Students are motivated to learn when they believe they have the need and the capacity to acquire and master a new skill. Students come to college thinking they’ve mastered research. How can we help them discover they still have room to grow?
When you speak with faculty about the challenges they encounter with students, a frequent lament is lack of self-efficacy. What faculty want is students who are motivated to learn the course subject matter. Academic librarians are no different. When we step in front of a classroom we want students to demonstrate enthusiasm for learning how to conduct college-level research. Whatever pedagogy a librarian practices, there will be little permanent change in student research behavior if the learner has little or no motivation to dive deeply into the subject matter. What librarians often get is anything but motivation. More typically students question why they need to listen to someone telling them how to do research—or telling them how to do what another librarian told them last semester in another course.
Non-library faculty who teach general education courses are challenged in similar fashion, but not quite the same way. They have to contend with students who want to know why they need to take a course in global politics when what they really want is a computer programming job. Faculty have an edge. They can create opportunities to spark students in a way that stimulates motivation. There’s grading too, but educators tend to prefer intrinsic over extrinsic motivation. Students come to the class as novices and they know it. They can choose to tune out and do the least amount needed to pass the class. Alternately, if the instructor is able to light a fire, students can immerse themselves in the subject matter. Connecting in the affective domain of learning to create that type of change takes time, and non-library faculty have much more of it than librarians.
A tough sell
Librarians lack the luxury of classroom time with students. Generating motivation is much more difficult under such circumstances. They face students who, in addition to perceiving librarians as offering little of value to advance their career aspirations, believe they already have good research skills. Students arrive at college with a high school research experience that reinforces a self-perception of competency. What more do they need to learn about research to succeed in college? It’s an uphill battle to motivate a student to embrace an idea or practice when they think they already know what they need to know. Both non-library faculty and academic librarians know that students have significant learning gaps when it comes to college-level research skills. Why else would we invest so much time and effort to develop information and other research-related literacy initiatives? How do we get students to acknowledge this gap, and more importantly, believe they have something to gain by shifting to a growth mindset when it comes to their research skills?
Not good at this
Have you ever heard a college student say “I’m just not good at research?” I imagine that few academic librarians have. Faculty hear this all the time. “I’m not good at math.” “I just can’t write.” “My brain won’t let me learn Spanish.” The problem, as discussed in Carol Dweck’s research, is one of mindset. Those with a fixed mindset believe they have limited intelligence and lack the mental capacity to learn. Trying and failing to learn something new would confirm their deficiencies. Out of fear and in defense, they refuse to try. It is also unfortunately possible that a past educator convinced the student of their inferiority in a certain subject. Showering students with praise for smartness, as opposed to effort, can also set students up for future failures when the going gets tough.
Creating a growth mindset
According to Dweck, when students are told they’re smart, and then they hit a wall with a subject like math or languages, they convince themselves the problem is lack of intelligence. Why try when you are just not smart enough to learn? With the proper motivation and encouragement, students can develop a growth mindset. That means they believe they can learn through study, practice and effort, that tackling a difficult assignment is a worthwhile challenge and that there is value in getting out of their comfort zone. Dweck’s research provides evidence that what educators do in the classroom can make a significant difference in motivating students and helping them acquire a growth mindset. Are college faculty paying attention to the mindset of their students when it comes to developing research skills? If we believe there’s a problem, what can academic librarians do to offer solutions?
Fixed in a different way
To some extent, for those less experienced with them, the college library and its electronic resources can be overwhelming. We know as much from Project Information Literacy’s report on college freshmen and their transition to the academic library and research environment. But does this contribute to a fixed mindset? To my way of thinking it is fixed, but not necessarily the way Dweck intended. College students, I believe, do not consciously convince themselves they lack the capacity to expand their knowledge and skills in this more complex research environment. What’s fixed is the mentality they bring to research behavior. It’s stuck on the same resources, methods, and techniques that enable them to succeed throughout K–12. To what extent are faculty raising the bar and expectations with research assignments that go beyond the traditional term paper that allows for satisficing at best and plagiarism at worst—and inviting academic librarians to participate as coeducators? But as with other areas of learning, there are examples of students who believe in their ability to learn and who adopt the growth mindset. Those are the students who win our research awards. Academic librarians, in collaboration with faculty, need to help students shift their mindset from fixed to growth.
Perhaps some of the answers can come from Dweck’s research. Students with a growth mindset believe their knowledge and skills can be developed and expanded. Dweck advised educators to rethink praise and how they deliver it. Rather than telling students how smart they are (or not), what should be emphasized is the effort they make to learn something new. They can be praised for seeking out help from experts—like librarians. Faculty can help by praising students for exploring new resources and creating assignments that encourage students to grow their knowledge of library and research resources, and that puts the academic librarian front and center as a guide for research growth.
There are no guarantees here, but adopting a strategy to move students from a fixed to a growth mindset for research could enable students to truly learn the skills that will serve them well after graduation, in their careers, and as lifelong learners. That’s a noble aspiration, to be sure. But let’s remember that we have a professional responsibility to adopt our own growth mindset as librarian educators. By that I mean we need to go into every classroom believing we can make a difference for students. If we allow ourselves to adopt a “if these students choose to tune me out and they don’t care to learn then that’s their choice” mindset, we’ve already failed. Let’s not surrender to the fixed mindset.