Emotions and past experiences can lead us to develop fixed mindsets in particular aspects of our lives and learning. In this episode, Kelly Theisen joins us to discuss ways to help foster growth mindsets within a course from the beginning to the end of the semester. Kelly is an Assistant Professor of Biochemistry at the State University of New York at Plattsburgh.
- Brown, P. C., Roediger III, H. L., & McDaniel, M. A. (2014). Make it stick. Harvard University Press.
- Bjork, R.A. (1994). “Institutional Impediments to Effective Training”. Learning, remembering, believing: Enhancing human performance.
- Bjork, R.A. (1994). Memory and metamemory considerations in the training of human beings. In J. Metcalfe & A. Shimamura (Eds.), Metacognition: Knowing about knowing (pp. 185-205). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
- Yue, C. L., Bjork, E. L., & Bjork, R. A. (2013). Reducing verbal redundancy in multimedia learning: An undesired desirable difficulty?. Journal of Educational Psychology, 105(2), 266.
John: Emotions and past experiences can lead us to develop fixed mindsets in particular aspects of our lives and learning. In this episode, we discuss ways to help foster growth mindsets within a course from the beginning to the end of the semester.
John: Thanks for joining us for Tea for Teaching, an informal discussion of innovative and effective practices in teaching and learning.
Rebecca: This podcast series is hosted by John Kane, an economist…
John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer.
Rebecca: Together, we run the Center for Excellence in Learning and Teaching at the State University of New York at Oswego.
Rebecca: Our guest today is Dr. Kelly Theisen. Kelly is an Assistant Professor of Biochemistry at the State University of New York at Plattsburgh. Welcome, Kelly
Kelly: Thanks for having me.
John: Our teas today are:
Kelly: I have Earl Grey today.
Rebecca: And John, get this. I have a different kind, Gingersnap tea.
Kelly: Oh, that sounds good.
John: Where did you get that?
Rebecca: It’s a Tea Forte, you’d be happy to know.
John: Oh, I haven’t seen that one.
I have a summer berry green tea that I picked up in Epcot last year. My supply is dwindling, though.
Rebecca: I know, and you’re very disappointed you’re not going to be there this fall.
John: I know. I had planned to, but I will be online at that conference.
We’ve invited you here, Kelly, to talk about how you’ve been working to help students reframe their academic anxiety by helping them to cultivate a growth mindset. Before we discuss how you’ve been doing that, could you tell us a little bit about the courses that you teach?
Kelly: Yeah, sure. So I teach primarily my general biochemistry course for non major students, and I teach that every semester. And then in the spring, I also teach physical biochemistry, which is a much smaller class for biochemistry majors only.
Rebecca: Can you talk a little bit about why it’s important that students develop a growth mindset?
Kelly: Yeah, so I think it’s especially important for my 371, the general biochem students to have the growth mindset, because they usually come into my class terrified, absolutely terrified of biochemistry, they’ve heard it’s like the worst class ever. And they think it has math, and they’re just so scared. So, I think that it’s important for them to have the growth mindset so that they feel like they can actually succeed in the class, which a lot of them again, they come in not thinking that they can. So, developing a growth mindset, reminding them that it’s hard, like the class is not gonna be easy, but that they can do it, they can get better with trying, is really key for helping them to keep going if they start to struggle. What I don’t want is for them to get to the first set of content that’s difficult, and then just give up. I want them to keep working at it, because I know that practice is going to make it better for them. For me, that’s why it’s so important, it’s because I want all of my students to be able to succeed, not just the ones who are already super motivated, and everything. I want everybody to get through the class and do well.
John: Why do you think so many people come into our classes with this fixed mindset?
Kelly: So, it can have lots of different origins. And I think some are internal and some are external. So, for example, a student could have somebody in a previous class, any previous STEM class who has told them, you’re not good at STEM, or you’re bad at math, or things like that. And so all it takes is maybe one teacher in school, a professor, when they get to college, who tells them that,for them to decide that this is just not for me, and I just have to take these classes for my major, but I’m just going to get through them because I’m not going to be good at it. And so that’s one way they can develop a fixed mindset about it. Also, it’s possible to have a fixed mindset in one area of your life and not in others. So student athletes is where I think of the most for this, where they have a growth mindset in terms of their athletics. They know that going to practice, working on whatever technique it is, is going to help them improve and do better during the game. But, they don’t always think to apply that to their academics as well. And so they might say, “I did badly on this test. That’s it, I’m done. There’s no point in me trying any more in this class.” Things like that can lead to the fixed mindset in classes, even if they don’t have one in other areas. So, it can be like I said, internal from them, or external with other people telling them, “You’re bad at this,” or whatever. And that happened to me actually a lot growing up, and in my career. Lots of people told me it shouldn’t or couldn’t be in chemistry, lots of very stupid reasons for that. But still, it happened enough that if I hadn’t had a growth mindset myself, and knowing that just because this person tells me I’m bad at something doesn’t mean I really am. Or just because I had to ask for help doesn’t mean I will never get this or that I’m bad at it, then I don’t think I would be here having this conversation with you, frankly.
Rebecca: Sometimes I find that the students that you might least expect to have a fixed mindset do, they might be the students that you think of as good students who have done well or have succeed[ed] previously in other classes they’ve had with you or in the discipline, but they come across a hurdle, maybe for the first time, and they just don’t know what to do, because things have come easy for them, or they haven’t had to work so hard.
Kelly: Right? Or they got by on just memorizing in high school, and then they get to college, and it doesn’t work anymore. And so then they can say, “This is just not working. I’m just going to give up. And I don’t know what else to do besides memorize, and if that’s not cutting it, then what am I doing here?” So, yeah, definitely. And biochemistry is a difficult class, and so not everybody is going to get 100% on every exam. [LAUGHTER] And so that can be challenging for some students, where they really want that hundred percent.
Rebecca: Yeah, and especially in the sciences, or any place where you need to explore or experiment, taking a risk can be really challenging if you have a fixed mindset.
Kelly: Yeah, exactly. And I want the students to think critically about what they’re learning. I don’t want them to just memorize the information and then spit it back out on the test. That’s not what science is really about. It’s about exploring and trying to figure out why things work the way that they do. And so, that risk taking, I usually make them do that every day in class. We do active learning, and they have to say, “Here, try to answer this problem before I’ve explained it to you. And so you’re gonna get it wrong, it’s fine.” And so that process, again, it’s sort of encouraging the growth mindset, but it’s difficult for them at first. They want to know the right answer ahead of time a lot of the time. So, you have to remind them and reassure them: “It’s okay, I’m not gonna grade you badly if you get it wrong. You’re just supposed to try and do the best you can.”
John: While anyone can have a fixed mindset coming into your class, some of students who expect to do well, some others based on their prior experience who might not expect to do very well. But, are there some patterns, perhaps, where first-gen students or students from underrepresented groups might be more subject to this, particularly in the STEM fields,
Kelly: I think that they’re just more likely to have been told that they’re not good at this or that they shouldn’t be in X, Y, or Z discipline. And as I said, that happened to me a lot. I was a first-gen student and female man going into chemistry, which is still pretty heavily male dominated. And then I went into computational chemistry, which is even more heavily male dominated. And so, yeah, I think that just because of that background, they might be more likely to have heard things like that before. And so actually, one of the things I do on the first day of class is, I say, “How many of you were told this or something similar to this?” I don’t usually get a lot of hands. I don’t think a lot of people want to disclose that necessarily in front of the rest of the class, which is fine. But the point of asking is, so that I can tell them, this happened to me all the time. And I made it through and I’m now a professor, and I’m doing these things that they told me I wasn’t any good at, but I actually am. So, that means that you can too, basically.
Rebecca: It’s funny how those early comments from teachers can have a really big impact for a long time.
Rebecca: I had some similar experiences. I remember very distinctly in eighth grade, like math teacher telling me I couldn’t do math. I remember a seventh grade art teacher telling me I couldn’t do art. And now I do art that has math in it.
Kelly: Right. Exactly. My teacher in high school told me I wasn’t good at computers, because I couldn’t type both quickly and accurately. Turns out, I’m just dyslexic, and so I just hadn’t practiced typing enough at that point. And I’m now a computational chemist, and I work with Linux and programming, and so it’s fine. It just took me a little longer to get up to that level that they were expecting, then it did some other people. But again, it’s just about focusing on “You can do it, you just have to keep practicing.” And knowing that where you start is only where you start, and that you’re the one who gets to decide where you end up.
Rebecca: You suggested that a growth mindset is a scientific mindset. Can you elaborate on that?
Kelly: Yeah, I think anybody who has done research knows that you have to have a growth mindset to go into research… to enjoy doing research, at least… because you’re going to fail all the time. You’re going to start an experiment, and it’s not going to go right, or it’s not going to happen at all, [LAUGHTER] and you have to figure out why, you have to understand, “Okay, something went wrong. Did I do something wrong? Is it the experiment is actually showing us negative data? What is happening? And that really does take a growth mindset. You have to be willing to fail to go into research. You have to understand that it’s not you necessarily failing, the process of science requires a lot of failure. So, that’s one of the other things I try to tell the students is like, you’re actually living like a scientist, right now. [LAUGHTER] And this is what we do all the time, we set something up, and who knows? We just have to see what happens and then go from there. And one of the things that I really like the most about growth mindset is it sort of freeing, it gives you the ability to just try and know that your first effort is not going to be your best. And I really love that because it frees you from perfectionism, or wanting things to be exactly a certain way, the very first time you do it. You just know, whatever I do, it’s only where I started, and it’s not going to be perfect. And that’s okay, I’m always going to get better from that point. And so I feel like that, at least, has helped me to approach research and teaching and knowing that I might not be great at everything to begin with. And it helped me to try things that I might not have been comfortable with necessarily. But again, it was “Okay, I know, I’m not gonna be great at this right now, but I’m still gonna do it. And I’m going to try my best and that I know, I’m going to get better from there.”
John: What are some of the approaches you use to help nurture a growth mindset in your students?
Kelly: So, there’s actually quite a few that I like, and I use them in all my classes, but again, especially in the general biochemistry for non majors class. So one of them is the frequent low-stakes assignments, it helps the students to build confidence in the material and it gives them sort of a grade cushion, for the exams. And the low-stakes assignments, it helps with inclusion and equity as well. So, one of the other things I do when we have face-to-face exams… I’m not doing it this semester, because this semester everything’s online. But, when I head face-to-face exams, I was doing exam corrections. So, basically, the students could earn back up to half the points that they missed on the exam. And basically, I think that this helps students continue to engage with the material, instead of you learn it for the exam, and then you forget it immediately afterwards. They would have to go back and look up what they had missed, and try to understand why they got it wrong, which helps them to keep engaging with that content. But it also helps them to stick with learning things that are difficult, right? Even the exam is kind of not the end, I guess. I always thank students for asking questions, or for volunteering answers in class, even if they get it wrong, because that kind of thing helps everybody learn. So, I always tell them that I appreciate that, that that’s good. I guess just reassuring students that even if they failed at something, that that’s a step in the right direction to helping them succeed eventually. This semester for the exams, I have them look up a research paper ahead of time. And a lot of students were apologizing because they hadn’t gotten it right the first time or even the second time. And so I had to remind them just because you tried it, that’s the point. Even if you failed, you’re getting better at it just by trying it. And then I think the last thing that I do, and the students really seem to like this, because it comes up on my evaluations quite frequently, is the learning objectives. And I actually think that this promotes growth mindset, because having sort of almost a checklist that they can go through and say here is everything I’m responsible for for the exam. It kind of gives them a way to say “Okay, here’s the things I already know, and here’s the things they still need to work on.” So, it almost forces them to have a growth mindset by going through and checking everything off. So, I really like to do that as well.
John: You mentioned having a list of learning objectives, is that something that you include, say in the course module in your learning management system?
Kelly: It’s on the slides every day. So, when they walk into class, the first couple slides will have the learning objectives. And then I show them again at the end. When we were doing face-to-face classes, there would actually be on their daily worksheet, they’d have a question at the very last thing, which said, “Is there anything you’re still confused about from today? Are there any learning objectives you feel were not met?” And then that gave them a spot to write in, if they had any questions remaining. And that way, I could kind of check in with them as well. It’s harder to do that online I found. And so I kind of missed that this semester. But the students really do seem to love putting questions in the chat and things like that. So. I think we’re still managing to do that okay.
Rebecca: One of the things that, along those same lines, that I like to have conversations with students about, is the more mistakes and things they make they end up learning more. [LAUGHTER] So, it’s like, “Well, if you got that all right the first time, you wouldn’t have had this whole learning adventure that you didn’t plan for.” And I find that framing it like that tends to put a positive spin on something that they might seem as being a very big negative.
Kelly: I don’t know if anybody else is as big of a nerd as I am and watches Disney movies, but in Meet the Robinsons, there’s the part where he’s trying to fix something and he completely fails, and it just like bursts apart. And they tell him that “Well, you learn from failure, you don’t learn as much from success.” And so it’s kind of the same idea.
John: And earlier, you mentioned too that you share some of your own struggles and some of the challenges you were faced with. And I think that probably helps build a growth mindset in your students too, by setting that example and normalizing struggles and failure as part of the growth experience.
Kelly: Yeah, exactly. And I think one of the things that instructors can definitely do is to model a growth mindset for their students, to tell them that things are not always easy for me, even. I’m an expert, but I still come across research problems where I’m like, “I don’t know what’s wrong.” I did that over the summer, I started a new project, and it took us, gosh, it was like months to figure out what was going wrong with our experiment. So, you’re right, normalizing it is great. Saying that just struggling with something is good, in fact. It’s how you learn.
Rebecca: You also mentioned setting up problems that they solve in class that they’re not quite ready for. Can you talk about how that nurtures growth mindset as well?
Kelly: I got this idea from a book called Make it Stick, where it’s called desirable difficulty. And I just love it. We do this all the time in my other classes. Well, that’s like the main principle that I use for my smaller majors class is having them try it before it’s explained to them. And again, it’s trying to get them to let go of that idea that I have to know the right answer before I can try anything, or I have to have had this explained before I can even try, which I think it’s kind of burned into them in the K through 12 system sometimes. Where you’re given the information, memorize it, spit it back on the test, that’s it, you’re done. And that’s what learning is to them. So getting them out of that habit is what I’m trying to do with giving them these assignments that they’re not quite sure about. And I actually tell them that that’s what this is called, especially this semester, I’ve really leaned into just like, here’s my teaching method, it’s called desirable difficulty. And here’s what it’s going to do for you, it’s actually going to help you understand it better when I explain it to you if you’ve tried it on your own first and gotten it wrong. And so we’ll do things like I will ask them, How does the entropy increase when the hydrophobic effect occurs? And they’re like, “Well, I don’t know.” And I was like, “I know you don’t know. Think about it. Here’s the system, here’s what’s going to happen. And what do you think and then don’t look it up?” And actually, they seem to not look it up this year, which was good. I was worried they might because we were on Zoom. But, they actually seemed to refrain from googling it. Because I did see a lot of wrong answers. I think it went pretty well. And then just kind of over the semester, they get better and better and less fearful about putting wrong things down on the worksheets, because they know, first of all, that they’re going to get the grade no matter what, as long as they put something down. But, also because I think that they’re learning to try more and to think critically. And so that’s what I hope for them at least.
Rebecca: Do you have them discuss their solutions in small groups? Or is it an individual activity?
Kelly: Yeah, so in class, I would typically do like a think-pair-share where they would get with another person, and then I could talk to them as the class. This semester, we’re now doing breakout rooms, because I have 50 students, and it’s a little hard to get them in pairs, and then in a bigger group, so I’ve just assigned them groups for the semester at this time. And then they will go and work with their group and discuss. And usually there’s a few minutes delay anyways, in terms of getting the breakout rooms ready to go and everybody into them. So, they have some time to think on their own as well, just because of that.
John: How large are the groups that you’ve been using in the breakout rooms?
Kelly: About five usually for each group. And that’s because, first of all, I wasn’t sure how engaged everybody was going to be in each group. So, I kind of wanted it to be big enough that if a few people went AWOL, that they still had a group. But also it’s nice just that people can work better with other people, and so then they have a couple options in terms of partners, if they wanted to work with just a few people.
Rebecca: Kelly, you’ve talked a lot about ways to foster the growth mindset throughout the semester. But, how do you set the stage maybe on the first day of class,
Kelly: This year, I actually did what’s called first-day fears, a brand new activity I’d thought of, but I had emails and some survey responses over the summer that said a lot of students were terrified of online learning, things like that. And everything was changing, and we were scared. And so it was just this whole mess. And so I basically said, “Here’s your first activity for the day, go into the breakout rooms with your group, write down everything you’re anxious about for the semester, and then I’m going to talk to you and we’re going to try to work through everything.” And so they did that. And I had a lot of “I’m scared of online learning. I don’t know how I’m going to do this.” And we talked about how you can approach some of those anxieties with growth mindset, in terms of try something for the online learning. If it’s not working right away, then change it. Talk to me, see what else we can do that can help you manage your time better, whatever it is. And so that was how I framed it this semester was, “Yes, you’re anxious about things, here’s how you can address some of those with growth mindset.” Unfortunately, all the growth mindset in the world will not make COVID go away, it won’t give us more money if we need it, that kind of thing. So it’s not perfect, obviously. But in terms of the things that we can control, that’s what I love growth mindset for. So, helping them to understand that I’m a resource, that their group is a resource, and that we’re going to keep doing check ins throughout the semester. The other thing that I did is part of the activities, I told them what I was anxious about. So, I told them that I’m anxious about online learning, too. I’ve never done it before. I spent the summer learning about it, but it’s still the first time I’m doing it. And so I told them, here’s some of the things that you can do to help me, which is, if your camera’s not on, I can’t tell if you’re confused. So, you have to tell me that you’re confused. Say, “Hey, wait, stop, I need that explained again,” or put your questions in the chat. And here’s the ways you can do that. Yeah, so we basically just talked about things all of us were anxious about and trying to show them that, first of all, they’re not alone. Look, how many of your classmates have the same worries, this is why you’re in a group, so that you have people to talk to and then you can talk to me as well, then just trying to clear the air a little bit before we could get started, I guess, with learning this semester.
John: So you’ve talked a bit about how you try to help your students build a growth mindset. Do you explicitly talk to them about the differences between growth mindset and a fixed mindset.
Kelly: I do, actually. So, there’s a slide from the first day where I put some students’ examples of what a fixed mindset could look like, and what a growth mindset could look like. So, for example, from the student perspective, if you did badly on an exam or in a class, it might lead you to think “I’m stupid, I’m not gonna get this, why am I trying?” Or “Why am I participating in this class, everybody else is better than me,” it might lead you to think things like that, which are more fixed mindset. And then on the other side of the slide, then I had what a growth mindset would look like for that, which is to say, if you’re struggling, you should ask for help, you can learn more with practice. So, you should go and get more resources, ask for it to be explained, again, things like that. That you should still contribute to class because your responses are unique like you are. And so my favorite example, the one that I shared with them, I had a student my first semester at SUNY Plattsburgh, who was a great student, wonderful in class, and they completely bombed the first exam. And I felt so bad, because I knew they were trying, but anyways, so they kind of wasn’t sure how they were gonna bounce back from that, or if they were, and then we a little bit later, maybe a week or two, after the exam, we were having an activity about allostery, and nobody was getting it. Everybody was complaining: “This is so hard.” “I don’t understand what we’re doing.” “What is going on?” And there was just complaining. [LAUGHTER] And so I was walking around the class trying to help. And I got to the student’s desk. And they were like, “Well, I don’t know. But what about this?” …and they had got it, clearly they had understood what I was actually asking. And so I asked them to share with the class. And they did, and it was like a light bulb went on for everybody else. And so I was just reminding the students like this person failed the first exam, but they were the only person in the class who actually got the next thing. So, it doesn’t matter if you failed, you still have these valuable contributions to make, you’re still a part of the classroom, you’re still supposed to be here. So that’s, as I said, one of the ways that I tried to improve inclusion is just to say, “You’re always supposed to be here, this is where you are, we want you and you’re supposed to be in this class.”
Rebecca: I like how you’re framing things related to the anxiety and emotions that can be big blockers, to moving forward and addressing those emotions and normalizing those emotions and verifying that yes, indeed, we might be frustrated or confused or scared, but if we can acknowledge that and know that that’s what we’re working with, we can move forward and continue to grow and learn. And I think that students don’t always recognize that those emotions can get in the way.
Kelly: Yeah. And it’s about also recognizing what is in your control and what’s not. So, there’s some things that are not in your control, right? COVID is not under anybody’s control right now. Not any of us anyways. So, you can’t tell the students well, you should growth mindset yourself so that this doesn’t affect you anymore. No, that’s not how this works. The growth mindset is to say, “Okay, I’m trying in my classes, something’s not going right. Is there something I can change to maybe make it go better?” Or even just to recognize, “I’m doing the best I can. This is the most that I can do right now. And that’s okay.”
Rebecca: Yeah. Especially with the balancing act and the extra stress of COVID-19, and what have you. Recognizing that like, it might take longer.
Rebecca: It might not be an A, it might not be a B.
Rebecca: But, like, you got something. [LAUGHTER]
Kelly: Yes, exactly. And if you decide to try it again, later, you’re gonna do better because of it.
John: And having students share their anxieties makes them feel perhaps a bit less isolated, and recognizing that some of these challenges are ones that are shared by everyone, which I would think would help to build a better community or more productive community within the class.
Kelly: Yeah, that’s what I was hoping for. And again, that’s why I assigned them to the groups as well. With 50 students, I knew they weren’t going to meet everybody online. They barely meet everybody if they’re in person. So, I wanted them to have kind of a core smaller community that they knew, “Oh, yeah, we did this on the first day. We were all nervous about the same thing.” Yeah.
Rebecca: I’ve had those consistent smaller groups in my classes this semester, too, and it’s helped a lot… have it that tight community to express anxiety or share frustrations with. [LAUGHTER]
Kelly: Yeah, and I’ve called them their growth mindset groups, which is hokey, but I couldn’t think of another name. But, yeah, we’ve done a couple check ins so far. There was a question on the first exam about a situation that they had to face, like an academic challenge and did you approach it with a growth or fixed mindset… and then “How could you maybe change what you did?” or something like that, and then we did another… right after the first exam, we did a learning reflection, which is… same idea. I told them, you know, check your current grade on Moodle, because a lot of times they don’t always realize that that’s up there, and then come up with a growth mindset plan for going forward. You know, if you’re not happy with your grade, okay, what can we try that might help you do better?
John: Yeah, that sort of metacognitive reflection, I think, can be really helpful and helping students recognize how much they’re learning, and to see that they can change the pattern.
Kelly: Yes, and to look at the overall grade instead of just the exam grade, because a lot of them saw the exam grade and panicked. [LAUGHTER] And they didn’t realize that the exams are only 40% of the total grade. So, [LAUGHTER] you’re probably still okay,
Rebecca: We always wrap up by asking: what’s next?
Kelly: So, what I would like to do next… a couple things. First, the SUNY Plattsburgh orientations have started incorporating a growth mindset aspect to it. And so what I’m hoping is to see more and more students coming in who already know about growth mindset, then have started to develop it in their earlier classes too, which would be fantastic. I already lean in pretty hard to growth mindset in my classes, but maybe lean even further into it in terms of assessing it, and trying to see if my class structure actually helps students develop a growth mindset as they go. I’ve had a few students put that on their evaluations at the end, that the idea of growth mindset helped them to succeed in the class. And it was one of the first times they’d heard of it or things like that, where they’ve said that that plus the active learning helped them to be successful. But, in terms of actually assessing overall, even if they don’t tell me that up front, you know, can I determine if it’s actually helped them to develop a growth mindset is one of the things I’d like to do.
Rebecca: Sounds like good research project.
Kelly: Yes, yes, I do education research on top of computational research because I’m a crazy person, and I want to study everything. [LAUGHTER]
John: Well, thank you. It’s been great talking to you.
Kelly: Thanks for having me.
Rebecca: Yeah. Thank you very much.
John: If you’ve enjoyed this podcast, please subscribe and leave a review on iTunes or your favorite podcast service. To continue the conversation, join us on our Tea for Teaching Facebook page.
Rebecca: You can find show notes, transcripts and other materials on teaforteaching.com. Music by Michael Gary Brewer.