Linda Dale Bloomberg holds the positions of associate director of faculty support and development, and full professor of education in the School of Education, Northcentral University, San Diego. Dr. Bloomberg received her doctorate in 2006 from Teachers College, Columbia University, where she completed the AEGIS Program in Adult and Organizational Learning. Her new book is titled Designing and Delivering Effective Online Instruction: How to Engage Adult Learners.
Engagement is the foundation of the teaching-learning relationship. By developing collaborative working relationships and interacting meaningfully with learners you generate greater engagement. When learners recognize that their instructors have something useful to contribute to their success, they are motivated to learn and succeed. As such, teaching relationships provide the foundation for a successful online learning experience. In my book, Designing and Delivering Effective Online Instruction: How to Engage Adult Learners, I discuss that the challenge becomes how we develop and establish positive and affirming relationships with our learners within a virtual environment, and that equally important to actively engaging with your learners is that you also develop, right from the start, a sense of self-motivation, and an “I can do this attitude”; in essence, an empowered mindset. Author Carol Dweck (2007), wrote about the importance of encouraging a “growth mindset”. I take the notion of a “growth mindset” a step further with an “empowered mindset” as the end goal; that is, engendering growth through empowerment. Being intentional in encouraging an empowered mindset in your learners will ensure that you focus your teaching on how they can improve, and that you can work alongside them to provide the necessary support and motivation that will ensure ongoing learning and development. The idea of an empowered mindset lends insights for instructors to challenge themselves in fostering growth for both themselves and their learners. Engendering an empowered mindset applies to all learners and in particular to those who have been historically marginalized and discriminated against because of their race, ethnicity, gender identity, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status, ability, or other realities. The underlying implication lies in empowering all students to advocate for themselves and claim their right to an education that addresses their unique needs.
Mindset encompasses learners’ self-concept and self-efficacy beliefs as well as their persistence at learning tasks. The beliefs that adults have about themselves as learners have a cyclical relationship with achievement; that is, previous academic achievement fosters particular beliefs which in turn predict future achievement. Learners may view failure and having to put in effort on a task as a sign that they lack ability (i.e., “fixed mindset”) rather than viewing failure and effort as natural elements of learning (i.e., “growth mindset”). Learners with an empowered mindset believe that success can be achieved through experience and effort, and that support from others is beneficial. Because learners who are empowered will feel autonomous, they will view tasks as doable within the scope of their knowledge, abilities and resources. They will also value achievement, thereby challenging themselves, expecting success, and striving to accomplish their goals.
- Self-concept: Adult learners may not always identify as academic learners. Moreover, many learners may not recognize their informal learning and knowledge as valuable. Adult learners need support in building a positive academic self-concept, especially if they have had previous negative experiences with schooling.
- Self-efficacy: Self-efficacy includes a learner’s confidence and belief in their own ability to complete a task. A learner with high self-efficacy holds the belief that they are capable of shaping their academic outcomes. Engaging in meaningful and rewarding learning experiences can serve to improve adults’ academic self-efficacy.
- Persistence: There is a high rate of attrition in adult education as many learners continue to face barriers to access. Developing self-advocacy skills to be able to communicate their own learning needs will support greater persistence in learning and academic success.
Instructors with a “fixed mindset” can create an atmosphere of judgement and may give up on those learners who are not performing well. Additionally, because they do not believe in improvement, these instructors may not attempt to foster it. Alternatively, if you are an instructor with a “growth mindset” you will adopt an asset-based approach, focusing on learners’ strengths and not just their deficits. With this approach in mind you will intentionally identify, communicate, and harness students’ assets in order to empower them to flourish and succeed. By providing strength-based feedback and asking critically reflective questions you will encourage a mindset of leveraging strengths in order to solve problems and overcome challenges. In so doing, you will come to understand that positive, supportive confidence-building experiences helps learners believe in their potential to solve complex problems. Your role is a change agent and you should believe that all learners can improve and succeed! Pause for a moment and think back to some great teachers you have known throughout your life. You will likely be able to think of things they said or did that exemplified an empowered mindset, thereby instilling and fostering motivation and persistence!
Strategies for Enhancing an Empowered Mindset
As you work toward fostering a strength-based teaching approach the following strategies can contribute to your learners’ ongoing growth and development:
Set Your Learners Up for Success
- Make the path for success seem realistic, doable, and achievable by setting clear goals, clarifying instructions and requirements, explaining learning outcomes, and offering opportunities for dialogue and reflection.
- Provide opportunities for success by conceiving learning as an ongoing process, pacing the course to accommodate diverse needs and abilities, and offering multiple ways to practice application of learning and knowledge.
- Share and promote strategies and tips for success regarding the most efficient and effective ways to manage time, stay organized, learn and retain the material, think critically, write clearly, and study effectively.
- Provide referrals to support resources as necessary, including academic success centers, learning centers, library, tutors, peer reviewers, and editors.
Create an Environment of Trust and Support
- Help learners understand the feedback and grading that you provide to them regarding their work. If a learner requests a change in the schedule, or an accommodation, or if what is needed is a change of teaching modality, consider and honor their request.
- Help learners overcome their mistaken view of errors as failures by conveying the message that not only are errors a natural part of learning, but that we tend to remember what we learn through addressing and correcting our errors. In this way you create valuable teachable moments!
Ensure Ongoing Motivation
- With your asset-based approach and your intention to develop an empowered mindset, you will always acknowledge your learners’ strengths and provide praise and encouragement for their achievements! This ensures that the focus is mostly on what they are doing well and not only on what needs improvement or revision.
- When students have more choices about their materials and activities, they’re more intrinsically motivated—which may translate to increased learning and academic success. Offering a sense of autonomy requires knowing when to step in and when to let go, but in the end, creating a learning experience that fosters growth and development.
- Help learners articulate their goals and see how the knowledge and skills they acquire can lead to achieving these goals. Learners who are in the midst of several years of studies may lose sight of what their hard work is for and how every course has a direct connection to later real-world success. Making connections between current learning and realizing dreams is a powerful motivator!
Lock in your Learning!
Learners who are confident in their ability to learn and progress have a greater sense of self-efficacy, and display the tendency to embrace challenges and persist in the face of setbacks. These learners also typically appreciate constructive feedback and seek to apply that feedback. Think about the role that motivation plays in determining how much effort learners will invest in their learning, and whether they complete the course or program and achieve the learning outcomes. Consider all the factors that contribute to developing a strong and vibrant culture of learning and development, thereby increasingly improving your own teaching practice.
Reflect on the following:
- How do you build a relationship with each of your learners to support and encourage them?
- How does your own mindset impact the mindset of your learners?
- What are you doing to instill and sustain motivation, thereby building a culture of ongoing learning?
- What new strategies can you implement to ensure that your learners believe in themselves and their ability to succeed?
- In what ways do you make it possible for learners to advocate for themselves and claim their right to an education that addresses their unique needs?
- What are YOU willing to try out to make a difference to your practice to facilitate an empowered mindset for ALL learners?
Bloomberg, L. D. (2021). Designing and Delivering Effective Online Instruction: How to Engage Adult Learners. Teachers College Press, Columbia University. https://www.tcpress.com/designing-and-delivering-effective-online-instruction-9780807765289
This publication has been nominated for the 2021 Division of Distance Learning (DDL) for the Association of Educational Communications and Technology (AECT), one of the premier international organizations for instructional design and ed-tech.
Dweck, C. (2007). Mindset: The new psychology of success. Random House.