Growth Mindset

Can academic success (and success in other aspects of our lives) be linked with the mindset that we approach it with? In order to answer this question, we need to distinguish the differences between fixed and growth mindset. 

Fixed mindset is one where people believe that qualities such as their intelligence or talent is innate and heavily linked to their achievements in life. On the other hand, a growth mindset is one where people emphasize the effort and hard work that eventually lead to their successes rather than their own abilities. 

People who exhibit either mindset also have different views on intelligence as well. On one side of the spectrum, people with fixed mindsets immediately become discouraged when faced with difficulties and mistakes. As a result of this fear, they also tend to avoid challenges because it’ll also threaten their ego. The other side of the spectrum displays people with growth mindsets, who welcome difficulties and see opportunities to grow in the face of challenges. They welcome each mistake as a new problem to solve and use these moments to learn. 

Out of numerous studies done on students, data continues to show that those with growth mindsets show improvement over time. One study done on elementary students found that students who exhibited growth mindsets showed significant improvement over the course of two years whereas those who maintained fixed mindsets actually saw a decline in their academic performance.

More studies were conducted on the upbringing of children and what their parents praised them for. When children were praised for their intelligence, the number of problems that they solved before and after a failure significantly decreased while children who were praised for their efforts saw a drastic increase in the problems they solved before and after the failure. This goes to reinforce the idea that people with growth mindsets welcome challenges and want the opportunity to learn from their mistakes. 

After comparing the two, I hope that the main takeaway is a shift toward a growth mindset. We should embrace the path we take to whatever the outcome might be rather than hyper fixating on the outcome itself. 

Source: Dweck, C. S. (n.d.). The Secret to Raising Smart Kids. Scientific American.

How to Escape Imposter Syndrome

As women in STEM, you might’ve heard of a phenomenon called imposter syndrome. Imposter syndrome is essentially when people feel as though there isn’t any validity to their accomplishments. This is commonly marked by people attributing their successes to luck or anything other than their own pure efforts. As unfortunate as this psychological phenomenon is, people who experience imposter syndrome also have an associated fear of people finding out they don’t belong, that they are frauds. 

However, I hope that being at Smith College will help with developing internal validation for your accomplishments because it’s important that we as Smith students genuinely believe that we belong here. It’s good to remind ourselves of the reasons why we got here in the first place. We didn’t get here because of luck or because of good timing, but rather because of the hard work and effort we put into our accomplishments. 

Source: Dalla-Camina, M. (2018, September 3). The Reality of Imposter Syndrome. Psychology Today.

Overcoming Testing Anxiety: Why We Choke

As human beings, we’ve all experienced a phenomenon called choking, the inability to perform in a way that was expected. The topic about choking is intricately laid out in the podcast, “Stage Fright” hosted by Shankar Vedantam with guest Sian Beilock, from why we choke even in the simplest situations and what we can do about it. 

First let’s go into why we choke. Just as Beilock said in the podcast, parallel parking is something that she believes is good at, but when someone is watching her, she just can’t seem to parallel park, even though this is a task that comes so naturally to her when she is alone. One of the reasons why people tend to choke in these mundane situations is because we become hyper aware of the situation and almost feel as though we are watching ourselves “fumble the ball” in a third person perspective. No matter how well we know how to do something, there’s a chance that being in a high-pressure situation (such as having an audience) can ruin your rhythm. And this is what occurs when we switch from our procedural memory to working memory. 

So what exactly is the difference between procedural memory and working memory?

Working memory is a form of very short term memory. This type of memory is very transient and will disappear from your memory if you don’t “solidify” it, such as writing something down.  Our working memory has limited capacity to store information as well. An example of this is trying to remember a phone number. On the other hand, we have procedural memory, which is a form of long term memory that is involved in recalling skills and actions that we know well. 

As we begin to become better and more comfortable with complicated tasks, that skill switches from working memory to procedural memory, where we don’t need to be conscious of every single step of the procedure in order to perform the procedure, rather effortlessly. However, when choking occurs, it’s likely due to the fact that we go back to thinking like beginners, switching from our procedural memory to our working memory. 

Something that is very relevant to the physics classroom that is mentioned in the podcast is math anxiety. When a study was conducted on students who were told they were about to take a test that involves math, the area of the brain associated with pain lit up, indicating that people heavily associate negative feelings toward math, prior to even taking the math test. And once they took the test, the group of students performed worse. But the conclusion that they arrived at from this study is something that I believe more of us should be like: it’s not that the students were anxious because they were bad at math but rather they were bad at math because they were anxious. 

So what’s the answer to choking?

Well first, performing under pressure is definitely something that we can get better at with more practice and exposure. For physics students, this can look like simulation quiz conditions in preparation for the weekly quizzes: two challenging questions, with only a calculator and thirty minutes to complete in a quiet room without any other resources. The more we become used to the performance pressure, the more our bodies will be able to adapt to these high-pressure situations. And this is the idea behind closing the gap between training and competition. 

 The physiological responses associated with anxiety from a high-pressure situation are very similar to the same physiological responses we show when we become excited. So this essentially comes down to re-interpreting the physiological response. 

Another solution to choking could be distractions from the high-pressure situation. If you have an exam coming up, it can be extremely helpful to take your mind off of the exam itself because the exam is what is bringing you anxiety and stress. This can look like so many different things such as singing a song, counting backwards, making a mental grocery list for the upcoming weekend, pretty much anything that can and will take your mind off of that anxiety induced trigger. 

So give these a try the next time you have a weekly quiz coming up. Or if you have an exam or presentation for a different class, try these techniques out because they aren’t limited to the physics classroom. 

Source: Stage Fright | Hidden Brain Media. (2021, July 20).

Active Learning as a Key to Success?

Active learning, as the name suggests, is a method of instruction that allows students to actively participate in their learning.  The method of instruction urges teachers to move away from traditional, teacher-centered, and heavily lecture-based methods of instruction, toward student-centered, inquiry, and project-based methods of instruction.  Active learning can be implemented through a variety of means, all of which intend to shift the focus onto the students’ learning.  In recent years, active learning has become a very popular topic of discussion in the field of STEM education, with many professors curious to find out whether or not active learning promotes information retention over traditional teaching methods.

Countless studies have been conducted examining the effectiveness of active learning in the classroom, many of which were compiled in an article published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).  Freeman et al. (2014) is the largest and most comprehensive meta-analysis of undergraduate STEM education published to date, consisting of 225 studies that reported data on examination scores or failure rates when comparing traditional lecture-based instruction to active learning instruction in STEM courses (Freeman et al, 2014).  They sought to test the hypothesis that lecturing maximizes learning and course performance, stating that it is important to address this question to see “if scientists are committed to teaching based on evidence rather than tradition.” (Freeman et al, 2014). 

The results of this meta-analysis found that, across the 225 studies, student performance on examinations in active learning sections increased by about 6%, and that a student in a traditional lecture-based class is 1.5 times more likely to fail said class than a student in a class which incorporated active learning strategies (Freeman et al, 2014).  Average failure rates in classes incorporating active learning were 21.8% while classes taught with traditional lecturing had an average of 33.8% (Freeman et al, 2014).  While they found that active learning benefitted students in all classes, the highest impact was made in courses with 50 or fewer students (Freeman et al, 2014).  We have even seen overwhelming evidence in our own classrooms here at Smith; the most recent PHY 117 class utilized the 2COOL learning model and found a 64.8% increase in concept score from the pre-semester test to the post-semester test.  

While implementation of an active learning classroom model into the classroom mainly falls on the professors, students can feel confident that they will succeed when coming into a classroom using this model.  It may seem like a lot of work at first and be a large change from what many students see in their STEM classrooms in high school, however, I can strongly suggest that students fully participate in these active learning classrooms to get the most out of their education.  Once you adapt to an active learning environment, it will feel like second nature to be jumping up to the boards to work on practice problems and formatting your lab assignment to test a physical property.  


Freeman, S., Eddy, S. L., McDonough, M., Smith, M. K., Okoroafor, N., Jordt, H., & Wenderoth, M. P. (2014). Active learning increases student performance in science, engineering, and Mathematics. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 111(23), 8410–8415.

How We Learn and How to Think like an Expert

Personally, I believe the most important thing I’ve read during my college career that changed my study habits most significantly was an excerpt from What the Best College Students Do by Ken Bain.  In chapter 2, “What Makes an Expert?”, Bain suggests that all students tend to fall into one of three styles of learning.

The first he designates as “surface learning”.  In this style of learning, students will typically skim the surface of a topic, looking for key words or facts they could memorize in order to anticipate questions that someone might ask them.  These types of learners are usually just focusing on passing the exam, not planning on revisiting any of the information they are taking in. 

The second style of learning he dubs “deep learning”.  Here students seek deeper understanding of the meaning behind the topics they research, thinking about implications and applications, much of their enthusiasm for learning based in a true interest in the topic. 

He labels the third style of learning as “strategic learning”.  It is a fitting label as students using this style of learning are strategically moving through the material in a way they know will get them a good grade on the exam.  Many high schoolers tend to fall into this category, appearing to shine in the classroom for their high scores, yet they do not retain or apply the material past the exam.  They focus specifically on what the professor wants to see in order to get a good grade, never really showing true interest in the subject. 

While strategic learning will earn students good grades, Bain argues that students attempting to learn this way are going about it backwards.  He states that “they rarely go off on an intellectual journey through those unexplored woods of life” (Bain, 37), too focused on their GPA to approach learning from an interest-based perspective, as the deep learners do.  In terms of recognizing this style of learning in class he states that strategic learners can plug the right number into the correct formula on a chemistry or physics exam or put the right words in a properly constructed essay, but they do not fully understand why they are doing what they are doing; they are “routine experts”, Bain states, “learning all the procedures of their work but seldom becoming inventive” (Bain, 37). 

Bain later suggests that while we may not intend to become strategic learners, many fall into this style of learning due to factors out of their control, such as a large class load or an emphasis of coverage over content by a professor which pushes students to take short cuts.  He mentions that all students should strive to become deep learners, as many of the best students and experts are, seeking answers to the “whys” and “hows” and learning based on genuine interest in a topic.  By taking this interest-based approach, students are taking the first step into thinking and learning like experts in the field do.  

Interest in a subject is not the only thing that makes someone an expert, however.  It takes years to train a student’s brain to work similarly to that of an expert; in his book Why Don’t Students Like School, Daniel T. Willingham explores the inner workings of experts’ brains, stating that it’s not just about having knowledge in a field, but rather how a person thinks that makes them an expert. 

While experts have a lot of background knowledge, their attitudes towards failure and ability to transfer knowledge from past experiences are what really push them to be great.  He mentions that, as experts have a large level of background knowledge and experience, they can think more abstractly about concepts, whereas abstract ideas are much more difficult to grasp for novices, as they do not have a strong base structure of knowledge just yet.  He suggests that students should start small, building a strong foundation of knowledge using an interest based approach so that they can eventually build up to thinking in the way experts do, allowing themselves to utilize that strong foundation to reach even higher levels of thinking.  



Bain, K. (2012). What the best college students do. The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.

Willingham, D. T. (2021). Why don’t students like school?: A cognitive scientist answers questions about how The mind works and what it means for the classroom. Jossey-Bass. 

Changing your Study Habits: Advice from Saundra Yancy McGuire

I can pretty confidently say that nearly every college student has had the experience of coming to college, putting in the same amount of effort that they did in high school, and getting a less than optimal grade than what they expected.  Dr. Saundra Yancy McGuire suggests that in high school we have to operate at a much lower level of thinking in regards to Bloom’s Taxonomy, which categorizes the levels at which we operate when learning.  She mentions that while we can easily get by with that level of learning in high school when we get to college, that level of thinking is no longer sufficient, and we need to supplement our learning with other methods.  She suggests that by using metacognitive techniques, students can increase the level at which they think, understand the material more thoroughly, and overall perform better in the class.  

Dr. Saundra Yancy McGuire states that in her opinion, the most impactful strategy for a student looking to improve their performance in class is to begin by getting the most out of their homework problems.  Her first bit of advice?  Start early.  She suggests students start their homework the day it was assigned.  Not only does this allow students to move information learned in class from short term to long term memory, but it prevents the panic of trying to complete the homework the night before it’s due, which often causes students to do it just to get it done rather than to understand it. 

She also suggests that students work through their problems without the aid of textbook practice problems.  “Use this as a method of preparing yourself for the test”, she states, mentioning that there are no practice problems to flip back to on an exam.  It’s important to spend time on these problems, don’t give up too early; give yourself at least 15 minutes to work through a problem, however, if the problem is too difficult and you’re beginning to push 30 minutes on one problem, that may be a sign you should go back to the text and review the material you’re getting stuck on.  

In terms of review and studying, Dr. Saundra Yancy McGuire suggests that students should study to fully understand the material rather than just memorize what’s necessary to pass the exam.  One method she proposes to do this is to study as if you are going to be teaching the material to the class.  When you are preparing to teach the material, you are anticipating questions that students may ask.  Even just attempting to explain the material to a friend or pet can allow you to realize that you may not fully understand one of the concepts you are attempting to explain.  In that case, you can go back to the text and fill in the gaps of what you’ve missed. 

Another recommended method is the “study cycle”, in which you begin by reviewing the material before class.  This doesn’t necessarily mean reading and studying the text before class, but having a guideline of what material you should be learning will allow you to compartmentalize the material and retain what is then taught in class.  You should then, obviously, attend class so you can absorb the material and ask any questions.  Then, as soon as possible after class, review the material.  This allows you to move the material from short-term to long-term memory.  After you’ve reviewed the material, you should periodically study the material.  Repetition is key in this case, and it allows you more chances for the information to be retained.  Finally, assess your learning, and ask yourself “Am I using study methods that are effective?” or “Do I understand the material enough to teach it to others?”.  This method can be supplemented with intermittent “intense study sessions” in which you set a goal to accomplish, study with a focus for 30 minutes to an hour while interacting with the material, reward yourself with a prize or break, and then review what you just studied.  

While this seems like a lot for just one class, Yancy McGuire suggests that students start with just one or two study strategies to improve their performance in class.  Look at the list below and choose one that you will incorporate into your studying before your next quiz or exam.  

  • Solve problems without looking at an example or solution
  • Test understanding by giving “mini-lectures” on concepts
  • Spend time on your class every day, using review and studying strategies
  • Use the study cycle and intense study sessions
  • Start your homework the day it is assigned
  • Study for understanding rather than just for the exam


Hear Dr. Saundra Yancy McGuire’s advice for yourself, here.