I don’t give pop quizzes. I have, of course, no compelling pedagogical reason for that decision. Like most professors, I didn’t receive any specific instruction on how to teach effectively, so I drew from my experiences as a student. I never liked pop quizzes — as a working student, I rarely had time to adequately prepare for them — so now in my current life as a professor of behavioral neuroscience at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, I don’t give them.

Higher education suffers from an inertia that sets in when professors who were never taught how to teach draw from the outmoded teaching styles that they experienced as students. This environment fosters a fixed mind-set, which hampers innovation and prevents educators from exploring inventive teaching strategies. While some institutions have started to offer teaching instruction to graduate students, many do not.

Embracing a growth mind-set empowers faculty members to look beyond their limitations, connect hard work with achievement, accept constructive criticism and seek out creative solutions to bring into the classroom. In that regard, educators can become drivers of change within the higher education system.

We are on the front lines, actively engaging with students. We have the clearest picture of their skills, learning progressions and goals. It is vital that we faculty members continually sharpen our skills as educators and pursue new teaching methods in order to meet the needs of a changing and challenging student body that’s increasingly more distracted compared to prior generations due to their nearly constant exposure to digital technology. To maintain the status quo in our teaching model is to fail the students whom we serve.

Of course, I didn’t invent the idea of fixed and growth mind-sets — Carol Dweck deserves all of the credit for coining the term. But I have found immense value in applying her principles to my academic life. Cultivating a growth mind-set has made me a better instructor. I am more innovative, more agile and more willing to try new things in my classes. Here are some lessons I’ve learned.

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Embrace Challenges
As educators, we face an onslaught of challenges on a daily basis, but we should not let a fear of the unknown prevent us from bringing new methods into our classrooms. Technology sometimes fails. Teaching strategies can fall flat. Yet innovation can still be a valuable lesson for students, even when it is unsuccessful. There is tremendous value in modeling for our students that failure is an opportunity for growth.

But what about the challenges we face outside the classroom? Budgetary and administrative concerns can create challenges — or creative opportunities — to do more within our classrooms.

Besides teaching behavioral neuroscience, I am also an avowed technophile. The technological advancements I would love to bring into my classroom — for example, the ability to bring augmented or virtual reality to the neuroanatomy component of what I teach — can be financially prohibitive. Rather than allowing that hurdle to halt my extended-reality dreams, I found a budget-friendly alternative, Google Cardboard, which allows anyone with a smartphone to engage with a wide variety of virtual reality apps. That allows me to deliver a dynamic, enriching experience to my students at a fraction of the cost.

Be Persistent
Finding the time needed to reach the expert level of any new discipline can be difficult for educators, particularly those at an early juncture in their careers who face significant demands on their time. Between their own research and university service requirements, young professors are often pulled in several directions at once, leaving little time to master and implement classroom tech.

Fortunately for today’s educators, it’s easier than ever to incorporate innovative technologies into the classroom environment that can have a positive impact on teaching quality as well as ease the administrative burden of instruction. Implementing those solutions, however, requires patience and persistence.

I’ve experienced that firsthand. A few years ago, I decided to incorporate the active-learning platform Top Hat — an online provider of ebooks, audience response and secure testing — into my classes and began prompting students with single-word response questions during my lectures. While I had hoped to use their responses in real time to gauge comprehension, their creative misspellings of technical terms like “locus coeruleus” left me with hours of manual grading after class and no real insights during the lecture. Rather than give up on the technology, I incorporated their answers into the platform. The time investment paid off. Now, I have an impressive data set that includes every possible misspelling, I’ve streamlined my grading process and the platform has become even more valuable to my teaching.

This article first appeared in Inside Higher Education on October 15, 2019. Click here to read more.

Read more about about streamlining and improving your teaching process with Top Hat here.

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