Sitting on the ferry back to Sweden, I listened to one of my favorite podcasts, “tea for teaching“. The episode was on the role of faculty engagement, specifically showing students that the professor cares, and how three emails can already make a difference!
The first lecture I attended as a student wasn’t actually a regular lecture, even though I did not know that at the time. It was an intervention.
Together with about a hundred or so new students, I sat nervously in a lecture theatre in the physics department. I had enrolled in physical oceanography, which was taught together with meteorology, geophysics and physics for the first two years. I didn’t know anyone. Since my dad worked at the same university, I was pretty familiar with how universities work in general (which later turned out to be a huuuge advantage). And I wasn’t nervous about starting university itself, that was just something one did after school. But I was nervous about physics. I had stopped taking physics classes in highschool as soon as that was possible, and I had only taken the minimum required maths (both probably more to do with the teachers than the subjects themselves, but it’s sometimes hard to distinuish). But now, in order to become an oceanographer, I knew I would have to study physics together with people who wanted to become physicists, and who had a much better starting position than I had. Oh well.
The lecture started out with the professor arriving late, and then without any contextualising or welcoming us, or acknowledging that this was our first day at university, just starting going through content that — for all I understood — could have been chinese. He was just standing with the back towards us, scribbling on a blackboard so fast that it was impossible to take notes, mumbling something, and I did not have the faintest clue what was going on. I don’t know for how long it went on, but it felt like forever, and in any case it was long enough for me to feel like I had absolutely no chance to ever succeed there. Then, the professor started making weird and sexist remarks, and I started tuning out. This was not how I was going to spend the next couple of years. Then, at some point, a student asked a question and was rudely dismissed. But then another student spoke up, and another. And at some point — surprise! — we were told that this had not been a real lecture, that the professor was just an older student pranking us, and that also the students speaking up were older students playing a role, and that the whole purpose was to show us that we would have to learn to speak up when things didn’t go the way they were supposed to.
Why am I thinking about this now? In one of the recent iEarth teaching conversations, HC talked about something he had heard about how it was really helping students learn if they were given a really hard exercise right in the beginning. In that case, there wouldn’t be any “smart students” standing out and the not-as-smart students wouldn’t feel dumb, because everybody was equally lost (and the teacher would then help them through it to build confidence and grit and it would be all good, so it’s not the exact same story). But hearing about this triggered that memory of my first ever physics lecture, and I can feel the pit in my stomach now, 20 years later, thinking back to the feeling of definitely not belonging there, in that lecture theatre, in that department. Even though I had not thought about it in at least a decade, I don’t think it’s something I have ever fully gotten over, because even though this was meant as an intervention and the scenario was supposed to be much worse than anything we could ever possibly experience for real, there were many situations later on during my studies that were reminiscent of that experience. Only then, they were not pranks, and there was nobody there to resolve the situation for us, and clearly we hadn’t learned our lesson yet to resolve them ourselves. But each of those new situations seemed to confirm to me that at that very first day, I had been warned, and had ignored it, but that now was the time when I was going to be found out as not belonging. And this personal anecdote makes me feel really reluctant to start out a class with any kind of “intervention”.
P.S.: Looking back, what made me persist throughout all the physics and maths was a) that I REALLY wanted to become an oceanographer, so I just had to do what I had to do (and it turned out to be not as bad as I initially thought), and b) that there were two technicians, Rüdi and Manni, who always ran the experiments for the physics professors. They would be in the lecture theatre before the lectures started, setting up the experiments, and then clearing up after. And they were super friendly and approachable, and me and my friend and this one other guy started hanging out with them, asking them lots of questions, and learning more from them than from all the physics professors combined (or at least that was the case for me). And it’s for the first time today that I am putting together how important Rüdi und Manni were for me to feel like I did belong after all, maybe not to the people who wanted to be theoretical physicists like my friend, and for whom the mathematical derivations were enough (or made that much more sense that they didn’t feel the need for anything else, who knows?); but to a group of people who not only understood the phenomena, but in addition could show that they really existed in real life, could run demonstrations that the professors — despite all their theories — never dared touch. I had found my community, and even though it’s been 20 years and we’ve lost touch, maybe all my #KitchenOceanography goes back to those early experiences with Rüdi and Manni being the teachers the official teachers never were. Thank you! <3
Two years ago, I was really into daily writing in my bullet journal. I used it to plan out my day, week, month, year, but also to set goals and reflect on how I was doing achieving them. During that year I felt really efficient, accomplished, capable, and it definitely felt related to all that reflection and goal-setting going on. In 2019 I continued, but not with the same regularity, and this year I’m only on page 40 of my 2020 bullet journal. But as I felt frustrated about not moving towards a specific goal a little while ago (and, in fact, effectively moving away from it), I decided that it was time to bring out the bullet journal and write down what I wanted, and why. I instantly felt better and more motivated, and this reminded me of an article that I had wanted to blog about for a while now. Because even though I don’t know if bullet journaling is what really helps me stay on the track I want to be on, or if there are other mechanisms at play, there is good evidence that short, written exercises can help students transform their mindset and achieve more.
What is an academic mind-set, and why does it matter?
What is referred to as the “academic mind-set” is a collection of core beliefs around how capable someone is and how relevant the effort that person puts into something is for their bigger picture, both related in an academic context. So for example students might believe that their intelligence and capabilities are static (“I am just too stupid for maths”) or alternatively, that anything can be learned if you just put your mind to it and enough effort into learning it. Or students might believe that they are learning for the teacher or to achieve a certain grade, rather than because they are actually learning something that will improve their own lives (or those of others).
Obviously some of those beliefs are more conductive to learning than others, and therefore the idea is of academic mind-set interventions is to change beliefs to help students become more successful in their academic lives, for example by helping them see that intelligence is not fixed but rather a matter of training, helping them develop a “growth mindset”. Or recognizing that classes — no matter how boring — might be a useful tool to bring them closer to what really matters to them, which helps give them a sense of purpose. If those beliefs are successfully addressed through interventions, that can change how students react to challenges that come their way because they interpret for example effort not as a sign of weakness but rather as a sign of effort that leads to learning. Ideally, this leads to a “positive viciuos circle” where they recognize more and more how true those beliefs are because they are becoming more successful academically. And whether this works on a large scale was tested in the article I want to tell you about:
Paunesku et al. (2015): Mind-set interventions are a scalable treatment for academic underachievement.
In the article, Paunesku et al. (2015) describe how academic-mind-set interventions can increase academic outcomes even when they are administered online and not specifically targeted to the students’ individual contexts. That way, those interventions become easily applicable everywhere and are not only available to students who are likely advantaged already, e.g. those where the parents and/or school invest extra time and money into their development.
In this case, high school students participated in two 45 minute sessions online (which is really not a lot of time in the big scheme of things!) and both interventions showed a positive impact. And, it turns out, that students who received both interventions (in contrast to one intervention and one control treatment) did not show greater benefit than from just one intervention (So if we wanted to do an intervention with our class, we wouldn’t even need to commit to twice 45 minutes).
One of the 45 minute sessions was dedicated to “growth-mind-set interventions”, designed to help students recognize that their intelligence can increase when they work hard on difficult tasks, and that the difficulty they are having is the opportunity for growth and not a sign that they are not good enough.
For this intervention, students read an article on how the brain can grow through hard work. Additionally, students did two writing exercises: Summarizing the article in their own words, and then writinga letter to a student who felt not smart enough to do well, and advising them on what they could do, based on the article the students had read.
The second 45 minute session dealt with a “sense-of-purpose intervention”. This was done by first asking students to reflect briefly about their vision of a better world, and then helping the students reflect on what meaningful goals beyond themselves they could, and and would want to, contribute to if they learned a lot in school, and how schoolwork could help them there. This intervention is designed to help students stay motivated during boring or frustrating times because they are working towards a bigger goal.
Intervening online; and should we try it, too?
The interventions discussed in the article were specifically designed to work well online: They targeted only one single core belief each, they took only very little time, and they could be done with standardized materials because they used common stories and science concepts, i.e. they did not require tailoring to the specific course or context. This makes them — or something similar — a viable tool in other instruction, too. Seeing that having two interventions didn’t yield larger gains than just having one, I would tend to do something along the lines of the second intervention: Have students describe their vision of an ideal world, and then write about how studying will let them contribute to making it become a reality.
Granted, this research was done on highschool students and is more of a proof-of-concept than a blueprint that we can copy. But I still think that we could have our students do something similar. There is a lot of research on how applying learning to students’ lives is a really important step in the learning process, and reflecting about how that learning is contributing to their lives is one part of that. And if they grow their academic mind-set and are thus more successful even beyond the specific course we are teaching, how awesome would that be?
Even just thinking about writing about my vision for the world and how my learning of new things can open up ways I can contribute to making that vision become a reality makes me feel motivated and like the world is opening up to all these exciting new possibilities that I can’t wait to get started with. Can you feel it? I think it would be amazing to give this to our students!
Paunesku, D., Walton, G. M., Romero, C., Smith, E. N., Yeager, D. S., & Dweck, C. S. (2015). Mind-set interventions are a scalable treatment for academic underachievement. Psychological science, 26(6), 784-793. [link]