Grace Ferris is an assistant professor of Chemistry at Lesley University in Cambridge, MA, where she teaches General Chemistry I & II, Organic Chemistry I & II, Introductory Biochemistry, and Life Chemistry: Drugs in Our Lives. She earned her BA in Chemistry with a minor in Education from Mount Holyoke College in 2008 and her PhD in Organic Chemistry from Boston College in 2013. Her current research focuses on effective collaboration during group chemistry exams. This post originally appeared on Teach the Mechanism.
“I hated that class!” That’s what nearly every doctor and dentist I’ve ever had has said when I tell them that I teach organic chemistry. It’s no surprise that I was afraid to declare my undergraduate major at Mount Holyoke College until I had passed organic chemistry, given its notorious difficulty. Was I smart enough? Will I even pass? And forget liking it—the thought that I might enjoy organic chemistry hardly crossed my mind.
More than fifteen years later, I have vivid memories of filling whiteboards with mechanisms and commiserating with my classmates in the days before an exam. The year that I took organic chemistry was also one of my best years as a collegiate athlete. As a swimmer, I knew that practicing day after day would make me stronger, faster, and more competitive in the pool. At the time, I couldn’t reconcile the differences in my approaches to intelligence and competitive sports. But, in my early days as a college chemistry instructor, I read Carol Dweck’s Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, which helped me reframe my past undergraduate experience and inspired a new way of structuring my courses in order to cultivate a growth mindset in the classroom going forward.
People with a growth mindset believe their abilities (whether intelligence, academic performance, artistic capabilities, athletic prowess, etc.) can be developed over time. Fixed-mindset thinking, on the other hand, is the perception that one’s capabilities are of finite capacity. As I described in my personal college experience, it is possible to have fixed-mindset thinking in some aspects of our lives (like intelligence) and growth-mindset thinking in others (like athleticism).
After reading Dweck’s book, I became interested in how I could capture students’ familiarity with growth-mindset thinking through their extracurriculars and translate that experience to the classroom. I believe it’s especially important to cultivate growth-mindset thinking with chemistry students because of the fears that so many of them carry and the potential for
re-ingraining the “I’m not smart enough” thought pattern. In particular, there are two strategies that I’d like to share for how I cultivate a growth mindset in my classes, both of which can be summarized by emphasizing the learning process and de-emphasizing student performance.
Regular online assessments in Smartwork have been a valuable tool in giving students adequate practice with organic chemistry concepts while also emphasizing a growth mindset. My assignments are set up so that students have five attempts on each problem, with a mere 5-percent point deduction per incorrect attempt. The goal in this grading scheme is to incentivize students to try their best on the first attempt without the pressure of needing to get it perfect since the point penalty is miniscule. I also assign Smartwork assignments after every class period to encourage regular practice with the material. Finally, I begin each class by asking students how the homework went, and we review lingering questions. This homework structure emphasizes that learning organic chemistry is an ongoing process, with the goal to “keep learning” and not to “get it perfectly right,” especially on the first try.
Another technique that I use to encourage a growth mindset is two-stage exams. As the name describes, two-stage exams have two components: an individual exam and a group exam. While there are many ways to implement the collaborative portion of two-stage exams, my strategy has been to put students into groups of three to four and ask them to retake the exam that they just completed individually, but now as a group. Each group is responsible for coming to a consensus, and different groups are allowed to talk with one another should they not be able to reach a consensus within their own group. A student’s overall exam average is weighted to be 80 percent individual performance and 20 percent group performance.
Group exams cultivate a growth mindset because they transform a high-stakes exam (which may reinforce fixed-mindset thinking for struggling students) into a learning opportunity. Through group exams, I signal to students that even on exam day, there’s more to learn. This sentiment was reflected in a course evaluation comment from a student in fall 2020 who said, “The group exams honestly were more enlightening than anything this semester.”
Are you looking for more ways to incorporate growth-mindset thinking in your courses? Start by sharing openly with your students about what you’re learning about your own teaching, demonstrating the ways that you’ve continued to grow in your profession after five, ten, or twenty years. And, if you hear students speaking aloud their negative, fixed-mindset self-talk, like “I can’t do this,” consider stating back to them, “Well, maybe you can’t do this yet. But we’ll figure it out.” Finally, I recommend that you read the Social Justice Syllabus Design Tool, which specifically addresses the different ways to emphasize a growth mindset in your syllabus. I’d love to hear other ideas for cultivating a growth mindset in the chemistry classroom, so please feel free to pass them along!
Dweck, Carol. Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. New York: Penguin Random House LLC, 2006.