Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Three Ways to Help Teach Growth Mindset

By Deanna HaunspergerCarleton College and MAA President

Every fall I teach a differential calculus course at Carleton College that is five days a week instead of our usual three-days-per-week format. This course is designed to give students a review of algebra and pre-calculus and trigonometry skills just-in-time as I’m teaching the calculus material. It’s the lowest entry point we have for students who want or need to learn calculus, and it is where I introduce students to the idea of a growth mindset.

On their mathematical autobiography cards that students write for me the first day of class, they often admit to feeling unsuccessful in their previous math class, being nervous about the material, and worried they’re not smart enough to succeed this time. What I enjoy most about these students is that they are in my class on the first day, regardless of background or perceived ability, ready to learn.

I know from day one that one of my biggest responsibilities as a mathematician is to give my students the confidence to be successful. They need to come at this material with a fresh start, open their notebooks to a fresh page, and use a new mindset: a growth mindset.

Growth mindset, as defined by psychologist Carol Dweck, is the belief that mathematical (or any) ability is not something you’re born with, but something that can be developed through dedication, hard work, and good strategies. She and her colleagues have shown that students who believe in a fixed mindset – that you’re either born with a certain ability or intelligence or you’re not – are defeated by mistakes because they don’t think they are capable of improving. Growth mindset students, however, take mistakes as a challenge to work harder or dig in more deeply. They believe they can grow their brains to understand more.

Of course we want our math students to have a growth mindset so that when they face problems they don’t know how to solve, they engage with the problem and persevere. But how do we teach growth mindset? Here are my three ways:

  1. Tell them. I was talking to the director of our Learning and Teaching Center a few years ago over coffee. I wasn’t seeking advice at the time, I was just kvetching about my students and the things I thought they should know about being a successful student. “How can they not know that being in class is important? How can they not know that getting enough sleep and eating well helps? How can they not know that if they work at something long and hard and try different strategies they’ll get better at it?” He looked at me and said, “Well, have you told them?” No, I had to admit, I hadn’t. I don’t know why, but it had never occurred to me than in addition to teaching math, I needed to teach my students how to learn math.

    So now on day one I tell them that showing up to class well-rested and well-nourished is important. I tell my students that finding study buddies is important and that keeping up with their homework is important. I also tell them all about growth mindset and how they can be successful if they engage the material and persevere. In fact, I have a handout I give them on “How to be Successful in a College Math Classroom” that contains these and other suggestions.
  2. Remind them. Before the first exam, I bring up these tips for success again. Not everyone is fully listening the first day of class, so it is important to continue to remind students of the expectations I have of them. This time, I tell them a personal story; this is not difficult for me because having a growth mindset helped me survive graduate school. My first year of graduate school, I took graduate abstract algebra without having had undergraduate abstract algebra. It turns out this was not a good idea. I felt defeated after one term, redoubled my efforts the second term, dug in even deeper the third term, and I ended up passing my algebra prelim at the end of the year on my first attempt. The material in that course did not come to me through divine intervention. I worked very hard to learn it, and I put in the hours and the focus to develop a growth mindset.
  3. Use growth mindset-appropriate words throughout the term. I am, sincerely, very proud of the efforts that the students put in throughout the term, and I love being their cheerleader. I don’t commend their talent or intelligence, though. Instead, I write “Great improvement; I can see you studied a long time for this exam!” “Excellent work!” on their exams. I acknowledge the hard work their brains are doing during class and over time, they are building new stronger connections between the neurons in their brains, and that’s why they need adequate rest and nutrition. Exams are not meant to judge students. Exams assess how much students have learned and indicate whether students have put in enough work to master the material.
Of course, not all students are successful in this class that meets every day; it’s a lot of hard work. But a couple years ago, a student who had dropped the course one fall, signed up for it again the next fall. He went from failing one year to earning A’s the next year. “What’s different?,” I asked him. “I learned how to work hard and focus,” he replied. Now I make sure to slip that story into the class each year as well.

Once they understand the growth mindset, students also feel slightly more in control of their own grades in the class, since they are seeing a more direct correlation between their time on task and their grade in the class.

This made such a positive change in my calculus class, that I brought it into all the classes I teach now. I see a difference in my classes, especially in the attitude of some women. If this change in frame of mind improves the classroom experience for even a few students each term, it’s well worth the extra few minutes in class.

Editor’s note: For more on the Growth Mindset in the math classroom, please see the MAA Instructional Practices Guide sections on classroom practices as well as the equity in practice section.

Tuesday, March 6, 2018

Fostering Student Engagement through Enhanced Classroom Practices

By guest writers April Strom Scottsdale Community College and James Álvarez University of Texas at Arlington

This is the third and final installment of Teaching Tidbits highlighting the new Instructional Practices Guide (IP Guide) from the Mathematical Association of America (MAA). This evidence-based guide is a complement to the Curriculum Guide published in 2015. The guide provides significant resources for faculty focused on teaching mathematics using ideas grounded in research. Many thanks to April  Strom and James Álvarez , lead writers for the Classroom Practices section, for providing this post.

Have you wondered how to increase student engagement in your courses or searched for ideas to help curious colleagues enhance their classroom practices? Well, the Mathematical Association of America’s Instructional Practices Guide (MAA IP Guide) may be an answer for you! The MAA IP Guide is purposefully written for all college and university mathematics faculty and graduate students who wish to enhance their instructional practices. A valuable feature of the MAA IP Guide is that it doesn't need to be read from cover to cover. Rather readers can begin, depending on their interests, with any chapter. The MAA IP Guide contains 4 main chapters: Classroom Practices, Assessment, Design Practices, and Cross-cutting Themes (such as Technology and Equity). In this post, we take a deeper dive into the Classroom Practices chapter of the MAA IP Guide, which can be downloaded in full for free here.

The Classroom Practices chapter is partitioned into two primary sections: (1) fostering student engagement and (2) selecting appropriate mathematical tasks. Moreover, the chapter is designed such that quick-to-implement instructional practices are presented upfront in the chapter followed by ideas that require more preparation to fully implement. The message is clear: we want to embrace, encourage, and support active learning strategies in the teaching and learning of collegiate mathematics!

Fostering Student Engagement: Classroom practices aimed to foster student engagement can build from the research-based idea that students learn best when they are engaged in their learning (e.g., Freeman, et al., 2014). Consistent use of active learning strategies in the classroom also provide a pathway for more equitable learning outcomes for students with demographic characteristics who have been historically underrepresented in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields (e.g., Laursen, Hassi, Kogan, & Weston, 2014). In this section we illustrate what it means to be actively engaged in learning and offer suggestions to foster student engagement.

To foster student engagement, the MAA IP Guide promotes the notion of building a classroom community from the first day of class. Community and sense of belonging are more likely to flourish in classrooms where the instructor incorporates student-centered learning approaches (c.f. Slavin, 1996; Rendon, 1994). Thus, establishing norms for active engagement or taking steps to increase a student’s sense of belonging to the classroom community also impacts the quality of student engagement in the classroom. We begin by providing suggestions on how to build a classroom community and then describe quick-to-implement strategies (e.g., wait time after questioning and one-minute papers), followed by more elaborate strategies that may require more preparation (e.g., collaborative learning strategies, flipped classroom, just-in-time teaching).

Of course, fostering student engagement through active learning strategies requires thoughtful consideration of the mathematical tasks that will support the work you want to accomplish with your students. In the next section, we focus on part 2 of the MAA IP Guide:

Selecting Appropriate Mathematical Tasks: Stein, Grover, and Henningsen (1996) define a mathematical task as a set of problems or a single complex problem that focuses student attention on a particular mathematical idea. Selecting appropriate mathematical tasks is critical for fostering student engagement because the tasks chosen provide the conduit for meaningful discussion and mathematical reasoning. But, how does an instructor know when a mathematical task is appropriate? There does not appear to be one single idea of what constitutes appropriateness in the research literature or in practice. Rather, appropriateness appears to be determined from a linear combination of a number of factors. The successful selection of an appropriate mathematical task seems to involve two related ideas:

  1. The intrinsic appropriateness of the task, by which we mean the aspects of the task itself that lend itself to effective learning; and
  2. The extrinsic appropriateness of the task, by which we mean external factors involving the learning environment that affect how well students will learn from the task.

In this section we elaborate on group-worthy tasks, which provide opportunities for students to develop deeper mathematical meaning for ideas, model and apply their knowledge to new situations, make connections across representations and ideas, and engage in higher-level reasoning where students discuss assumptions, general reasoning strategies, and conclusions. Group-worthy tasks can be characterized in terms of the cognitive demand required and they are often considered as high-level cognitive demand (see Stein et al. (1996) for a discussion on low-level and high-level cognitive demand).

When implementing active learning strategies in the classroom, it is important to keep in mind the notion of communication: reading, writing, presenting, and visualizing of mathematics. The MAA IP Guide leverages the Common Core Standards for Mathematical Practice, specifically the idea of SMP3: constructs viable arguments and critiques the reasoning of others, where students are expected to justify their thinking publicly through verbal and written mathematics. Students construct viable arguments as they engage in mathematical problem solving tasks by articulating their reasoning as they demonstrate their solution to the problem. These arguments can be made for solutions to abstract problems and proofs as well as for mathematical modeling and other problems with real world connections. Students should come to interpret the word “viable” as “possible” so that during presentations students recognize that they are considering a possible solution which requires analysis in order to determine its mathematical worthiness.

Impact on Teaching Evaluations
Whenever new teaching strategies are implemented in the classroom, faculty take a risk that student feedback surveys of their teaching may not accurately reflect the positive changes made or the deep learning achieved. Although the use of student feedback surveys as the only tool for evaluating teaching is highly problematic, in such cases it is important that faculty communicate their efforts. Documenting significant efforts to implement new strategies and collecting evidence of positive change can support this communication. Some possible ways to do this include:

  1. Keep notes; use them to write a brief summary of the changes made and the rationale for the changes to be shared with administrators or tenure and promotion committees.
  2. Document positive student feedback and comments, especially regarding their learning experience.
  3. Put negative comments into perspective. For example, if students make negative comments about working on open-ended problems, provide a rationale and explanation for the implementation of these types of tasks.
  4. Save examples of student work that represent the quality of the mathematical work and learning taking place and include or explain this in the summary of changes to the course delivery.

Although negative student feedback surveys of teaching may be discouraging, it is important to put the survey feedback into context and to remember that implementing new strategies and techniques takes practice (i.e., don’t give up after the first time you try it). Students also need time and practice to acclimate to new ways of learning, so having several courses that require active engagement may also affect the way they react to active engagement in your course. Bringing these issues to the attention of the person or committee that evaluates your teaching and collecting evidence of your efforts to supplement student feedback surveys may help mitigate possible apprehension in trying new strategies to encourage active engagement in the classroom.

To learn more about Classroom Practice, download the MAA IP Guide and use it as a resource to increase student engagement. And don’t forget to share broadly with others!  

Freeman, S., Eddy, S. L., McDonough, M., Smith, M. K., Okoroafor, N., Jordt, H., & Wenderoth, M. P. (2014). Active learning increases student performance in science, engineering, and mathematics. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 111(23), 8410-8415.

Laursen, S. L., Hassi, M. L., Kogan, M., & Weston, T. J. (2014). Benefits for women and men of inquiry-based learning in college mathematics: A multi-institution study. Journal for Research in Mathematics Education, 45(4), 406-418.

Rendon, L. I. (1994). Validating culturally diverse students toward a new model of learning and student development. Innovative Higher Education, 19(1), 33.

Slavin, R. W. (1996). Research on cooperative learning and achievement: What we know, what we need to know. Contemporary Educational Psychology, 21, 43-69.

Stein, M. K., Grover, B. W., & Henningsen, M. (1996). Building student capacity for mathematical thinking and reasoning: An analysis of mathematical tasks used in reform classrooms. American Educational Research Journal, 33(2), 455-488.