The Learning Commons at Santa Fe College uses research-based methodologies to help improve persistence among students. Funded by a Title III grant supporting low income and vulnerable populations, it’s a physical space, with added virtual services, where any student can get free tutoring and academic coaching. Staff are trained to help students navigate academic setbacks and life challenges that threaten their degree completion.
One of the most important tools at the Learning Commons is mindset intervention. Students with a fixed mindset tend to quit when they are struggling. An adaptive or growth mindset helps students understand that hard work is foundational to success. With a growth mindset, even when a student is struggling, they are still able to feel like they belong in college. Without that sense of belonging, imposter syndrome kicks in and their chances for success are greatly diminished.
In keeping with the college’s strategic plan to “expand the region’s college-going culture,” our goal was to help middle school educators create an early mindset intervention to reduce some of the barriers that prevent their more vulnerable students from entering college.
To better understand the complex pain points for low income minority students navigating their way through primary education, extensive conversations were had among several committees, all of which I also served on:
The Middle School committee scheduled hour-long listening sessions with each of the principals of four local middle schools, along with the director of a facility operates in partnership with law enforcement and offers mentorship and after-school programs for boys 8-18 navigating exceptionally difficult circumstances.
Tangible challenges were expressed by the focus group, like the need for increased public transportation and financial literacy. In addition, they shared more emotional insights:
One principal told us that after casually polling the entire 6th grade at his school, 90% of the boys said they wanted to become professional athletes, despite many of them showing very little aptitude for sports. “It’s where they see people of color. It’s where they feel represented.”
Representation of minorities would be critical in our messaging, as well as designing in a medium suitable for long-term daily encouragement. Several principals suggested we create posters that could be displayed in classrooms or prominent areas, where students would see them on a regular basis.
I consulted with the staff at the Learning Commons on the talking points they used in academic coaching, where most mindset interventions occurred. Their initial response was compelling. Apparently, there’s a lot of overlap with the language used in athletic coaching. With the feedback from the principals that athletics speak loud and clear to middle schoolers, and with the college having several athletics teams we could work with — that became our starting point.
Additional interest was expressed for motivational posters that promoted vocational opportunities and STEM programs, in which minorities are often underrepresented.
Facing the challenge (audacious messages requires clear consensus) we were ready to ask for help writing messages aligned with growth mindset principles.
I developed several surveys for the athletic and academic coaches using Microsoft Forms. The first round asked for “caption this” responses to a collection of diverse athletic images. (This generated waaaay more interest in having the college photographer attend more sporting events than it did usable calls to action). The second round asked respondents to sort by preference a list of messages inspired by responses to the first survey.
Consensus isn’t the same as majority rule. Sometimes a poignant voice of dissent breaks the law of averages. Sometimes expertise carries more weight. Such was the case when administrative staff at the Learning Commons responded to the second survey with clarifying guidance on the differences between fixed and growth mindset messages. For example:
We needed messages to convey more encouragement than praise, show support for an internal locus of control rather than an external one, and put more emphasis on the process behind what someone is becoming, rather than the stasis of what they already are.
I asked my staff photographer to build a collection of photos for this project and as usual, he did not disappoint. The challenge for me was narrowing them down! We had the fortune of hiring a very talented young woman around this time as our new graphic designer and she was very excited to work on this project. She identified with the target audience and her attendance of several committee meetings felt like the missing piece for this project. These were the first poster prototypes we presented:
Committee feedback was spirited! Two posters featuring athletics?! We needed to show blacks males doing more than sports! What about our vocational programs? How were students supposed to find out what kind of programs we offered? And we needed Hispanic students? Could we get a photo of a Latina?
It was perfect feedback, although I’m not sure I did a good job explaining what it meant they were “prototypes.” Forget the design process, these folks wanted a full final product they could share that day!
We came back with these:
This project put so much focus on the importance of failure, I feel it deserves an honest recounting of mine. With so much focus on consensus, in the grey area of facilitating and participating, I failed to establish clear ownership on this project. I was the Director of Marketing & Communications, sitting on three different committees, reaching deep into the community’s needs at a time when new partnerships had a greenlight, but no guidelines. The result was a timeline that dragged out longer than it should have. It felt like gathering more input always felt more important than finishing the deliverables.
I don’t have data or anecdotes on how the posters were received by the middle school students. I left the college before they were printed and distributed. But in my last few weeks I did help transition the new full time middle school hire. She was thrilled to be able to email the images and messages to the principals in her first few weeks on the job. They loved them.
Some motivational posters cheer people on. These did more. They staged an intervention. In the process of writing and editing copy for this project, I felt like I had a mindset intervention all my own — thanks to the team of subject matter experts who shared their knowledge with me! With this newfound clarity, I developed a systematic approach to writing future growth mindset messages: