Do you take time to focus on the mindset of your students? Do you implement any teaching strategies to promote a positive mindset?

When you consider factors that are important for the learning process, from the perspective of your students, you might list factors such as academic skills, self-motivation, and time management. However, what any student needs to succeed over the long term is perseverance, persistence, and a growth mindset.

At the heart of all of these qualities and characteristics is a belief system which either supports or derails a student's progress. The beliefs that students hold about their academic abilities and capability to participate in the learning process will determine their level of effort, energy, and willingness to be involved. It influences their persistence when faced with challenges and is a determining factor for their grades and course outcomes. Their beliefs also shape their attitude about learning, interactions they have with other students, and working relationships with their instructors. While beliefs are subconsciously held they become consciously recognized through ongoing interactions within a classroom environment. 

Instructors also hold beliefs about their students and what they expect of them, which can have a positive or negative impact on them, especially those who are struggling to become engaged in the class. Students start a class with their existing beliefs, whether they are accurate or not, and they will naturally look for evidence to support rather than contradict what they believe. This means that students need direction and guidance if they are going to reassess, change, or alter those beliefs in any manner.

Teaching adult students will become much more effective if beliefs are examined and understood, both the beliefs of the instructor and their students. While this requires a level of involvement with students that may be more difficult for some classes than others, instructors can always monitor their own beliefs and support students as they make progress through the class. A student who is struggling in any aspect of their performance may need new supportive beliefs.

What Do You Believe About Your Students?

Before an instructor attempts to understand what their students believe, they should examine their own belief systems. Here are some questions to consider: Have you considered what assumptions you hold about your students at the start of each class?

For example, do you assume that students are academically prepared to participate in the process of learning and motivated to complete their assignments, or do they need your guidance to know how to get started? What do you believe about your students and their capacity to learn, and do those beliefs change as the class progresses? Finally, do you believe that providing additional assistance is handholding or necessary to support your students' progress?

An instructor's initial beliefs may include perceptions, whether valid or not, about their students' abilities, which can include their need for support, feedback, independence, expression, and ongoing meaningful interactions. What instructors believe about their students may inform or influence their approach to teaching and these perceptions are likely to change through interactions and class discussions.

For example, negative interactions can affect the disposition of an instructor and how they approach their students. A helpful approach for effective classroom teaching involves conducting a self-examination of the beliefs held and the impact of those beliefs on the process of learning. Those beliefs are reflected in the tone and general disposition when instructors are working with students.

How to Conduct a Self-Assessment

As an instructor, you can begin to examine the beliefs you hold about your students by looking at the words you would use if you were asked to describe your students right now from the perspective of their ability to be involved in the learning process. Would your description include the words potential, capable, self-directed, flawed, unwilling, or self-motivated? Next, consider what you believe your students' needs are at the beginning of your class. Would their needs include guidance and support from you, development of skills, or general academic development?

Finally, take into consideration what your role is as an instructor, along what your involvement in the class should be, and how you will interact with your students. Will a description of your tasks, duties, and responsibilities include mentor, coach, teacher, or facilitator? Do you believe that you need to facilitate a process, teach your students about something specific, or tell them what it is they need to learn?

These beliefs create a lens through which you view your students and it is important to reevaluate what you believe on a regular basis so that you can determine if they are accurate and supportive of their development. This will also help to create a shift in your perspective of online teaching overall.

Are Your Beliefs Valid?

Once you have examined your beliefs you can then consider what factors have influenced and shaped what you now believe about your students and their potential. It is likely that the culmination of interactions, experiences, assignments, responsiveness (or lack thereof to feedback), along with discussion question responses from prior classes, have had a direct bearing on your current perception. What you believe will translate into how you interact with your students. As part of this self-examination you have an opportunity now to evaluate the validity of your beliefs and determine the impact of your current perspective about the classroom environment.

Beliefs can be limiting when students are viewed collectively as a class that is succeeding or failing, willing or resistance, capable or limited in their abilities. One method of overcoming the development of a single perspective about your class is to ask students to post an introduction at the beginning of the class so you can shift your view from seeing students as a group to evaluating students on an individual basis.

Your perspective will be further updated as you begin evaluating students' performance. What can be helpful is to try to weigh their work and evaluate their participation individually and keep in mind that every student has a capacity to learn and change, if they are provided with the necessary instructional support, tools, and resources.

How to Influence the Mindset of Your Students

At its very essence, beliefs that students have are pre-conceived ideas, whether it is about learning, the classroom environment, their involvement and participation, or their instructors. A common example is that a student may believe their best effort is enough or is satisfactory for classroom performance. Another common belief is that trying hard should result in the best grade or outcome possible. Some students will state that "all instructors" are unfair and have this belief because their expectations weren't met or they didn't receive an expected outcome.

An instructor can recognize beliefs like this if a student states they didn't deserve a grade received, which is often a reflection of their locus of control. They will either view their grades and outcomes as something that happens to them or something they are in direct control of regardless of the grade received. What an instructor can do is to implement strategies that work to influence student beliefs.

#1. Influence Student Behaviors

Regardless of how long a class lasts, even if it is an entire semester in length, it may be impossible for instructors to learn about the beliefs of every student or tailor their instruction to every individual student. What an instructor can do is to establish clear expectations, provide support and feedback, and influence beliefs by understanding what behavioral aspects of a student's performance need to change because at the heart of a student's performance are behaviors.

Students need to develop self-efficacy or a belief in their ability to complete their tasks, along with self-regulation or an ability to control their behaviors and manage their emotions. They must learn to persist when they are challenged to learn new behaviors, especially as related to new performance methods, and they need supportive work habits to maximize their productivity. Teach students to persist and discover their internal motivation, and you'll help them develop new habitual behaviors that support positive beliefs about their capabilities.

#2. Help Students Discover Their Capacity

Once you understand what you and your students believe, then you can work to influence them. However, can an instructor directly influence, guide, and help shape an adult student's beliefs if they do not have a positive attitude about their capabilities? This can be best accomplished by helping the adult student discover that they have a greater capacity to learn and it is possible to improve with time and practice.

An instructor who effectively guides the adult student may shape their beliefs by engaging them in the process of learning, by encouraging their efforts and attempts to participate, and finding resources that help to meet their developmental needs. In contrast, an instructor is likely to find that simply telling their students they must become an active participant is a less effective approach than one that involves guiding them through the process. The adult student is self-directed by nature and they often come to the classroom with specific needs, which are influenced by their beliefs about what they are capable of doing.

#3. Use the Power of Persuasion

Students, especially new students, may need to alter or completely discard beliefs that are not serving them well and develop new beliefs. However, changing a belief, especially one that has been held for a long period of time, may not happen overnight or within the short period of time allowed during a class. It is the accumulation of positive experiences and meaningful interactions that can change a student's beliefs in the long run, along with the development of habitual behaviors to support it.

An instructor who encourages self-discovery and encourages students to reassess their beliefs about being involved in the learning process is much more effective in shaping their beliefs than demanding that they change and accept without question that their beliefs are inaccurate or not valid. Students are unlikely to change unless they see a specific need and this can be recognized through persuasive feedback and conversations that are supportive of students and nurtures their growth mindset.

How Beliefs Result in Actions

Every student begins a class with their existing belief system, whether or not they recognize the basis of what they believe about learning and their role in the process. Their beliefs are manifested in the actions they take, the effort they make, and the attitudes they hold. However, those beliefs are tested through involvement in the class, when their expectations meet the reality of being a student and the outcomes of their efforts are received in the form of a grade.

If students have a positive belief system and work in a nurturing classroom environment, they are likely to persist even when challenged. It is up to the instructor to encourage students, create conditions that support their efforts, and develop relationships that encourages progress. A student becomes most successful in their efforts when they sustain beliefs which are self-empowering and self-sustaining. Instructors can encourage development of this type of mindset by also believing in the best of their abilities and helping students focus on their strengths. When students recognize their talents and their capacity for learning, and they are supported in their progress, they will develop a mindset for success.  

About Dr. J

Dr. Johnson has worked in the field of higher education and distance learning since 2005. He specializes in distance learning, adult education, faculty development, and online teaching. Dr. J's roles included Chief Academic Officer, Dean, Faculty Director, Faculty Manager, Faculty Development Specialist, Dissertation Mentor, Faculty Workshop Facilitator, and online instructor.

Dr. J has extensive experience with curriculum development, having authored courses and curriculum for bachelors, masters, and doctorate programs. He also developed a Faculty Performance Model, Faculty Orientation Program, Faculty Training and Mentoring Program, Faculty Professional Development Courses and Workshops, and a Faculty Remedial Program.

Dr. J has a Ph.D. in Postsecondary and Adult Education, a Certificate in Training and Performance Improvement, and a Master of Business Administration, MBA. As a scholar practitioner, Dr. J was published in a scholarly journal and he has been a featured presenter at an international distance learning conference. He has also published over 200 online articles about adult learning, higher education, distance learning, online teaching, and career development.

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