Assessment and Mindset, and My Journey in the Struggle

In last week’s class, we talked about assessment. Formative assessment, summative assessment, and how we use assessment wisely (or not) to activate (or not) student learning, feedback loops, and our own teaching. I was all open ears and open eyes; this was the first time I’d participated in a guided, focused conversation about assessment.


Though not familiar with types of assessment, I am familiar with the concepts of grit and growth and fixed mindsets, and I started to make the connections. Summative assessment feeds into and reinforces our society’s problem with the fixed mindset – the idea that we are born with a certain capacity to learn or intelligence in different, specified areas and that these capacities are unchanging or fixed throughout our lives. In other words, both summative assessment and the fixed mindset deliver strong, final, and often times damaging messages to students about what they know and who they are, academically speaking. I.e., you are a B student in Math; you are a failure at History; you suck at English. Even when these methods of feedback are positive, communicating As and intelligence, they create boundaries and pigeonhole individuals in ways that are unhelpful to student development and growth, to one’s sense of potential and self, and to the practice of teaching and learning.


Praise and the whole spectrum of feedback are powerful in today’s world. Not just in the classroom, but in every aspect of our lives – the office, the home and family life, one’s social circles. We are assessed daily by ourselves and by those around us, and often times we become dependent on external validation to know that we are doing a good job, or to learn that we are screwing up royally. So before I fully develop an assessment strategy for the group of students I’ll be working with over the semester, I want to think more deeply about my own rocky relationship with what I now can name summative assessment, its friend, praise, and how they’ve worked together to my disadvantage over the years. And, how I’ve gradually learned to grapple with them.


Through eighth grade, school was smooth sailing for me. There was no such thing as academic hurdle. Feeling good about my social life could be hard, but in the classroom I was queen.I understood academic material quickly, I came from a smart family, and I was just born with it, right? Interestingly, I saw this attribute as a value. My intelligence made me somehow better, I believed. And yet, it was accidental, inherited, just the way I was. I didn’t ask for praise, but I got used to receiving it. And my academic performance and success became a significant part of my sense of self.


High school was a new league. I had transitioned from an inner city public middle school to an elite college preparatory school. In middle school, I didn’t need to know what studying was and I certainly never did it. Getting A+s meant doing all of my homework and paying attention in class. But high school was something else. We were asked to demonstrate higher levels of learning, understanding, analyzing, synthesizing. By the end of freshman year, I had surely been trampled by every one of Bloom’s taxonomies. The work and assignments our instructors gave us required thinking, outlining, memorizing, and real struggle with ideas. I was absolutely capable, but something kept me from putting in the effort. I had always implicitly understood my intelligence to mean that effort wasn’t needed. I always (until the young age of 13) just got it.


What do you know that as I progressed through my high school years, the work got harder and my grades grew worse. I still cared, but I wouldn’t change my method of doing school. I protested by sticking to my old way. That old way equated to doing the assignments, being active and engaged in class, but not working my brain beyond what was asked of me, not struggling for understanding at every turn. I distinctly remember my first C grade on a midterm. It was my freshman spring Biology class, and I just never spent any time with the text. I got the C, and I broke down. That C, that summative C, told me everything I needed to know about who I was as a person. And yet it couldn’t, because I was smart. But it did. That C belonged to me, and I never really accepted it. I kicked my locker in anger. I made a scene. And then I never looked back. It was too painful to examine the test, to try to understand or get better, to face my failure. I just threw it away and moved on. I wasn’t good at science and I wasn’t going to be a scientist anyway. What about math? I loved math. And then I got a C in math, an advanced math class in which I was the only girl. I’d given up because I thought I couldn’t do it and I thought I couldn’t do it because I didn’t try. I didn’t struggle. I went onto get some Ds my senior year. I’d given up. I’d decided that if I couldn’t be the best then I wasn’t going to compete. So I rebelled against summative assessment, or at least that’s what I thought I was doing. But in fact, I was allowing the grades, these letters, to dictate my intelligence and thus my effort. I wouldn’t play the game that I couldn’t win at, and I had yet to realize that I could win, but more importantly that learning isn’t about winning or grades or innate ability – it’s about struggle, growth, change, evolution.


When I got to college, I started fresh and I did well, summatively and otherwise.  But I didn’t get a whole lot better at failure and not letting it define me. I became an Economics major because I was drawn to the quantitative social sciences, and the way in which girls just didn’t become Econ majors at my small liberal arts college. And yet, as I reached the upper level classes, I never quite let myself struggle and get better. I didn’t believe I could do it, and I was afraid to try. I decided that the subject didn’t come that naturally to me and that I just wasn’t brilliant at it like some of my classmates were. Today, I look back and see that my classmates were working harder at it and so they learned more and thus performed better.


It was only once I reached the real, work world that I truly began to see myself and my successes and failures as complex and malleable. In each new challenge I take on as a post-college adult, I learn to fail every day and feel more and more ok about it. After all, if I weren’t in a position to fail, I wouldn’t be putting myself out there, and I wouldn’t be in a very interesting position at all. Further, I wouldn’t be setting the best example for the students I work with and their own struggles with how they perceive themselves and their abilities.


I see the students I work with and the grit and perseverance and comfort with struggle and failure many of them have developed in order to keep going when so much has gone wrong in their lives thus far. The students who left high school because they had been told, and in turn believed, that they weren’t smart enough or good enough or worth enough. The students who endure jobs where their employers treat them with dignity or respect, and don’t pay them enough to cover their bills or feed their kids. And still, they think enough of themselves and their futures and their potential and their minds to come to school each day and become better. And to think I thought I shouldn’t struggle and overcome myself.

But I keep going and learning, and the students do too. And I hope we can continue to inspire each other to grow our minds and seize our potentials.


The Futures Initiative
The Graduate Center, CUNY
365 Fifth Avenue
New York, NY 10016-4309