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Reflecting upon ‘mindset’, engagement and attainment: what I learned from the HEA Fellowship

23 Mar 2018 | Kim McGuire Kim McGuire, Senior Lecturer in Law at the University of Central Lancashire.

This blog was originally posted on the former Higher Education Academy website.

Dr.Kim McGuire is a Senior Lecturer in Law at the University of Central Lancashire, and is a Fellow of the Higher Education Academy. With an interest in self-perception and life chances, she talks about the opportunity the Fellowship gave her to consider her own beliefs, and those of her students, about learning, engagement and attainment.   She welcomes discussion and debate on her perceptions, whilst hoping they will inspire and motivate others to ‘give it a go’, whatever ‘it’ may be.

“A playful mind is inquisitive, and learning is fun. If you indulge your natural curiosity and retain a sense of fun in new experience, I think You’ll find it functions as a sort of shock absorber for the bumpy road ahead.” Bill Watterson

In practice, my academic life spans both teaching and research within Law and Education. The HEA programme gave me an understanding of both pedagogy and also psychological factors regarding self-belief. Perhaps even more than this, it gave me support in my role and in my learning journey.

I cannot thank the programme enough for giving me insights into factors that may have influenced my own engagement and attainment in the past, but also a greater understanding of my students. Whilst not denying structural issues exist, potentially limiting individuals’ life chances, the work of Dwek et al was initially a useful lens through which to view self-perception and education.  Over time I have become more critical of her theory. I believe that a positive, playful and resilient mindset, finding pleasure in the process and/or the reason for continuing, in supportive environments, are crucial for engagement and attainment.

I had long wondered why some students, and yes, if I am honest, myself, occasionally self-sabotage.  This ‘sabotage’ appears as rushed work, or non-participation, or non-submission.  At times studying for the Fellowship was difficult, and my engagement lapsed.  This was especially noticeable when negotiating teaching loads, changing roles (I had begun when a lecturer, progressing to senior lecturer), and competing research needs, but also when undertaking completely new forms of assessment – not least the compulsory blog element.  This fear of  ‘writing for others’ is a common one, not only for staff, with various sites offering advice. 

If I fully embraced Dwek’s consideration of the effect of mindsets, or ‘implicit theories’ about self-perception of ‘intelligence/ability,’ and its effects upon engagement then I might associate my reticence with a ‘fixed mindset.’   For a person holding such a ‘fixed’ perception of ability, anything perceived to be measuring this can appear as a threat to their self-esteem, potentially ‘revealing’ the limits of their ability. 

However, I have doubts that mindsets can be so easily labelled, or tested. Others have raised concerns over the concept. Hence my preference for a positive attitude to learning, in context: conclusions shared by Corradino and Fogarty.  This is not, however, limited to one’s own perception of individual ability or the effect of ‘effort’.  Positivity does require some belief in self efficacy, but one reinforced by effective support, strategies, and an understanding of assessment effect, and of ‘engagement.’  Engagement can be purely for pleasure, or to share with interested others, without any need for external assessment.

Within education, assessments can all too often reinforce the notion of fixed ability, and fail to reinforce learning as a continual, and potentially enjoyable experience.  Reinforcing positive associations with learning has been noted as beneficial. It can be difficult to explain to students that academics can also worry about submitting their work for, often unknown, others to assess, whether it is an article, book, a bid, a report, without them losing faith in their tutor!   Since we are always to some extent dependent upon others for our self-perception, this hesitance can be seen as ‘normal,’ not pathological. 

However, a vital factor for my participation was the encouragement given by the HEA programme staff, and my own university – the University of Central Lancashire.  The latter offers not only the HEA participation, but also writing groups and opportunities to externally publish - e.g., in The Conversation.  Without the HEA experience and support I might not have taken advantage of these opportunities, or voluntarily written this blog.

The Fellowship gave the opportunity to raise concerns about self-perception and potential ‘impostor’ syndrome symptoms, our foibles and fears, which may recur from time to time, without this leading to labelling in an unhelpful manner.   It is argued that some 70% of people have ‘impostor syndrome’ revealing how common this experience is. 

Reflecting upon the above has fed into my teaching and learning, making me more confident, but also more empathetic, and, I hope, engaging for students. Overall, the Fellowship programme was a positive experience, shaping my current practice and research areas. Have others found the same?

Find out more about Fellowship.


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