A sense of belonging and growth mindset are two key components addressed by Graduate Mentors (GMs) in the CSULB BUILD (BUilding Infrastructure Leading to Diversity) program. Numerous studies from researchers at Stanford, Washington State University, Columbia University, and others have shown that when students feel that they belong and believe that they can develop their abilities through hard work and dedication, they are likely to be more successful in all areas of their lives.
On Sept. 7, BUILD GMs attended a symposium titled, “Symposium on Inclusive Pedagogy and Growth Mindset,” that discussed the efficacy of these two concepts. Hosted by the College of Natural Sciences and Mathematics, the intention of the symposium was to help attendees apply the new psychology of success and the principles of social-emotional learning to their teaching and advising.
Graduate Mentors and the BUILD Program
The CSULB BUILD program currently has three training tracks: Associates, Scholars, and Fellows. GMs are assigned to a group of trainees from one of these three cohorts.
The Associates program introduces primarily Sophomores to what it is like to be a researcher. It gives them a taste of this career option through hands-on training, empowering them to make an informed choice about their education and career goals, and decide whether a career in research is right for them.
The Scholars and Fellows programs help trainees not only gain research experience that will help them successfully apply to graduate programs, but also provide support in planning their career goals, taking required exams, such as the Graduate Record Exams (GREs), and developing the various components of their graduate school applications.
BUILD GMs are just as diverse as the BUILD trainees, which gives trainees role models who are much like them. Having near-peer mentors that have “been there and done that” helps trainees realize that they can belong in a research career.
I Belong Here
Near-peer mentoring is one method of inclusive pedagogy. It is a method of teaching that attempts to foster students’ sense of belonging, their sense of being included in the larger school community. The goal of inclusive pedagogy is to help students be more successful in all areas of their lives—academic, social, cultural and physical.
The first keynote speaker of the symposium, Gregory Walton, Ph.D., an Associate Professor of Psychology at Stanford University, addressed this concept. His research has shown that students’ sense of belonging strongly impacts their motivation.
The feeling of belonging in a social community and the belief that they are valued and respected isn’t as easy to develop for students from groups that are underrepresented or negatively stereotyped within the academic environment. In a blog post for the Mindset Scholars Network, Dr. Walton said that “Everyone worries at times about whether they belong, like when you go to a new school or take a new job. But this worry is deeper and more pervasive when you face disadvantage in a setting.” In this scenario, people often wonder whether others like them belong and fear that the answer is, “no.” When people feel like they don’t belong, it can undermine their ability to succeed—or even stop them from trying to succeed.
Dr. Walton and his colleagues developed an intervention to reduce this negative experience, which uses near-peer mentoring—older students sharing their experiences and information. These more experienced peers can help new students recognize that belonging is not something that is fixed, but is a mutable process that changes over time. This mentoring from peers who have already experienced what students are currently experiencing has helped a significant percentage of disadvantaged students increase and improve their academic success.
One of the functions of BUILD’s GMs is to serve this peer-mentoring role. GMs are graduate students in programs that are much like those that BUILD trainees are being groomed for. Their previous experience as undergraduate students and as graduate students, as well as their own life experiences overcoming similar disadvantages as the trainees, has shown to be very helpful in the success of BUILD trainees.
Curtis Andrews, one of the GMs for Year One Scholars found value in Dr. Walton’s talk. The presentation showed him that, “there was a significant jump in underrepresented student success when mentored compared to their peers,” he said. “This has shone a new light on my experience as a BUILD Graduate Mentor.”
Bethany Lycan, one of the GMs for Associates, believed that what she learned during the symposium reinforced her work in BUILD. The presentations discussed “the idea that students can belong and succeed in a research environment no matter what their background,” she said, “and that their unique backgrounds actually contribute to their research.”
Fostering Growth Mindset
Growth mindset, a concept developed by Carol Dweck and discussed in her book, Mindset: The Psychology of Success, is a key component of BUILD training, for it helps trainees work their way through the challenges they encounter on the road to graduate school. Growth mindset is the belief that one’s basic intelligence and talents are a starting point, and that abilities can be developed through effort and commitment. Conversely, a fixed mindset is the belief that you are born with a set quantity of intelligence and talents, and that you can’t improve upon them.
The second keynote speaker at the symposium was Jo Boaler, Ph.D., a Professor of Mathematics Education at Stanford University. She has authored nine books, including Mathematical Mindsets: Unleashing Students' Potential through Creative Math, Inspiring Messages and Innovative Teaching, which she co-authored with Dweck. Her talk applied growth mindset to mathematics education, providing suggestions for teachers to improve students’ engagement with mathematics. Scientific studies have shown that the mindset of both student and teacher can profoundly affect learning outcomes. Her talk also presented ways to help students move from a fixed mindset about math to a growth mindset.
Because of the symposium, Noor Osman, one of the GMs for Year Two Scholars, realized just how effective growth mindset can be in improving student success. “A growth mindset and being aware of the thoughts one has can be extremely influential in increasing self-esteem, and success throughout one’s life,” she said.
In addition to her position at Stanford, Dr. Boaler is also the faculty director of youcubed, an organization focused on improving mathematics education. According to youcubed.com, “Students with a fixed mindset are those who are more likely to give up easily, whereas students with a growth mindset are those who keep going even when work is hard, and who are persistent.” Therefore, helping students transform their mindset can have a long-term impact on their lives in a variety of subjects and areas.
Shared Perspectives Further Support Symposium Focus
In addition to the two keynote speeches, there were two “Flash Talk” sessions, where various speakers from CSULB and other local campuses spoke from their perspective on how to engage students and make them aware of campus resources. One of these speakers was Joanna Haan, Ph.D., an Assistant Professor of Chemistry at Long Beach City College (LBCC), who spoke about how she incorporates counselors and campus resources into her chemistry courses.
Lycan found Dr. Haan’s flash talk encouraging. “Before transferring to CSULB, I spent eight years in community college, during which I received little guidance or encouragement to get involved,” she said. “As a shy, first-generation student, it was very easy to disappear in the crowd.”
Attending the symposium proved to be eye-opening in a variety of ways for the BUILD GMs. “I didn’t realize that other programs also ran sort of like BUILD in terms of peer mentors and an evaluation component,” Geovanna Medina, one of the GMs for Year One Scholars, said. She also enjoyed the opportunity to network with other members of CSULB.
“The symposium was a wonderful way to look at how instructors and mentors can help students feel like they belong and help improve their undergraduate lives,” Osman said.