Embracing a Growth Mindset in the New Era

Editor’s note: This guest post by Max Dolinsky, assistant professor of finance in UD’s Alfred Lerner College of Business and Economics, originally appeared in the April 5, 2021 edition of AACSB Link. It is reprinted with permission.

Although 2020 produced many downsides, the year also yielded some benefits. We made fewer commutes to work. We had more abundant time with our kids and pets. And we saw rapid improvement in the quality of online courses. To be clear, the skills of novice online instructors are likely still behind those of professors who have taught virtually for years. However, if we were to compare the quality of online classes delivered in spring 2020 and those delivered in fall 2020, I’m sure the difference would be striking.

That’s because, when we had no choice but to hastily move our in-person courses online, many professors demonstrated what Carol Dweck calls “a growth mindset.” In other words, we were willing to persevere and learn new skills and strategies using input from others. After campuses were forced to close, many faculty pursued ways to become more engaging, inclusive, and accessible to students; we then spent the summer improving our online courses with the overwhelming support of our schools.

Many educators began sharing best practices as their teaching evolved. They quickly came to the consensus that they could not, as the University of Iowa’s Amy Colbert puts it, “simply translate face-to-face activities to online environments.”

This point is essential. If professors had attempted simply to replicate face-to-face classes in virtual environments—clinging to what Dweck calls “a fixed mindset”— they would have missed out on the competitive advantages that virtual settings have to offer.

That was certainly true for me. Below I share some of the more unexpected pedagogical benefits of online delivery that I stumbled upon while teaching my first virtual course. In doing so, I want to emphasize just how much adopting growth mindsets in our teaching can open up new possibilities in our classrooms.

On-Screen Name Display

Dale Carnegie once said, “A person’s name is to him or her the sweetest and most important sound in any language.” That’s especially true for our students. When we remember our students’ names, we make students feel valued, more invested in the course, and more comfortable seeking help from the instructor. Additionally, we strengthen the student-instructor relationship; build a classroom community; promote equity in the classroom; and cultivate a sense of inclusiveness when engaging with students with diverse backgrounds, particularly international students.

Before the pandemic, many of us tirelessly tried to remember the names of hundreds of new students through a variety of techniques—name tents, seating charts, photo cards, photo rosters—all with varying success. But with online learning, instructors are suddenly handed a metaphorical “Get Out of Jail Free” card. Virtual classrooms make it easy to put names to faces, because… that’s exactly what they do. We no longer subconsciously avoid calling on some students whose names we don’t recall. Likewise, students’ ability to see each other’s names assists them with networking and community building.

Parallel—and Private—In-Class Communication

The messaging feature on many video platforms offers an alternative to oral communication that is not readily available in traditional classroom settings. These interactions provide certain supplemental benefits:

  • The option to queue a question or comment without class disruption.
  • The ability to share a file, leave a comment, or post a link that is available for the remainder of the class.
  • The ability for students with speech impediments or accents to participate more easily. (Text-based communication is something I personally could have benefited from in my early years after immigrating to the U.S.)

In addition, the chat feature includes a private messaging option. Yes, we faculty know that students can use this stealthy mode of transmission to poke fun at our gimmicks or ridicule our underappreciated senses of humor. But this feature also provides educators with a superpower. We can use it to support students who may be falling behind and engage those who are ahead of the class. It allows us to answer administrative questions without interruptions, and it reduces barriers for our more introverted students or those facing language difficulties.

Real-World Professional Development

In a recent article, Scott Dust of Miami University in Ohio shared feedback from one of his students, who said that online learning “had forced her to be a ‘better and more professional’ independent learner.” Such feedback underscores another benefit of online teaching and learning: By simulating real-world environments in our virtual classrooms, we help prepare students for the realities of the workplace.

We have long known that we can enhance the real-world relevance of our courses by bringing in industry experts. But in the last year, we have discovered that these experts are undoubtedly more readily available for 30-minute virtual sessions than for on-campus visits.

Last fall, in a course evaluation, one of my students commented that “the course provided good insight on the real-world applications of finance.” That comment made me think of an aha moment I had while I was working with my students in our fast-paced online course environment. As we were reviewing our Excel and PowerPoint files through shared screens and collaborating in agile teams through breakout rooms, I realized then that my virtual classroom resembles the corporate environment much more closely than my lecture-style class did just one semester prior.

A Constructivist Approach

In 2003, Ángel Cabrera, then dean of IE Business School in Spain and now president of the Georgia Institute of Technology in the U.S., correctly predicted that professors would shift toward “interactive cases, collaborative and constructivist learning, and mixed teaching models.” While instructors in some disciplines had been slowly shifting from objectivist (teacher-centered) pedagogical approaches to constructivist (student-centered) approaches, our transition to online teaching has made this shift far more dramatic.

In online courses, instructors can find it especially challenging to assess students’ knowledge acquisition through objectivist approaches such as exams. Teaching online has caused us to gravitate toward the constructivist approach, which emphasizes problem-solving and information integration.

In the process, we may have inadvertently moved up Bloom’s taxonomy by introducing assignments and projects with higher cognitive complexity. At least, that has been my personal experience.

For similar reasons, I have joined many other faculty who have discovered the pedagogical benefits of the specifications grading (specs grading) method. Linda Nilson of Clemson University in South Carolina describes it well, noting that with this method, students receive the grades of “satisfactory” or “unsatisfactory” for all assignments. In addition, they are allowed to revise unsatisfactory work and pursue extra assignments to earn higher grades.

When I taught a course in financial management in the fall 2020 semester, specs grading helped me ensure the rigor of the curriculum, because students who did unsatisfactory work couldn’t just accept a low letter grade—they received zero credit. At the same time, the system allowed me to encourage students who had mastered learning objectives to embark on more challenging work.

Student feedback on this method was overwhelmingly positive. One student who had initially been concerned about the “unconventional grading system” wrote, “I’m really glad I decided to stay in Max’s class. I think I truly learned so much this semester. His assignments really pushed us to apply what we had learned in the chapters and, furthermore, expand our technical skills.” Another expressed appreciation that this method of grading “did not make us obsess over the exact grade we got for each assignment.” My colleagues Mark Serva and Kathryn Berkow, both of the University of Delaware’s Lerner College, also discuss this point in detail in a podcast focused on cultivating student engagement in higher education.

This is not to say that a purely constructivist approach is always superior to an objectivist approach. In fact, research shows that students value online courses that skillfully blend the two. And, of course, neither specs grading nor a constructivist approach to learning is exclusive to online courses. Even so, some of us only inadvertently discovered these methods in the rapid shift to teaching online. For me, at least, these strategies are pedagogically superior to the more objectivist teaching strategies I had been using.

Growth Mindsets in the Virtual Environment

With ongoing technological innovations, we no doubt will continue to discover new pedagogical advantages of teaching online. However, if we don’t consciously recognize, explore, and capitalize on these advantages, the subtle superiorities of online teaching will remain underutilized.

As we move back to teaching in-person, how might we carry with us some of the lessons we have learned? How can we thoughtfully design online courses with their benefits in mind, rather than try to teach them the same way we teach face-to-face? How can we ideally meld the best of both worlds?

Even after the danger of the pandemic has passed, I plan to continue to use specs grading, host guest speakers virtually in my courses, and implement a student-centered approach to teaching. And while I expect, once we return to in-person instruction, it will be a challenge to recall all of my students’ names and address them privately during class, I will continue to make the extra effort to forge personal connections. I will respond to students promptly and directly, and I will really get to know them.

As we emerge from the pandemic, I am confident that we will continue to improve both online and in-person pedagogy. Unless human and technological innovation come to a screeching halt, I cannot fathom what a well-run course will be capable of in 2030.

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