Does your professor like you? Does he/she think you’re capable? Or, treat you as if you are incompetent? Does your lecturer appreciate your diligence or disapprove of your lackadaisical attitude? Does he/she believe that your tardiness is a personal character flaw or a characteristic you can correct?
As a mature college-goer, you may brush off these concerns. After all, nobody in college really craves to be the teacher’s pet. Even if your professor makes dismissive statements about your capabilities and traits, you cast them aside as being irrelevant to your performance. But recent findings suggest that your professors’ views about your ability to change matter. I am not referring to recommendations letters that your professors may write when you apply for further studies.
Studies show that your beliefs about your professors’ perceptions impact your performance. In a blog post of the British Psychological Society, writer Emily Reynolds, asserts that students tend to do better and enjoy classes more if their professors have a growth mindset. Based on the pioneering work of Stanford psychologist, Carol Dweck, mindset theory posits that people either have a fixed or a growth mindset. Those who believe that abilities, aptitudes and affinities are influenced strongly by genetic factors and hence are relatively stable exemplify the fixed mindset. In contrast, those who profess that our capabilities, talents and traits are more malleable and amenable to change exhibit a growth mindset.
In one study, conducted by Katherine Muenks and colleagues, college students enrolled in a Calculus class watched a video where the professor explained “what it took to do well in the class.” For one set of students, the professor exhibited a fixed mindset by making statements such as, “You either have the skills or you don’t.” A second group of students saw the professor advocate a growth mindset by emphasising how the course was structured and designed to help students understand concepts and hone their skills. Finally, a third group watched the video without any reference to either type of mindset.
After watching the videos, students who watched the fixed mindset version foresaw feeling more alienated and less interested in the course compared to those who watched the growth-oriented version. Further, the fixed group was worried about being negatively evaluated by the professor. The growth mindset group also tended to think they would perform better than the other two groups. In another similar study, the growth mindset group didn’t think they would end up dropping the course. Muensks and colleagues report in The Journal of Experimental Psychology that the fixed mindset group had lower attendance and grades, and a drop in interest in the subject by the semester end.
In another study, in a real-world setting of three universities in the United States, students enrolled in STEM classes were asked to fill a survey that assessed their views of their professor’s mindset. Additionally, they also filled questionnaires that required them to rate their interest levels, concerns, feelings of efficacy and so on. As predicted, the students who believed that their professors held fixed views about their abilities and intelligence were more anxious and felt less capable.
So, if you feel your professor holds on to fixed beliefs, what can you do? While there is no body of research to support the suggestions I am going to offer, it may be worth trying. As you cannot change your professor’s mindset overnight, you need to actively demonstrate a growth mindset yourself. Meet the professor one-on-one during office hours and ask him or her to specify what you may do to improve your understanding of concepts. After a class presentation, email the professor asking if you need to make any changes to your presentation in terms of content or delivery. Over time, as your professor witnesses your eagerness to change and grow, they are likely to modify their own mindsets as well.
The writer is the author of Zero Limits: Things Every 20-Something Should Know. She blogs at www.arunasankaranarayanan.com