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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What does it mean. Questions about research. December 3, 2017

The Questions to Ask about Research on Teaching and Learning

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Faculty have access to more information about college teaching than ever before. Researchers have studied a host of instructional approaches and published results in myriad journals. Educators have shared summaries of and links to such studies informally on websites and through Twitter feeds. This is good news for those of us who want to learn more about a particular instructional method or technique before we try it in our own courses.

Not all of us are educational researchers, however, and that brings some challenges for making sense of these studies. The research questions and methods may not be as familiar to us as those in our home disciplines. Unfamiliar research approaches can make it challenging to determine how much stock to place in study findings. This challenge increases when different studies report mixed or contradictory results.

How can we assess the research quality? How can we determine whether a given instructional method is something worth trying in our courses? What follows is a set of questions that you can use when evaluating individual studies and collections of them. The goal of these questions is to help you glean information from research to consider whether or how to implement a pedagogical approach.

Is the research question one you want to know the answer to? Education researchers ask and answer questions that may or may not have practical application for our teaching. For example, although hundreds of researchers have asked whether active learning is superior to lecture, some of us are not particularly interested the answer. We don’t see lecture and active learning as an either/or proposition and instead believe that we can use both approaches together. What we might want to know instead are the combinations or particular features of lectures or active learning methods that make them more or less effective.

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pile of books and notebook April 18, 2017

Principles for the Professional Growth of Teaching: A Collection of Resources

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New Approaches, Instruments and Emphases

Eddy, S. L., Converse, M., and Wenderoth, M. P., (2015).  PORTAAL:  A classroom observation tool assessing evidence-base teaching practice for active learning in large science, technology, engineering and mathematics classes.  Cell Biology Education, 14 (Summer), 1-16.
Identifies best practices in active learning and designs an observational tool that can be used to document the extent to which instructors incorporate these practices in their classrooms.

Hoon, A., Oliver, E., Szpakowska, K., and Newton, P., (2015).  Use of the Stop, Start, Continue method is associated with the production of constructive qualitative feedback by students in higher education.  Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education, 40 (5), 755-767.
A simple feedback mechanism improved the quality of student provided feedback.

Smith, M. K., Jones, F. H. M., Gilbert. S. L., and Weiman, C. E. (2013).  The classroom observation protocol for undergraduate STEM (COPUS):  A new instrument to characterize university STEM classroom practices.  Cell Biology Education, 12, (Winter), 618-625.
Focuses on what students are doing and what the instructor is doing at 2 minute intervals during a class.  Does not offer judgments but identifies behaviors.  At 1.5 hours of training, observations are reliable. Can be used in individual faculty, departments and/or institutions.

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Teaching Professor newsletter turns 30 March 6, 2017

The Teaching Professor Newsletter Celebrates 30 Years

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Where were you 30 years ago? Maryellen Weimer, PhD, was writing the very first issue of The Teaching Professor newsletter, and she hasn’t stopped since.

In March 1987, Magna Publications published volume 1, number 1 of The Teaching Professor. The opening article read, in part:
“With all the enthusiasm of a new beginning, Magna begins publication of a newsletter for college professors about college teaching. … Can instruction be improved by reading material about teaching and learning? Yes. Reading about teaching forces reflection. It creates instructional awareness by causing faculty to wonder: Do I do that? Should I do that? Infusing teaching with a steady supply of new ideas keeps it fresh and invigorated.”

That philosophy of reflection and instructional awareness has remained a constant theme throughout the decades. As has the importance of keeping teaching fresh, regardless of teaching experience or discipline.


reading glasses January 13, 2016

Becoming a Better Teacher: Articles for New and Not-So-New Faculty

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A couple of months ago a colleague asked me to recommend a book for his new faculty reading group. I rattled off the names of several, but then wondered if a packet of articles might not be a better option. When I started to identify articles, it came to me that the what-to-read dilemma for new and not-so-new faculty goes beyond the articles themselves. It is more about the categories of work on teaching and learning rather than individual pieces.


female college student smiling July 8, 2015

Research Highlights How Easily and Readily Students Fabricate Excuses

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Editor’s note: The following is an excerpt from the article An examination of factors and attitudes that influence reporting fraudulent claims in an academic environment, Active Learning in Higher Education, 15 (2), 173-185. The Teaching Professor Blog named it to its list of top pedagogical articles late last year.

“My grandmother fell down on her patio and I had to go stay with her for a few days and she does not have internet or a computer and all of my research was in my dorm room …”