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MCC Daily Tribune Archive

Reflections from your TCC: Promoting Growth Mindset by Messing Up

As professors, we’re accustomed to correcting student mistakes. How frequently, however, do we think of our own? And how do we think about them?

It’s the “how we think about” part that is what mindset is all about. Habits of mind. Implicit assumptions. Learned (but unacknowledged) behaviors. Growth Mindset theory began in response to studying how students respond to difficulty and error, and as with all lenses, we can use it to study ourselves, too. For it’s not only students who are susceptible to thinking in rigid, fixed ways about their skills and themselves. Faculty mindsets—the topic of the next Brighton TCC Conversation on Oct. 17—contribute as much to the learning experience as students’ mindsets do.

This is quite apparent when one messes up. Such occasions, not all of them of equal seriousness, are useful as reminders that it’s not only what we say that impacts students, but also it’s what we do—and how we react—that can leave lasting impressions.

When recently in class I noticed that I had incorrectly written the subtitle of a book in a handout I gave my students. There was a brief moment where I thought, “Well, no one will notice.” But then I realized what an awful lesson that would be. Because the fact is that I noticed, and here was a perfect opportunity to admit my mistake in front of my students. So, I told them that I made an error in the handout. Furthermore, I told them that I did not make this error purposefully (to trick or test them), but made the mistake by committing another one: I hadn’t verified something before I typed and printed the document. Admitting this last part required me to swallow some pride.

I asked the class if they could spot the error. Some looked sheepish and hesitant. Others were not shy, and pointed right to it. I smiled, said “Yep. Now, what is the correct wording?” They had the book in front of them on their desks. So I invited them to mark up their handouts the way I would anything they gave me. I was embarrassed at first, but here’s the thing: I goofed, and all was going to be OK. The students didn’t revolt and accuse me of incompetence. I didn’t hide or shift the blame. And class continued on just fine. My credibility did not fall because of this mistake. Instead, it’s quite possible that it rose a little because of how I handled it. Maybe, just maybe, they can trust me with their mistakes since I just trusted them with mine.

Even after years and decades of teaching, none of us is immune from messing up somehow with and in front of students. [There are, to be sure, extreme cases in academia of deliberate wrong and harm. Those awful occurrences are not the focus here.] We did not become college professors by not making any mistakes and never being wrong. For models of fallibility, we can turn to all that we know about our own disciplines:  how scholars in our fields can, in fact, be wrong; how ideas do need to be rethought; how admitting errors, not hiding them, helps advance what we know at the moment. And we don’t know everything.

How one responds to one’s own mistakes is only one example where default mindsets can creep in. To learn about others, join the TCC and your colleagues for the next Brighton Campus Conversation on Oct. 17:

“Where is Your Growing Edge? Growth vs. Fixed Mindsets in Faculty”

Teaching and Creativity Center, 12-201
12:00 pm-12:50 pm

Oh, and the book whose subtitle I goofed? "Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error" by Kathryn Schultz.

Amy Burtner
Teaching and Creativity Center