How to Teach the Process of Science to Promote a Growth Mindset

Erin Baumgartner is an award-winning teacher and biology education researcher. She earned her PhD in zoology at the University of Hawai’i-Manoa, where she remained for an additional six years as a science curriculum developer and researcher. In 2008, she joined Western Oregon University, where she coordinated introductory biology and taught courses in vertebrate evolution and animal behavior. Erin has experience engaging learners at every level and is expert at making complex concepts approachable. She now works as a content development specialist for Norton, helping instructors find success each semester.

Erin Baumgartner

People often ask me why I keep a Jar Jar Binks action figure on my desk. Jar Jar is far from my favorite Star Wars character. He is, however, an important reminder of the Jar Jar Binks principle (coined by journalist Jake Tapper in an interview with Fresh Air’s Terry Gross). Had George Lucas been able to conceive that his awkward Gungan was not an asset in the Star Wars universe, the prequels might today enjoy a stronger reputation. Everyone should be willing to consider that they might be wrong. I always reinforce this principle with my nonmajors biology students—but instead of the Jar Jar Binks principle, I call it a growth mindset. 

According to the American Association of Colleges and Universities, general education provides “broad exposure to multiple disciplines and forms the basis for developing important intellectual and civic capacities.” I’ve been tempted to subtitle all my biology classes, especially the ones for nonscience majors, as “It’s okay to be wrong.” Most of my students do not go on to scientific careers, but all of them will need the ability to incorporate new ideas and skills to successfully navigate a world of dynamic and complex challenges.  

Students often share that they are intimidated by the challenge of a class in an unfamiliar subject, believing they can participate and succeed only if they already know a lot about the subject. This fatalistic approach typifies a fixed mindset that says intelligence and ability are set at predetermined, largely immutable levels. This is as pernicious a problem for students who have struggled with learning as it is for students who have a history of success. It is why students sometimes give up after the smallest setbacks—and sometimes even before encountering any setbacks.  

What do we do to help our students tackle challenges in our classes and beyond in career and citizenship? We can start by helping them shift to a growth mindset, so they recognize that learning is a process that takes effort and practice. Originally outlined by psychologist Carol Dweck, a growth mindset acknowledges that learners make incremental gains by adjusting in response to mistakes or setbacks. Inherent to a growth mindset is also the importance of social learning and feedback. Introductory science courses that feature authentic scientific practice are perfect for cultivating a growth mindset because scientific practice embraces these exact qualities. 

In science, challenge and risk are normalized because scientists constantly test new ideas. It is easier to acknowledge not knowing something when that lack of knowledge presents an opportunity for discovery. One way I bring the joy of discovery into students’ activities is to design a simple experiment to explore responses of terrestrial isopods (roly-polys) to stimuli. To employ behavioral choice plates (two petri dishes linked by a gated chamber), students can choose from an array of stimuli to test. Often, someone will ask to try a new stimulus. As long as we have the means to try it and we don’t think it will hurt the animals, we give it a try. The main goal of the activity is to build a basic understanding of variables and controls and to introduce methods of measuring and analyzing animal behavior. But every term we all, including myself, learn something new about isopods.  

Sometimes our isopod tests lead to no clear stimulus preference. Students are initially disappointed when this happens, but for scientific knowledge to grow, falsified hypotheses are as important as supported ones. Reading about how professional scientists go through this process in the stories in Biology Now, Norton’s nonmajors biology textbook, helps students become more comfortable when they recognize and acknowledge an error or a gap in knowledge. One of the most popular strategies I use with students is to ask them to periodically identify something new they’ve learned and want to know more about and something they are still struggling with. In this way, we normalize that it is okay to acknowledge when you don’t yet know something, and that when you do gain new knowledge, you then further explore and build on it.  

A growth mindset is a powerful tool both for learning and for civil discourse. Scientists build on knowledge generated and shared by their peers while also sharing newly generated ideas for those peers to review and further test. This aspect of scientific practice is often overlooked in our classrooms, but peer-to-peer engagement in learning is powerful. In small discussion groups, students can seek to understand where and how they are wrong. They can work through their ideas together using the textbook and other resources. At the end of their discussion, if the group has an idea that remains confusing, they share that question in full class discussion. If they feel that they’ve resolved their questions, then they explain an idea they explored together. Seeking help to master challenges together helps students grow.  

Setbacks and failure are powerful opportunities to learn, and iterative scientific practice capitalizes on that. After an experimental population of Volvox algae crashed in an introductory lab, we could have tossed the cultures and used data collected by another lab section to explore concepts of population growth. Instead, I asked students to hypothesize what might have gone wrong, then test different water quality parameters and sample for possible biological contaminants. It was a great way for students to really dig into biotic and abiotic ecological factors, probably more so than if our colonies had not failed. Instead of ending their lab session with a sense of disappointment, they had one of their most robust discussions as they tried to determine if a filamentous algal competitor or a small amoeboid predator or a combination of both had led to the population crash.  

Students can leave their classes with so much more than content. The strongest argument I’ve gotten for building a growth mindset came from an anonymous student evaluation: “What I liked about your class is that I never felt stupid.” How heartbreaking that this student had learned to associate learning with feeling stupid! A growth mindset is the opposite of feeling stupid when you are learning. Instead, it is about feeling empowered and supported to take on the challenge of finding out new things. To me, that sounds a lot like doing science.    

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