Having The Right Mindset

This post first appeared at the collaborative site A Novice IBL Blog.

Over the course of the Fall 2016 semester, my Applied College Algebra students will write five short (1-3 page) reflections, each worth 3% of the overall grade (replacing the 15% I used to allot for attendance). Most of these reflections will ask students to read an article or blog post, or watch a YouTube video, and then respond to a writing prompt. My posts this semester will focus on the results of making this change, and I will also share the full PDF and TeX files of all five assignments.

We began the semester by setting the stage, outlining as a group the features required of a course to allow productive failure to happen. With that completed, our first reflection was a math autobiography that helped my students identify their own attitudes and behaviors with respect to mathematics. As the first month of our semester wound down, I tasked them with a bit of a meta-reflection, adapted from a mindset activity created by Laurie Zack at High Point University: Watch a TED talk about growth mindset, and read a short article (“I’m Not A Math Person” Is No Longer A Valid Excuse), then reflect on the role of mindsets in their lives. My hope was to help them think more clearly about their own thinking, and to empower them to make small changes in attitude that could have a big impact on their future early in their college careers.

As is often the case, my students provided some unexpected insights – some presented the difference between a fixed and a growth mindset as a contrast of “am I smart” versus “how can I become smarter?” Others, though, explained that a fixed mindset was a belief that they were “good enough as is,” while growth was a willingness to improve. Is it possible to be willing to improve while not actually believing you have the capacity? Largely, my students related that the fixed mindset results from judgement, a worry about looking smart, and a stubborn unwillingness to change; a growth mindset, on the other hand, they said required their striving to improve, willingly enter a state of discomfort, and work hard to reach their maximum potential. Another gem that one student presented was a view of “regular failure” versus “productive failure.” Regular failure is, as they put it “one and done,” where you give up and move on. Productive failure, on the other hand, occurs “when we spin failure and make the mishap into a positive.” While I don’t expect to use #rf in place of #pf anytime soon, it made me smile to see that at least one student “got it.”

There seemed to be some misunderstanding on what exactly the mindsets were applied towards (ability to affect change in themselves versus actual knowledge they possessed), and I wondered if I should have explicitly told them in the assignment instructions what the growth and fixed mindsets were defined as. The “I’m Not A Math Person” article refers to incremental and entity orientations, and while the connection to mindsets was obvious to me, I don’t believe the connection was apparent to my students. The entire exercise made it clear to me that as an instructor, I need to re-read Carol Dweck’s book before attempting a more detailed discussion of mindsets with my students. Perhaps, too, a pre-reflection (but post-viewing) discussion designed to come up with a “class definition” of the mindsets would help.

In addition to providing opportunities for reflection to my students, my hope with these writing assignments was that throughout the semester I would gain insight into my own teaching style. What I have been repeatedly reminded of in recent semesters is that active learning, IBL, writing assignments, and other “non-computational” activities are not magic. Student buy-in is required (which is why I use the Setting The Stage activity each semester), as is a lot of continued energy and effort on my part to maintain that buy-in. Goals (both content-related and “big picture”) need to be set, and activities carefully designed to move toward those goals. Where I could do better as an instructor, I feel, is with that continued buy-in piece. Other than showing them videos about productive failure and such throughout the semester (Stan Yoshinobu has a good list here), what else can I do?

(Feel free to download and modify the TeX and PDF of this reflection as you see fit. If you use it in your courses, send me an email at david.failing at gmail.com and let me know how it goes.)

David Failing
David Failing
Educator and Aspiring Data Scientist