Fostering Growth Mindsets in Students

Motivational psychologist Carol Dweck has spent most of her career looking at how a person’s views about intelligence affect their performance in a particular domain. Those who believe that intelligence is fixed, unchangeable, and innate have what’s known as a fixed mindset or fixed theory of intelligence, whereas those who believe that success and intelligence are a product of one’s efforts and hard work have what’s known as a growth mindset.

Applied to Goals

These mindsets influence many other things, such as what kind of goals people set. Those with fixed mindsets tend to set performance goals, where instead of bettering  themselves, they accomplish as task in order to prove how good their (fixed) level of talent/intelligence is. Alternatively, those with growth mindsets tend to set mastery goals, where they try to excel at the task itself, which in turn tends to be correlated with higher levels of intrinsic motivation.

Applied to Education

This paradigm applies very well to the field of education, especially in a system where students are constantly under pressure to succeed. Dweck has written a whole ton of papers about how her theory can help students to achieve in school, such as this one and this one. She has also done studies showing how students who have been taught about the differences between these mindsets, and who have been exposed to some introductory science about brain plasticity, have shown remarkable increases in their academic performance. Her team has even created a computer game called Brainology based on this model, where students can learn and apply this theory in a fun way.

Okay, so that’s the gist of it. (I didn’t want to go on, but check out the links if you’re interested!)
Now here are some of my own thoughts about this!

1. Parallels

It’s amazing to see just how many parallels there are between Dweck’s theory, and several other psychological theories. Check out this shmexy diagram I just made:

I’d definitely endorse the message that Dweck and others are promoting about intelligence. And it doesn’t even have to be through her computer program – anyone who is aware of it can go ahead and just teach it! I would recommend introducing the concept at the beginning of Grade 7 (or whenever high school starts). This would give students a great head start for their high school studies, and empower them to do well and to stay in school.

2. Self-Evaluation Grades

As for our grades, well, they currently give no indications to students one way or another. I admit this would be highly tricky to do.

For instance, I remember in elementary school, the back page of our report cards would always include a “self-evaluation” section. We didn’t know it at the time, but I fathom/hope that this was an attempt to incorporate this message of empowerment.

The problem? Most of us always gave ourselves the best marks possible on that report card, rather than being genuine and thoughtful in our self-evaluation. e.g. 1 1 1 1 1 1. (on a scale from 1-4). Of course, we made sure to bring down a few of the grades, to make others seem like we were being realistic. e.g. 1 1 2 1 2 1

Why? Because we were afraid of not impressing and pleasing our parents and teachers. Back then, we lived in a world where we had to constantly try to impress them with our work, day in and day out. We had what’s known as a contingent self-esteem. A sense of self that depended on how well we did in schools. This is especially bad in certain cultures, as this 60 minutes Australia report shows. So even when this new set of grades came out, we students were still stuck in the mindset of our regular grades because they were not explained properly.

So what needs to be done here? I say, let’s beexplicit with our students about what we’re actually trying to do here. Like Dweck and her team are doing. And in the process, we can show students a neat lesson in psychology.

4. There’s this unfortunate prevailing notion in our culture that endorses a fixed mindset. For some reason, students always like to say, “oh, he’s so smart” or, “I’m not smart enough for this class,” etc. Now I’m not sure if this is a natural human thing, or a product of our educational system, but I’m guessing that it’s a combination of the two.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I actually do think that some people have certain innate qualities about them that give them advantages or disadvantages over others in many domains. But in most cases, I believe these differences can be overcome (or at least mitigated). I picture it like a running race, but where each runner starts off at a different distance away from the finish line. While you may be place farther back than someone else, the “race” isn’t over. Okay, so that’s my position… there’s actually a huge debate in the field of psychology about this, if you’re interested.

5. One way of changing at least one of the outcomes – whether or not students opt to challenge themselves – is by implementing yet another psychological concept – approach vs. avoidance. But I’ll get to that later! (Please nag me if I don’t get that post done soon!)

Follow-Up to the Introduction/Conclusion Post

After having read my previous post about the legitimacy of the five-paragraph essay, one of my readers (and good friends) had a rebuttal: while the 5-paragraph essay may not the most applicable writing format for students to learn, it does have its own strengths. For instance, it teaches students to focus their attention on a single topic, and to remain steadfast on that topic as their text progresses. It gets them to outline their arguments, and to be fully aware of what they plan on writing before they go and write it. (In other words, to see the forest through the trees.)

When she brought up this point, I then brought up some counter-points of mine own. But it turns out that we’re actually in full agreement on this issue, and on each others’ points. You see, the 5-paragraph essay actually does provide some valuable lessons for our students. And let’s face it: especially given some of our large class sizes, these essays are the easiest and simplest to correct and teach. (But that hints at a whole ‘nother issue!) But this is the not the only way of teaching those lessons. And this is in no way the only way in which people write. So it would be best to teach this format at the beginning of high school, but only for a few months. Once the students “get the message” about the importance of structure and flow, we can then diversify, show them the other formats for the rest of their years in high school.

In other (but related) news, I just saw this post on answers.yahoo.com:

Notice how whatisan...’s second paragraph about school runs counter to her first paragraph about how “good writers” act! I find this striking (no less because of the juxtaposition of these arguments!) This, to me, shows how there’s this organizational culture at school that emphasizes following the rules, and getting a good grade, over doing the right thing.

The Organizational Culture at Desautels

This was an article that I wrote for a class a few years ago. It applies the concept of organizational culture to the school and faculty and that I am currently attending. Just a warning, it was originally intended as an academic paper, so that style of writing I used is way different than the style I normally use here on this blog.

Organizational culture is the set of all the shared values, beliefs, norms, and assumptions within an organization. It provides individuals with a shared frame of reference that applies to the capacity with which they expect to interact. While it often has both a physical and a non-physical aspect, the latter is its sine qua non. In other words, even when it manifests itself through observable artifacts, it must have some sort of meaning to be considered culture.

Indeed, organizational culture a very fluid, subjective concept. It influences people’s cognitions, emotions, and behaviour, but it itself is socially defined. It underscores the reciprocal influence between individuals and the institutions and situations where they interact.

Only the assumptions that help an organization to deal with its internal and external threats tend to persist. As the organization ages, the successful assumptions become increasingly taken for granted as natural and obvious. This has negative and positive effects. On one hand, it allows the individuals to transfer their mental energy from processing the assumptions to fulfilling the organization’s goals. On the other hand, it can lead to stagnation and make the organization vulnerable if the threats to its survival change.

There are several underlying dimensions of organizational culture. Each of them highlights specific examples of how culture manifests itself. For instance, the dimension of the nature of human activity prescribes expectations on the behaviour of individuals, especially those within the organization. Whichever behaviours are in line with the values of the organization are promoted and/or rewarded, and those that are not are discouraged and/or punished.

No two people are alike, but some people are more different to each other than others. Thus, you will find that some groups of people are more diverse than others. Furthermore, a group of people may be more diverse in some aspects, and less diverse with others. The degree to which each aspect of diversity is promoted or discouraged is known as the homogeneity vs. diversity dimension.

Another dimension of culture is the nature of human relationships. This describes how a culture rewards the way people treat other people in the organization, and whose interests each of them is looking out for. It also describes the culture’s views with respect to competition between individuals.

In order to understand the culture of the Desautels BCom experience, it is important to understand its social context. The Faculty of Management is mostly run like any other North American undergraduate school: students attend classes, study the material, and try to get good grades. Thus, much of its culture imbedded in this educational system, and by the time students have entered it, they have well socialized into it during their time in grade school.

However, there are some things which set it apart. (From my personal experience, I can only compare it with the McGill Faculty of Arts.) Compared to Arts, Desautels emphasizes an interesting combination of group work and competitiveness. The competitive aspect is manifest through the 65-75% class average rule. This shows a concern to integrate students into the competitive management culture, where one’s financial gain often comes at the expense of a competitor. This also shows a high value on fairness, in the sense that it rewards professors for challenging their students at a standard level. The cooperative aspect is made manifest through the emphasis on group projects, which is in stark contrast with the individual assignments typically given in Arts. This is possibly done to mediate the highly competitive organizational culture, and possibly to reiterate the assumption of preparation for the management culture. The dimension of the nature of human relationships shows how the culture at Desautels is a unique blend of management and undergraduate education culture.

Desautels has a high percentage of international students and faculty. The school’s website, agenda, and promotional material all emphasize the international nature of the school. Alternatively, only those with the highest grades are admitted into the program, while extracurricular activities are not taken into account. Thus, the Desautels application procedure operates on geographic diversity, but not intellectual or lifestyle diversity. Diversity with respect to field of studies is encouraged, as can be seen with the flexibility of the program and the wide range of majors and concentrations to choose from. All undergraduates are expected to take courses outside of the faculty, which indicates a value in being a well-rounded person.

McGill expects its students to be proactive in many respects. Much of the students’ focus is expected to be on achieving high grades and getting involved in the school community. These two things are verbally emphasized during Orientation week, the mandatory Career Prep 101 and other workshops, and during class.

On the other hand, students are not encouraged to be active with respect to the grading system of the class. Whether they will complete an assignment, a quiz, or an oral presentation has been predetermined by the professor, and it is never publicly debated or questioned in class. And in contrast to other faculties, students generally cannot “drop” their lowest mark, and they cannot decide when listen to a lecture, as there are no recordings available online. Students are expected to be more passive in this respect.

Bird courses, as an example of extrinsic motivation

Many university students pick their elective courses based on how easy they are. Any time a course becomes significantly easier than the rest on campus, it starts to become known as a “bird course.” For example, in the university where I’m studying, some of the most well-known “bird courses” are “Natural Disasters” and “The Art of Listening.” These courses quickly become really popular, because hey, who wouldn’t want to raise their GPA?

But this, to me, is one of the effects of students being externally motivated – how they’re being motivated to act by grades, rather than by the course material itself. Consequently, thousands of students end up taking courses that aren’t very meaningful to them, and that aren’t in line with their life goals and interests. To put it bluntly, it wastes the students’ time and energy, as well as the schools’.

In order to behave in an intrinsically motivated fashion, a student has to work against the system, rather than with it. They have to reassure themselves that “even if I don’t do well, it’s OK, because I’m going to learn a lot of meaningful information.”

So how do we fix this?

This is much easier said than done. In an ideal world, we would give students credits for being more or less interested and/or personally invested in their courses. But then, there’d be nothing stopping students from claiming to be 100% intrinsically motivated 100% of the time. And we could resort to lie detector tests to sort that out, but of course, that’s just ridiculous and invasive!

Psychologists have actually found many, many ways to test someone’s level of intrinsic motivation on any given task. For instance, you can have a person perform an activity for a specific period of time. And then, once that time is up, you give the person “free time” to do whatever they please. The more the person continues to spend their time on the first activity, the more that person is said to be intrinsically motivated.

This could be successfully applied to a school setting, but definitely NOT if it affects students’ grades. Because the minute they perceive that this test will affect their grade, they will spend all of their “free time” doing their activity. So the problem is not being able to track intrinsic motivation. The problem is when we try to use intrinsic motivation as a diagnostic tool, in order to determine a person’s grade, or to reward or punish them in any, shape, or form. Because rewards and punishments are just that – extrinsic motivators!

“Making room” for intrinsic motivation

So the solution then is not to track intrinsic motivation, but to make room for it. To give students a space (and resources) where they can pursue their interests, without having to be obsessed about their transcript, their resume, or “what a future employer/school will think about this.”

And there are many ways to go about doing this. One of such solutions is actually one that’s already in place in some schools here in North America: pass/fail courses. Here, as long as a student passes the course, it will show up as a “pass” on their transcript. The specific grade they get in the course will not affect their GPA. This solution is easier to implement than some of the other ones I will present in the future, because it fits so nicely into the rest of the traditional (and completely outdated!) system. It doesn’t go far enough in my opinion, but it’s a start, and it’s headed in the right direction.

We need to expand the pass/fail system to high school and CEGEP levels, and properly explain it within the context of intrinsic and extrinsic motivation to students. I have no idea why these concepts have been around for over 40 years, and yet the vast majority of students have never been taught them, even though (1) they spend over 4500 hours sitting in class – what, we never had the chance to tell them about this even once? (2) they spend over 4500 hours sitting in class – these concepts are so prevalent and relevant in their lives!!

Conclusions:

  1. “Bird courses” are a prime example of extrinsically motivated students.
  2. Intrinsic motivation can be measured, but not if the person knows that they will receive a reward and/or punishment as a result of the measurement’s outcome.
  3. Tracking students’ intrinsic motivation (in the “non-contingent” manner) will not decrease it, but nor will it increase it. In order to foster intrinsic motivation, you need to “make room” for it (in terms of space, time, and resources).
  4. One (but definitely not the only) way to “make room” for intrinsic motivation is to use and properly explain the pass/fail system.

What students and teachers are really thinking about

People often talk about what we learn in school, and offer suggestions on how to change or upgrade our schools’ curriculum. (I, for one, have several recommendations on this front. More on those in the future!) But I have yet to see someone outline a step-by-step process of schooling that students go through in our system. So here’s my first attempt at it.

Let’s look at the process of what goes on when a student writes an essay for school.

Note: I’m saying “essay” here, but you can replace this with “research paper,” “project,” “lab report,” or any other long piece of text that a student is asked to write.

  1. The teacher explains the instructions of the essay to the class.
  2. The student writes the essay.
  3. (optional) The student visits/emails/calls the teacher because they have questions about the essay.
  4. The teacher corrects the essay.
  5. The teacher hands the essay back to the student and the student reviews their essay.
  6. (optional) The teacher and student sometimes meet to discuss the essay.
  7. The essay is put away and rarely (if ever) looked at again. Either,

a) The student throws it away at the end of the school year.
b) The teacher stores it, and then shreds it after a few years.
c) The student stores it in their room, closet, or basement. They usually never look at it again, except on occasion, when they feel like reminiscing.

Alright, so what’s on their minds?

Let’s look at this process from the perspective of moment-by-moment consciousness. In other words, what are the students and teachers thinking about during each of these stages? What’s occupying their minds? What’s motivating them to act?

  1. The teacher explains the instructions of the essay to the class.
    They describes the main purposes of the essay, and how it fits into the curriculum, and this is great. But it doesn’t last very long. The discussion quickly segways into grading, rules, timing.
    Student questions revolve around grading:
    “How many pages long should it be?”, “Do we need a cover page?”, “What’s the late penalty?” etc.
  2. The student writes the essay.
    Their primary goal here is to get a good grade.
  3. (optional) The student visits/emails/calls the teacher because they have questions about the essay.
    Their questions usually revolve around optimizing their grade. Because, after all, the students who get the best grades are the ones who are able to “psych out” their teacher a bit.
  4. The teacher corrects the essay.
    While they’re reading, they’re mainly focusing on how well they hold up against the criteria that they previously established. (Granted, I’ve personally only ever had one experience with grading papers, but I can attest that was the #1 thing on my mind the entire time I was correcting.)
  5. The teacher hands the essay back to the student and the student reviews their essay.
    The student looks through the paper to make sure that they got a fair grade. They make sure the teacher added up the points correctly. Many of them only look at the questions/parts where they lost points. They don’t even care to look at what they did right, because hey, as long as you got the credit, what else matters??
  6. (optional) The teacher and student sometimes meet to discuss the essay.
    Most of the time, the student is here to contest the parts of the essay they think were wrongly graded as incorrect/poor.
  7. The essay is put away and rarely (if ever) looked at again.

Notice how at every step of the process, everyone’s main focus is on the grading of the essay. De jure, grades are supposed to be a means to an end, but de facto, the subject material is treated as the means, while the grades is treated like the end. As John Holt puts it, “We encourage [students] to feel that the end and aim of all they do in school is nothing more than to get a good mark on a test, or to impress someone with what they seem to know.”

Caveats

Now, admittedly the above analysis makes a lot of sweeping generalizations.

1. First of all, students actually do spend a lot of time thinking about the course material. It’s not like it’s being ignored or anything! And some of these essays, and teacher-student conversations can and do get very deep.

I would argue, however, that the breadth and depth of their contemplation is only as deep as the grading asks of them. Most students are very busy, and their grades in their other classes would suffer if they went deeper or more broad then what is required of them. This only gets worse in university, when students are pressured to read more and write more in a shorter amount of time. The pressure to do well also increases, as students are now working towards a GPA, and are facing tougher “competition” among their classmates. Then, there are even less opportunities for deeper thinking and creative insights.

Some schools pride themselves on how they set “high standards” for their students, by requiring them to do more, read more, and memorize more. But ironically, these “higher standards” often lead to lower quality education.

2. Second of all, there are also individual differences between students. Some will be more intrinsically motivated in each subject than others. And that’s to be accepted, understood, and even celebrated in my opinion. But that doesn’t take away from how, I believe, the dominant culture among students is to be grade-focused and extrinsically motivated.

3. The second diagram is called an “ideal” for a reason. Reaching this ideal is easier said than done, and it’s impractical for it to be reached 100% of the time. But that’s OK, and it doesn’t take away from us striving towards that ideal, letting students know about this ideal, and reminding students about this ideal when times get rough or boring.