I have high expectations for my students and for my own teaching and mentoring.
My major beliefs are threefold:
First, I believe that every committed student can learn a given subject/topic at an undergraduate level, and the vast majority can even achieve a high grade, given enough interest, effort, and support. I believe in a growth mindset.
Second, I believe that effective teaching/mentoring does not shy away from challenging students to be responsible for their own learning; it supports them as they achieve their own goals.
Third, I believe that students learn through failure, in a supportive environment. I believe that low-stakes failure is essential for learning – whether the learned topic is biology (for my students) or teaching (for myself).
All of these beliefs are strongly-worded ideals, but they guide how I practice my teaching in the classroom, in the teaching lab, and in my personal research laboratory. I explain a bit more about all three below.
1. I believe in a growth mindset.
Why waste time proving over and over how great you are, when you could be getting better? Why hide deficiencies instead of overcoming them? Why look for friends or partners who will just shore up your self-esteem instead of ones who will also challenge you to grow? And why seek out the tried and true, instead of experiences that will stretch you? The passion for stretching yourself and sticking to it, even (or especially) when it’s not going well, is the hallmark of the growth mindset. This is the mindset that allows people to thrive during some of the most challenging times in their lives.1 Dr. Carol Dweck
My first belief, in a growth mindset, has been shaped by theory (e.g. Carol Dweck’s book Mindset), personal reflection regarding my own successes or failures at activities during my life, and teaching experience: coming face to face with undergraduates who are terrified to be wrong, to be stupid, both in front of peers and the mirror. Bottom line: I do not believe that there are Einsteins OR Dunces in my classes or labs. I believe that, as with any activity, learning and facility in a particular topic can be developed over time via commitment, support, and effort on both the teacher and the learner’s part – especially at a small liberal arts institution.
I know about a growth mindset personally because I attended a competitive, small, liberal arts college from a public high school in Bristol, CT. My biology knowledge was very poor relative to that of the other incoming students. I struggled in the introductory classes to catch up and could have been discouraged and concluded that I just wasn’t smart enough for the sciences or biology. However, through my teachers’ encouragement and my commitment to my studies (and stubbornness), I was able to succeed in both biology and chemistry while at the college. Similarly, when I was getting my Ph.D., my thesis committee challenged me to rewrite my preliminary proposal – they believed I was capable of a more thoughtful draft. I chose to learn from that experience; I ended up rewriting and passing with a much deeper, clearer understanding of my thesis direction. In both cases, I benefited from being challenged to get better and grow rather than coast or even turn back.
As a college professor for the last four years, I have witnessed many students struggle to maintain a growth mindset. I’ve seen research students in my lab who are flabbergasted when PCR doesn’t work the first time or the second time or the third time. Excited first-year students in their first college biology class feel crushed when their grade on the first exam doesn’t match their perception of their aptitude/understanding of the material. In each case, I see it as my role to affirm that yes, Biology is a field with high, defined expectations, but that I am confident that success is possible – as long as they maintain a growth mindset and commit to growing their knowledge with efficient and consistent studying/practicing. I ask students to identify other challenges they have overcome in their own lives to help them see that they can possess such a mindset. Getting students to create their own academic growth mindset, and then stick with it, is one of the major challenges that I have as a teacher/mentor – but successfully communicating and encouraging students to be in that growth mindset is one powerful way for me to help students in Biology and beyond.
2. I believe in student agency.
At Cornell I was what you call a Heinz 57 Varieties chemistry instructor. I could explain any concept 57 different ways; I was very patient, always saying to my students, “Let me know if you don’t understand this explanation, and I will say it a different way.” I was convinced that I could figure out some way to explain it that would ensure student understanding.
I now know it is absolutely not about what we say to our students; it’s about what they hear. But we don’t know what they’re hearing unless they’re doing the talking. We don’t have to make connections for them; in fact it is much better if we don’t. We can throw a concept out there, like a ball, and ask “what does this remind you of that you’ve encountered in your everyday life?” When students hit the ball back, they come up with the most wonderful examples and ideas that give them not only an efficient path to learning and mastery, but also the most efficient path for them.2 Dr. Sandra McGuire
My second belief about teaching is supported by neurobiological evidence that we as humans learn best when we construct our own knowledge3. As a teacher, I can guide students’ learning. But I acknowledge that the real learning occurs less when students are hearing information, and more when they are actively thinking about and translating that information into their own internal representation. To facilitate this construction, I attempt to design classroom lecture activities (so-called active learning) where students work together in groups and communicate ideas about a particular problem. I call on students randomly in class and ask that they verbalize answers out loud. I try my hardest to not only tell, but to listen. In my research lab, I work with students to make sure they own their projects. I have high expectations: each student will conceptualize their interest in my research as well as learn basic experimental design in order to translate that interest into concrete tests of their ideas. For all of my students, I try to teach them to become active participants in their learning, not consumers.
3. I believe that failure makes learning possible – and part of what makes science powerful is its acceptance of failure.
Since the standards of craftsmanship issue from the logic of things rather than the art of persuasion, practiced submission to them perhaps gives the craftsman some psychic ground to stand on against fantastic hopes aroused by demagogues, whether commercial or political. Plato makes a distinction between technical skill and rhetoric on the grounds that rhetoric “has no account to give of the real nature of things, and so cannot tell the cause of any of them.” The craftsman’s habitual deference is not toward the New, but toward the objective standard of his craft. However narrow in its application, this is a rare appearance in contemporary life – a disinterested, articulable, and publicly affirmable idea of the good. 4 [emphasis added] Matthew Crawford
The above quote may seem a bit out of place, since Crawford is writing about craftsmanship rather than research or teaching. However, there is a parallel: in the natural sciences we are able to fail in our inquiries, to be objectively wrong because we have an absolute physical reality to deal with in our experimentation. Nature is a wonderful teacher in part because she is an uncompromising one – disinterested in how hard we’ve tried, rewarding only our proximity to physical truth. I try to teach my students in lab to embrace the freedom this creates the freedom to fail. Frequently facing such binary realities (it works or does not, is “good” or not) helps students normalize failure as one step in an on-going process, rather than a devastating final outcome.
De-stigmatizing failure is absolutely critical, because without failure, we do not learn. What I wish for my students is that they fail in a supportive environment where they can learn from their mistakes and grow – thereby succeeding in the long run. In my classes, I communicate my firmly-held belief that every student can succeed, but that it is essential for each student to practice the materials and even fail during that practice in order to learn before the major testing of exams or post-college life. I tell them, bluntly and honestly, about my own failures. For example, I show students my lab notebook. (“I have done 10 PCRs for this gene, and none worked, but see, the 11th did – that was a relief!”) When teaching computer programming, I make sure to acknowledge how normal it is to feel frustrated when code does not work – but I remind students that computers, like nature, are simply uncompromising teachers. These gestures not only let students know that I have been there, but combined with my very identity as a professor they become a testament to the fact that initial failure is no excuse for giving up – or even a very good predictor of eventual outcomes. Finally, when the inevitable mistakes occur, I help students learn from them by focusing on why they did not understand a concept, or succeed at a given problem, during office hours or informal meetings. I see this focus on metacognition – why were you thinking the way you were thinking? – as one way I can support students’ intellectual growth.
It would be hypocritical of me to expect my students to fail without being willing to continue to do so myself, and not just in the lab. In the past three years, as a full-time professor, I have been learning more about how to teach, and trying new things in the classroom – and yes, sometimes failing. I see true teaching excellence as something to be attained through small failures, consistent work, and practice – the exact skills I am teaching my students in their study of Biology.
- Dweck, C.S. (2007) Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. Ballantine Books: NY, NY.
- McGuire, S.Y. and S. McGuire. (2015) Teaching Students How to Learn. Springer Verlag: Sterling, VA.
- Gregory, G. and T. Perry (2006) Designing Brain-Compatible Learning. Corwin Press: Thousand Oaks, CA.
- Crawford, M.B. (2010). Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry Into the Value of Work. Penguin Books: NY, NY.