Changing Minds… It Starts With Better Teaching

by Jonathan Gyurko

by Jonathan Gyurko

President and Co-Founder, ACUE

I hate working out. I mean, hate. It makes me sore. And slimy. It releases toxins, you say? I say let ticking time bombs tick. Coaches and trainers? I’m too anti-authoritarian to give anybody “another ten.” As for “fun” with a “group”? Spare me. Whatever happened to “Never let them see you sweat”?

Oh, I read headlines. I won’t get cancer or heart disease if I run for only two minutes a day, no matter my eating habits. With 4,000 steps a day, I won’t die, of any cause. Of course, I should exercise. But no amount of knowledge changed my attitude. As I tell my doctor, “vigorous yardwork” should count.

Of late, though, I’ve overcome this fixed thinking thanks to a guilty pleasure: EDM. That’s right—electronic dance music. Spotify’s Cardio mix is fire. Becky Hill’s “Run,” Swedish House Mafia’s “Heaven Takes You Home,” Jax Jones’s “Where Did You Go,” Wuki’s remix of “Edge of Seventeen,” and yes, Ava Max’s “Choose Your Fighter” from the Barbie movie. Need I go on?

Such musical “taste” is decidedly not shared by my family when we’re in the car, the house, or just about anywhere. And that’s when I realized: exercise can be my private little dance party. Earbuds in, volume up, and baseball cap pulled low, I head to the gym and “spin” for eight or ten songs. Maybe tomorrow for twelve or thirteen. After all, Lizwi and Fine did just drop “The Light” (extended).

Oh, it’s not for my health. It’s for the beat. Yet the chance to indulge a little, counted in 3- to 5-minute remixes, started to change my mind. Maybe exercise isn’t all that bad. I could keep doing this. In fact, maybe I will keep doing this.

And so it goes in education. Carol Dweck and Angela Duckworth changed how we think about teaching and learning. Absent a “growth mindset,” we’re unlikely to learn as much as we might. But as with so much of ed reform, “mindset” became a silver bullet. There are Ted talks and professional development about mindset, telling us to change our mind about our students and their academic abilities. It’s about as effective as saying, “exercise is important,” and assumes we need to first change our beliefs before we change our behavior.

But the research on behavioral change suggests otherwise. Doing something different, particularly modest little things that don’t directly challenge our belief systems, starts to change how we think about things. It leads to more and more change of both behavior and mindset, in a virtuous cycle. In as much as we want to think of ourselves—PhDs no less!—as rational, linear, and moved by the evidence—we’re, uh, human, too. The pragmatists remind us: we hold the beliefs we do because of their “cash value”—they work for us, giving little incentive to change. By comparison, a dynamic, iterative model of change, focused on more incremental behaviors, is more likely to yield long-term cognitive change, too.

The findings of a new and major study by ACUE show just that. Thanks to generous support from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, ACUE and ten colleges and universities nationwide conducted one of the most ambitious studies of the relationship between comprehensive professional development and changes in faculty self-efficacy and mindset. Institutions hailed from every part of the country and included community colleges, an HBCU, large public baccalaureates, and two flagships.

 

The study focused on faculty who teach “gateway” courses, with data collected from over 570 faculty who participated in ACUE’s comprehensive courses in the Effective Teaching Practice Framework, as well as more than 1,000 faculty not yet certified. Over the course of two years, faculty were surveyed four times. The surveys included mindset items originally developed by Dweck. Students enrolled in a gateway course taught by the ACUE faculty were also surveyed.

Analysis was conducted by ACUE’s team of PhD social psychologists and education analysts, using a linear multi-level model within a longitudinal framework and paired t-tests. Helpful suggestions were provided by Gates’s researchers and external advisors. Plus, ACUE’s student survey, which has been refined over four years and shown to be free of bias, was reviewed by none other than Nobel laureate and champion of student feedback for improved teaching, Carl Wieman.

The results were conclusive, positive, and statistically significant. ACUE faculty reported large increases in their sense of self-efficacy, meaning their belief in their ability to teach well and help students learn more deeply (Effect Size = 0.88).*An even larger change was found in their confidence using evidence-based teaching practices (ES = 0. 97). Faculty also reported smaller, but still positive changes in their mindset about their ability to impact student learning and their students’ ability to learn (ES = 0.50), with impressive subscale findings about their teaching improvement behaviors (ES = 0.62).

Plus, student surveys administered by ACUE faculty indicated that, over the course of a semester, students perceived an increase in their own growth mindset and academic self-efficacy, including both communication and executive functioning, or “self-monitoring,” skills. Differences were as large as a half-point or more on a five-point Likert scale. Analyzed data came from nearly 3,000 student surveys that also provide faculty with actionable feedback on their teaching.

The research is also great news for students. Rather than a linear model of change—in which faculty are first taught about mindset before getting high-quality professional learning experiences on how to improve their teaching, these findings imply that we change our minds and behaviors in tandem. Meaning: students need not wait to experience better teaching from their professors, and institutions should not delay in providing faculty and staff the upskilling support that many seek.

The big takeaway of the study, consistent with the sizeable literature on cognitive and behavioral change, is like my mindset about exercise. To strengthen higher education’s mindset about our ability to impact student learning, start by changing how we teach, in small ways that have an immediate impact on what we do and how we think. That’s a beat I can spin to.

*An Effect Size of .2 or smaller is typically considered to be a “small” effect, around .5 a “medium” effect, and .8 or greater a “large” effect. See “Effect Size.”

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