Hearts and Minds: How Seeing Students as Whole Persons Can Improve Teaching

06 Mar 2021 11:47 AM | Anonymous member (Administrator)

Brian D. Bergstrom, Shirley A. Ashauer, and Dustin R. Nadler

Maryville University

Psychology majors are often attracted to the discipline by a deep and authentic desire to help improve the lives of others through the application of psychological science. Yet, as students encounter unexpected challenges or setbacks in courses such as Statistics or Research Methods, they sometimes become disenchanted, thinking they lack the ability to be successful in the field. After their first “C” on a Statistics exam, for example, they throw up their hands and despair that they no longer “have what it takes” to make it in psychology. A rather narrow and specific disappointment gives way to a fretful concern that their performance reflects a lack of ability, and some students surrender to the conclusion that they are not be “cut out” for psychology if they can’t compute a MANOVA (on their first attempt!).

In short, they implicitly believe that statistical ability is a fixed, innate trait that some lucky students possess, while others (like them) lack the “right stuff.” Even students who have learned the concept of growth mindset - the belief that ability can be developed - may not be able to implement that belief in the face of their own academic struggles. This dilemma raises two questions: what factors stymie the productive application of a growth mindset among students, and how can we intervene to bolster psychology students’ resilience when they encounter such setbacks in challenging psychology courses?

In a recent study, we addressed this question with an entire first-year cohort of college students that was part of a broader longitudinal assessment on college student development and success (Ashauer et al., 2020). Research on growth mindset has received much attention for its relevance to academic performance (Paunesku et al., 2015; Robins & Pals, 2002; Walton, 2014; Yeager et al., 2016). But, we asked, is having a growth mindset enough? Or are there individual differences that support (or undermine) its application? To address this, we considered two major themes in college student development that are critical aspects of becoming a mature, fully functioning adult: (1) intrapersonal development, toward becoming an autonomous individual, and (2) interpersonal development, as social relationships undergo considerable change (Allen & Land, 1999; Erikson, 1961). Specifically, we examined whether attachment theory (relationship functioning) and self-determination theory (autonomous functioning) might inform the trajectory of student success, and whether these constructs might contribute to our understanding of why some students are better able to mobilize a growth mindset when they encounter academic struggle.

Attachment and Autonomous Functioning

Attachment relationships are those in which another person serves, in some measure, as a “secure base” and a “safe haven” for the student. The attachment system is often conceptualized as including a pair of unconscious mental models—one of self, one of others—that are “tuned” to different degrees of anxiety and avoidance and provide default expectations for social relationships (Ainsworth et al, 1978; Bowlby, 1982). Anxiety is associated with concerns about self-worth, the dependability of others, and a high need for reassurance, while avoidance is associated with a strong desire for independence, a reluctant stance toward intimacy and disclosure, and a tendency to pull away when their autonomy is challenged (Crowell et al., 2016). Previous studies have found that greater attachment security is associated with better adjustment to college, higher academic performance, and higher self-esteem (Mikulincer & Shaver, 2016).

We believe that the cognitive and emotional volatility of insecure attachment can disrupt the application of cognitive and emotional resources needed to implement a growth mindset. When the attachment system is activated by a perceived threat, the cognitive, emotional, and motivational resources consumed by attachment processes might make it hard to redirect those resources in the service of academic goals. In this way (and others), a growth mindset may lie impotent in the mind of an otherwise capable student, as attachment dynamics co-opt attention and subvert the executive resources needed to drive a growth mindset into action.

The transition to college is also an important time in development during which a major task is becoming an autonomous individual (Allen & Land, 1999; Erikson, 1961). Thus, we also examined autonomous functioning (self-governance) in students (Deci & Ryan, 1985; Ryan & Deci, 2000), and more specifically, authorship, which involves being primarily guided by one’s own personal values (Weinstein et al., 2012). Authorship has been positively associated with persistence and confidence (Deci & Ryan, 2000; Nix et al., 1999); greater self-esteem (Deci & Ryan, 1995); and heightened vitality and academic performance (Ryan & Frederick, 1997; Vansteenkiste et al., 2008). We believe that authored students will be less vulnerable to the slings and arrows of academic challenge as well attachment distress, and thereby could translate a growth mindset into concrete, constructive action because they have more cognitive and emotional resources to invest in academic tasks and are less likely to engage in off-task cogitation related to attachment concerns (Bernier et al., 2004).

In our study of a first-year cohort of college students, we found precisely that (Ashauer et al., 2020). Students with more of a growth mindset had higher end-of-semester GPAs, but insecure attachment completely dissolved that link. Concurrently, authorship buffered this inverse relationship such that authored students maintained higher GPAs than less authored students. Because attachment anxiety played a significant role in compromising the growth mindset-performance relationship in our study, we focus our teaching recommendations on mitigating attachment anxiety and bolstering attachment security. Based on our findings as well as the extant literature, we propose three strategies from the growth mindset, self-determination, and attachment literature that could be applied in psychology courses: 1) short-term strategies to create a “safe haven,” (2) process versus person feedback strategies, and (3) long-term strategies to promote autonomous functioning through security-enhancement.


Short-Term Strategies to Create a “Safe Haven”

Attachment theory has shown that relationship partners, including instructors, can provide a safe haven for students during moments of challenge and distress, as well as a secure base from which to explore and make mistakes that are an inevitable part of learning new concepts (Mikulciner & Shaver, 2016). Yet, when anxiously attached students become distressed, they exhibit hyperactivating strategies to attain reassurance that the instructor will still respect them. These strategies can preoccupy them such that their performance is compromised, prompting the question: what strategies can instructors use in the moment to create a safe haven and mitigate momentary anxiety for such students?

Caprariello and Reis (2011) found that when an anxiously attached student perceives a relationship partner as responsive (that the instructor understands, respects, and values the student), the student becomes less defensive after receiving failure feedback because they feel they are valued for who they are (rather than how they perform). With the increased social isolation of the current pandemic (possibly exacerbated in anxiously attached students), the social connection and support created by perceived instructor responsiveness may be even more critical to the learning process. When students feel valued and respected, they experience fewer concerns about perceived worth and diminished social value (Baumeister & Leary, 1995). Instructors can support anxiously attached students by calming them when they encounter challenge, helping them to acknowledge the issue, discussing ways in which the issue can be solved, and providing the reassurance they need to remain constructively focused (Arriaga et al., 2018).

Process Versus Person Feedback Strategies

Moreover, instructors can play crucial roles in helping anxious students mitigate their sense of contingent self-worth (the belief that their worth is contingent on performance) by helping them attribute their successes to their own efforts (Caprariello & Reis, 2011). When instructors bolster students’ internalized beliefs that they are capable and worthy, they decrease an overdependence on instructors to affirm their self-worth. What concrete practices can instructors enact in the classroom to do so?

By providing students with effort-oriented feedback (“You worked hard to troubleshoot what went wrong in SPSS when you ran the MANOVA!”), instructors focus student attention on process (problem solving strategies) and their own effort, which fosters better self-regulatory skills and ultimately autonomy. Moreover, process feedback, whether it is praise or criticism, encourages mastery-oriented responses to setbacks (Kamins & Dweck, 1999). For example, attributing failure to effort or strategy (“you didn’t read the chapter on MANOVA before completing the assignment”), rather than a fixed trait (“statistics just comes easier to some students”) mobilizes student persistence, their willingness to use error as diagnostic information on how to improve, and improves academic performance (Kamins & Dweck, 1999).

On the other hand, when instructors provide students with person or trait-oriented feedback (“you are so talented in statistics!”), students learn to measure their self-worth by their performance and innate ability (Kamins & Dweck, 1999). Instructors may be unwittingly teaching students that their competence or self-worth is determined by their performance when they use person-oriented feedback, leading to a student’s belief that “I must not be cut out for psychology!” and a helpless response pattern of anxiety, lowered persistence, and decreased performance (Burhans & Dweck, 1995). By providing students with process feedback, instructors can help anxious students mitigate the hyperactivating strategies that often compromise their performance when they experience distress during setbacks.

Long-term Strategies to Promote Autonomous Functioning through Security-Enhancement

Although the aforementioned strategies can assuage students’ momentary anxieties of self-worth triggered by setbacks, these short-term strategies may unintentionally lead to students’ overreliance on instructors for reassurance, and an overdependence on them to boost their sense of self-worth (Arriaga et al., 2018). As a result, students’ maturation into autonomous individuals with secure relationship functioning can be stunted. According to the Attachment Security Enhancement Model (ASEM; Arriaga et al., 2018), instructors can implement long-term developmental strategies to shift students’ dependency on them in the direction of greater independence and autonomous functioning by enhancing their secure model of self and others.

In the short term, instructors can employ autonomy-supportive teaching behaviors by making connections on the relevance of a topic to students’ lives and engage students in learning for its intrinsic value (Black & Deci, 2000). In the long-term, however, instructors might employ strategies that encourage students to pursue their own personal learning goals and the activities associated with those goals, thereby building students’ self-esteem and autonomy (Feeney, 2004). As anxious students begin to internalize the belief that their instructor views them as capable and worthy, their self-confidence should increase, and their overdependence on instructors for reassurance and approval should decrease (Mikulciner & Shaver, 2016). Finally, instructors can both challenge and support students’ development of autonomous functioning by increasing students’ self-awareness and endorsement of their own actions (Sheldon et al., 2018). Rather than telling students what to do, instructors can ask them questions like “What do you think? What do you want to do?” and then problem-solve together to build confidence in their skill and ability to autonomously self-regulate.


In sum, our findings showed a more complex, nuanced relationship in the growth mindset – academic performance relationship. Our results suggest that a promising future direction for promoting and predicting success among psychology students may involve a “hearts and minds” approach: that is, seeing students as whole persons may improve the teaching and learning process. The relationship an instructor develops with their students – the social connection they create, the type of feedback they provide, and supporting students’ development of self-awareness and endorsement of their own internalized actions - may play an important role in bolstering students’ resilience and academic performance in the face of challenge throughout their college experience.


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