I don’t give pop quizzes. I have, of course, no compelling pedagogical reason for that decision. Like most professors, I didn’t receive any specific instruction on how to teach effectively, so I drew from my experiences as a student. I never liked pop quizzes -- as a working student, I rarely had time to adequately prepare for them -- so now in my current life as a professor of behavioral neuroscience at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, I don’t give them.
Higher education suffers from an inertia that sets in when professors who were never taught how to teach draw from the outmoded teaching styles that they experienced as students. This environment fosters a fixed mind-set, which hampers innovation and prevents educators from exploring inventive teaching strategies. While some institutions have started to offer teaching instruction to graduate students, many do not.
Embracing a growth mind-set empowers faculty members to look beyond their limitations, connect hard work with achievement, accept constructive criticism and seek out creative solutions to bring into the classroom. In that regard, educators can become drivers of change within the higher education system.
We are on the front lines, actively engaging with students. We have the clearest picture of their skills, learning progressions and goals. It is vital that we faculty members continually sharpen our skills as educators and pursue new teaching methods in order to meet the needs of a changing and challenging student body that’s increasingly more distracted compared to prior generations due to their nearly constant exposure to digital technology. To maintain the status quo in our teaching model is to fail the students whom we serve.
Of course, I didn’t invent the idea of fixed and growth mind-sets -- Carol Dweck deserves all of the credit for coining the term. But I have found immense value in applying her principles to my academic life. Cultivating a growth mind-set has made me a better instructor. I am more innovative, more agile and more willing to try new things in my classes. Here are some lessons I’ve learned.
Embrace challenges. As educators, we face an onslaught of challenges on a daily basis, but we should not let a fear of the unknown prevent us from bringing new methods into our classrooms. Technology sometimes fails. Teaching strategies can fall flat. Yet innovation can still be a valuable lesson for students, even when it is unsuccessful. There is tremendous value in modeling for our students that failure is an opportunity for growth.
But what about the challenges we face outside the classroom? Budgetary and administrative concerns can create challenges -- or creative opportunities -- to do more within our classrooms.
Besides teaching behavioral neuroscience, I am also an avowed technophile. The technological advancements I would love to bring into my classroom -- for example, the ability to bring augmented or virtual reality to the neuroanatomy component of what I teach -- can be financially prohibitive. Rather than allowing that hurdle to halt my extended-reality dreams, I found a budget-friendly alternative, Google Cardboard, which allows anyone with a smartphone to engage with a wide variety of virtual reality apps. That allows me to deliver a dynamic, enriching experience to my students at a fraction of the cost.
Be persistent. Finding the time needed to reach the expert level of any new discipline can be difficult for educators, particularly those at an early juncture in their careers who face significant demands on their time. Between their own research and university service requirements, young professors are often pulled in several directions at once, leaving little time to master and implement classroom tech.
Fortunately for today’s educators, it’s easier than ever to incorporate innovative technologies into the classroom environment that can have a positive impact on teaching quality as well as ease the administrative burden of instruction. Implementing those solutions, however, requires patience and persistence.
I’ve experienced that firsthand. A few years ago, I decided to incorporate the active-learning platform Top Hat -- an online provider of ebooks, audience response and secure testing -- into my classes and began prompting students with single-word response questions during my lectures. While I had hoped to use their responses in real time to gauge comprehension, their creative misspellings of technical terms like "locus coeruleus" left me with hours of manual grading after class and no real insights during the lecture. Rather than give up on the technology, I incorporated their answers into the platform. The time investment paid off. Now, I have an impressive data set that includes every possible misspelling, I’ve streamlined my grading process and the platform has become even more valuable to my teaching.
Learn from criticism. Academics are accustomed to being on the receiving end of criticism. When we undergo scholarly review, we constructively use such criticism to improve our work. It is crucial that educators seeking a growth mind-set view student criticism of the teaching experience similarly.
For many educators, learning from student criticism requires a shift from enabling negative feedback to hurt one's feelings to using it to improve one's performance. Undoubtedly, this is easy advice to dispense as a full, tenured professor -- I have an inordinate amount of freedom in my classroom compared to junior faculty members and adjuncts for whom student reviews have a greater impact on job security.
Yet it’s hard to overstate the importance of checking in with your students throughout the term to understand their challenges, from the course material to more logistical concerns. Faculty members who find themselves taken aback by negative feedback typically have failed to communicate with their students before distributing evaluations. For example, although today’s students may be more experienced with technology than ever, not every student will come into your classroom prepared to use it, and therefore might miss homework assignments or deadlines due to a lack of technological know-how. A growth mind-set meets your students where they are and adapts to their distinct needs.
Be inspired by others. A growth mind-set dispenses with envious feelings of others’ success and instead allows us to be excited by work that speaks to us. Don’t say, “I wish I’d done it first.” Instead, say, “I can’t wait to try this.”
Teaching conferences offer a wonderful environment in which to be inspired, but it is important to keep in mind that the presenters are delivering their final product, not the work in progress. Measuring your current state against someone else’s end result is an exercise in futility and the hallmark of a fixed mind-set. Remember that they have put in a significant amount of time and effort into writing the textbook, developing the course curriculum and designing the accompanying presentation. If you embrace a growth mind-set, you’ll be able to see how you can use small but meaningful pieces of inspiration from your colleagues’ accomplishments in your own teaching -- rather than dismiss innovative strategies as too enormous to pursue.
Syncing your social media feeds with leading-edge teaching organizations and authors can also keep you abreast of the newest techniques and research. I follow the American Psychological Association and the Society for the Teaching of Psychology. Through their newsletters and social media channels, I have discovered novel strategies to try out in my classes.
For example, a few months ago, the society featured a professor who created word clouds of student responses to the question “What do you think of when you hear the word ‘psychology’?” on the first and last days of her Intro to Psychology course. The difference between the word clouds was stark: at the beginning of the course, students tended to have more stereotypical, clinical ideas about psychology, but by the end, they had a richer, broad understanding of the discipline. I have incorporated this exercise into my intro courses this term and hope to use it to gauge comprehension of the course material.
Try one new thing. Undoubtedly, a growth mind-set requires a great deal of mindfulness and a willingness to take risks. If the idea of adopting a growth mind-set all at once is a bit too much to digest, I recommend trying one new thing.
Think of one thing that you have been meaning to try in your classroom but haven’t worked on yet, and see how it goes. If it works, try pushing yourself further. If it doesn’t, try doing it differently.
Starting with one small thing is a manageable way to incorporate a growth mind-set into your teaching. And with a bit of practice, you’ll find that you have a repertoire of innovative tools that you can bring into your teaching.