects of collaboration on retention are mixed. See the following references listed at the end of this article for examples: Cortright, Collins, Rodenbaugh and DiCarlo, (2002), Gilley and Clarkson (2014), Leight, Sunders, Calkins and Withers (2012), Lust and Conklin (2003) and Woody, Woody and Bromley (2008).

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group of students taking exam June 14, 2017

Does the Strategy Work? A Look at Exam Wrappers

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For many faculty, adding a new teaching strategy to our repertoire goes something like this. We hear about an approach or technique that sounds like a good idea. It addresses a specific instructional challenge or issue we’re having. It’s a unique fix, something new, a bit different, and best of all, it sounds workable. We can imagine ourselves doing it.




professor with small group of students December 2, 2015

Evidence of Evidence-Based Teaching

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Evidence-based teaching seems like the new buzzword in higher education. The phrase appears to mean that we’ve identified and should be using those instructional practices shown empirically to enhance learning. Sounds pretty straightforward, but there are lots of questions that haven’t yet been addressed, such as: How much evidence does there need to be to justify a particular strategy, action, or approach? Is one study enough? What about when the evidence is mixed—in some studies the results of a practice are positive and in others they aren’t? In research conducted in classrooms, instructional strategies aren’t used in isolation; they are done in combination with other things. Does that grouping influence how individual strategies function?


January 7, 2015

A "Best of" List that Celebrates the Scholarship of Teaching & Learning

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It’s that time of the year when everybody is doing their “Best of 2014” lists, and I have one of my own that I’ve been wanting to do for some time now.

It will not come as a surprise to anyone that in order to prepare The Teaching Professor newsletter each month and this blog every week, I read a lot of pedagogical literature. But perhaps you would be surprised to know there are close to 100 pedagogical periodicals, at least that’s how many I am aware of at this point. When writing my book, Scholarly Work on Teaching and Learning, I did my best to find them all and when the book was finished I was quite confident I had. However, the book was out less than a week before I was getting notes about journals I had missed and I’m still discovering new ones. Most of these journals are discipline-based, but there’s a significant number of cross-disciplinary publications as well.