By Homeira Foth
Students with this growth mindset believe that intelligence is a potential that can be realized through learning. As a result, confronting challenges, profiting from mistakes, and persevering in the face of setbacks become ways of getting smarter.
Carol S. Dweck
In her article Brainology, Carol Dweck uses the terms growth mindset and fixed mindset to describe students’ attitudes about learning. The article has been eye-opening for many community college students, helping them to understand themselves better as learners (see video). However, can the concepts of fixed and growth mindsets also help teachers understand their own attitudes and preconceived notions about students? Do too many teachers give up on their students because they have fixed beliefs about their students’ potential, especially in developmental classes? And, is it possible for educators to shift their pedagogy from one mindset to the other? Melissa Reeve and Joshua Scott seem to have done just that during their first year of teaching an accelerated English course at Solano College.
Reeve and Scott, along with others in their department, had felt that the college’s developmental sequence was not working. The traditional sequence at Solano includes three levels below transfer, and students’ initial placement is based on their Accuplacer scores. In order to advance in the curriculum, students face 2-3 hurdles, or exit points where they can disappear. They must pass the class, pass the departmental final exam, and for two of the levels, pass an additional lab requirement. Only a small percentage of students make it to the transfer level.
After reading an article by Katie Hern and Myra Snell, Reeve and Scott became intrigued with the idea of acceleration. Reeve says, “the logic appealed to me.” From there it was a quick process. In spring 2011, they attended a 3CSN one-day acceleration workshop at Santa Rosa College with a group of their colleagues and soon after developed an experimental course, English 348G, a 5-unit open-access class with no lab co-requisite. In 2011-12, Reeve and Scott began teaching the course and participated in the California Acceleration Project’s extended professional development program. The college offered 3-4 sections of the experimental course each semester of the first year and expanded to 6 sections the following fall, when it received approval as a permanent course.
Changing Pedagogy Through Reading
For Reeve and Scott changing their pedagogy started with reading as its core. The first major shift was to move from assigning shorter works to book-length texts. They also wanted students to be exposed to multi-voice discourse. Instead of memoirs and narrative-based readings, they used nonfiction books like Opening Skinner’s Box, which requires students to grapple with competing psychological perspectives on issues like the causes of addiction and the reliability of memory. Others texts included Drive by Daniel Pink and Tweak: Growing up on Methamphetamines by Nic Sheff.
Reeve says that it was important for her students to do close readings, focusing on analysis of select passages instead of general discussions. The objective was for students to comprehend the text in more complex ways. As Reeve says, “just getting the gist” wasn’t going to work. What Reeve and Scott found to work well was partner work, where two students read passages closely and made meaning of the text together. Working in pairs created a space for students to think critically and to express their opinions without being concerned about giving “wrong” answers or being judged in a larger classroom setting. These activities also prepared students for the writing assignments, which required them to integrate and synthesize course texts.
In addition to pair work, Reeve and Scott provided tools to help with the challenging readings. Scott says, “we wanted to find different ways to take the sophisticated reading tasks we expected of them and to break them down to smaller and smaller parts.” One of the tools was the context journal where students maintained a record of difficult vocabulary and cultural references. Reeve and Scott also provided graphic organizers to help students track the main arguments and sort out the relationships among texts.
In the video below, Melissa Reeve speaks about changes to her pedagogy
National Conference on Accelerated Developmental Education, June 2012
Attention to Affective Issues
Participating in CAP’s Community of Practice in Acceleration, Scott and Reeve learned that teaching a successful accelerated class requires the teacher to have strategies for keeping affective issues from derailing students. “When developmental students aren’t successful in their classes, the core issue is often not their ability to handle the course content,” writes CAP Director Katie Hern. “They have the capacity to write a good essay or solve a particular math problem; however, something happens at a more psychological and emotional level that gets in their way. When they encounter a difficult task, or receive critical feedback, or feel afraid that they’re not cut out for college, or start to feel hopeless about their prospect of success, many community college students will disengage, withdraw effort, avoid turning in work, and even disappear from class.”
To help students stay engaged in the rigorous accelerated curriculum, Reeve and Scott had their classes read Dweck’s “Brainology” and tried to cultivate growth mindsets through encouragement and continuous conversation with students. They asked students to write reflections about the class material and their learning challenges, and they held regular individual conferences to go over classwork and “intrusively intervene” when they saw students struggling or falling behind.
Reeve and Scott are also re-thinking traditional concepts of assessment, which rely heavily on numbers and percentages. Reeve says that many times this form of assessment makes it “mathematically impossible” for students to pass the class or even see any hope of passing. Students identify themselves with a grade and thus feel no need to keep trying; they lock themselves into a “fixed mindset,”believing they either get something or they don’t.
Reeve and Scott had students keep portfolios of their work and gave many opportunities for revision. No letter grades were assigned. Instead, essays were assessed as “high pass,” “pass,” “low pass,” or “not yet passing,” and the instructors’ feedback focused on how to improve. The emphasis was on continuous effort, practice, and scaling upward in skills. Scott describes the message to students: “you can fail this week but keep trying.” The point, says Reeve, was to make sure that “small failures don’t accrue to a massive failure.”
Students still had to take the departmental final exam, but the exam wasn’t “the be-all and end-all measure of students’ performance,” according to Reeve, and didn’t determine whether the student advanced to the next level. In fact, 40% of students who didn’t pass the exam still passed the class because their essays were strong enough. (Reeve and Scott asked colleagues to be outside readers on these students’ essays.)
Reeve and Scott say that one way to promote a growth mindset is for teachers to watch out for negative assumptions about students. They mentioned late papers, and how easy it is for instructors to assume that students are lazy and apathetic and to respond with punitive action, such as a low grade or failure. “We have to keep reminding ourselves,” says Scott,“what is it we really want to achieve?”
One method that Reeve used in her classes was the late essay contract. Basically it worked as an IOU. On the day essays were due, students who had completed their essay would fill out a self-reflection about the assignment. Those without essays had to fill out a contract which included a reflection on why they didn’t have the essay and when they would turn it in. This gave the students a second chance, instead of being reprimanded for not having their essays. When asked if this really works, Reeve responded that most students turned their late papers within a week, and the results were much better than getting on the students’ cases and “stalking them” for their work, which could ultimately result in the student not showing to class. The late essay contract created a much less antagonistic position between the teacher and student. The approach, says Reeve, “made us feel at ease.”
Reeve and Scott try to apply growth mindset in every aspect of their accelerated courses, even in the language they use to assess student work. Reeve talks about how they want to move away from rubric language that suggests failure, like “severely flawed” and “marginally competent,” toward words that encourage, like “emerging” and “exploring.” This language, with an emphasis on the positive, can help students focus on their strengths and give students the message that “what you do next matters,” says Scott.
Data from the first year were not as strong as Reeve and Scott would have hoped. Accelerated students who went on to college English performed well there – passing at a rate of 76% — but success rates in the developmental course were disappointing, averaging less than 50%. As with their students, Solano faculty are approaching this challenge with a growth mindset. Analyzing the results, they observed that one section had especially low pass rates – the section offered at 8am five days a week – and that this had pulled down the overall average. In a subsequent semester, the same instructor is seeing significant improvements teaching the course on a different schedule.
Reeve and Scott hope that Solano College will continue to expand their accelerated offerings and gather longitudinal data on their impact. They would like to see more full-time English faculty get involved in teaching the course, and they’re interested in trying other models of acceleration, such as enrolling developmental students directly into a regular college-level English class, with attached small-group support to help them succeed (e.g. Accelerated Learning Project at Community College of Baltimore County).
Meanwhile, Reeve and Scott will continue to focus on fostering a growth mindset for both their students and themselves. Scotts says, “we want to convince our students, ourselves, our college that of this idea of growth toward mastery is not about getting A’s on your first paper, but it’s about the continuing of that practice over and over again.”
For more information, contact Melissa Reeve, Melissa.Reeve@solano.edu, or Joshua Scott, Joshua.Scott@solano.edu
Basic Skills Cohort Tracker. Fall 2011-Summer 2012. http://datamart.cccco.edu/Outcomes/BasicSkills_Cohort_Tracker.aspx