After more than four decades of teaching college psychology and behavioral neuroscience courses, you’d think Laura Freberg would have settled into a groove: reliable lecture notes, facility with the material, at ease in front of the classroom, steady pace to the material, off-the-shelf assessments. And if that’s what you think, then you haven’t met Laura Freberg. “It’s been 43 years since I taught my first college class, and I don’t think I’ve ever done it the same way twice,” she says.

Freberg, a professor of psychology at California Polytechnic University in San Luis Obispo, is the very definition of an even keel. She speaks slowly and deliberately and with a smile, projecting a balance of authority, confidence and openness. She’s also sharp like a tack, because she never lets her edges dull. “I have that feeling of ‘I’m taking a risk, I’m walking on a tightrope’ every time I go in the classroom,” she explains. “You never quite know how that’s going to turn out. I never lecture with notes. I’ll have my presentation and it’ll say ‘Limbic System’ and I talk. You get a little extra adrenaline that way.”

Freberg’s unwavering refusal to do things by rote is her way of making sure she retains a growth mindset in her teaching. And when Freberg uses the term “growth mindset,” she’s not just being sentimental or emotive or mindful—she means it in exactly the same way eminent Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck meant it when she first researched and coined the term.

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Failure is an opportunity to grow

Dweck first published her findings in her 2006 book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. Her research demonstrated that, for any particular domain of learning—language, math, music, science, sports—people tended to view their own ability, and the ability of others, with either a fixed or growth mindset. Those with a fixed mindset believe that their talent level is pre-determined and their abilities limited: they can master something up to a certain point, but beyond that, no further progress is possible.

Those with a growth mindset, meanwhile, believe they can always apply themselves and improve their knowledge and skills. People who exhibit a growth mindset believe that failure is an opportunity to learn and grow, rather than evidence of their limits; they receive feedback constructively, rather than as criticism. As a result, they are more likely to embrace challenges and overcome obstacles.

For Freberg, a growth mindset is also a matter of habit. A growth mindset, she says, means “to push yourself, to avoid doing things because you’ve always done them that way.” By always approaching things differently, Freberg’s been able to live a paradox: she’s made change into something routine.

Freberg believes there’s inertia built into higher education teaching, which encourages a fixed mindset: because most faculty haven’t been trained to teach, they often fall back on how they themselves were taught. And, as she points out, there’s a risk in teaching that way. “I think you get bored and stale. I think if you’re bored and stale then the students are going to be bored and stale. They definitely pick up from us our enthusiasm, or lack thereof, for our material.”

By contrast, “a growth mindset in the classroom says, ‘That’s not necessarily how it has to happen, and I need to be open and press myself to new opportunities and take advantage of new technologies and new methods, and constantly look for ways of improving what I do in the classroom.’”

Instructors and the growth mindset

It hasn’t always gone smoothly. Freberg was an early adopter of classroom response systems, but ended up crashing the campus Wi-Fi system. True to her growth mindset, she finds the silver lining in her failure: her experience gave the campus IT department the argument it needed to secure the necessary funds to upgrade the system. It doesn’t crash anymore.

Freberg also points out that, for professors, having a growth mindset isn’t just about how they see themselves, but also how they see their students. Instinctively, it makes sense for faculty to believe that of course their students can improve their learning; if not, why bother teaching? Alas, says Freberg, it’s often the opposite. “I think faculty see their students as fixed: that there are good students and bad students,” she observes.

Freberg has found that some teaching techniques help promote a growth mindset in her students, or at least mitigate their tendency to develop an I’m-no-good-at-this fixed mindset about their own potential. Perhaps her most successful adaptation in this regard has been online exams, which students can do at home, with textbooks and the internet at their disposal. “I try to tell them that it’s actually harder than a traditional exam because it’s time sensitive, but they don’t believe me,” she says. “They’re at home, they feel relaxed, and I think that the reduction in anxiety is significant for them.”

I think if you’re bored and stale then the students are going to be bored and stale.

Laura Freberg, Professor of Psychology, California Polytechnic University San Luis Obispo

Freberg initially developed online exams for an online course three years ago, but has found them so helpful in reducing exam anxiety that she now administers them for all her students. “I’m not completely sympathetic to their fragility,” she admits. Before she moved to online exams, she’d sometimes have to talk students down from their state of mind. “I’d give them an explanation on how the physical responses to stress actually enhance performance,” she says. “The cognitive part, the worry, is what impairs our performance. We have to separate that out and say, ‘Look, you have to do a cognitive reappraisal. You’re not dying from an exam.’” But the online format relieves the anxiety better than the speech, and allows students to approach the material with more confidence.

And just as she tries to mentor her students, she also tries to mentor her colleagues as well. “My advice is to just try one new thing,” she says, and suggests using a classroom response system as a good baby step in the right direction. “If we could just nudge faculty, wherever they are, in the direction of trying something new, I think everybody would enjoy teaching more.”