Overlapping Evidence-Based Practices Using Growth Mindset, Trauma-Informed, and Inclusive Teaching

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In Spring 2022 we had talks from three nationally recognized speakers on the following topics: inclusive teaching, promoting growth mindset, and trauma-informed education. Here are the descriptions of and links to each talk.

  • Growth Mindset: As Dr. Angie Bauer argued, we promote learning and resilience and reduce equity gaps when instructors and students embrace the idea that abilities can be changed and developed (Yeager & Dweck, 2020).
  • Inclusive Teaching: Dr. Addy’s IDI keynote shared more about inclusive teaching as “being responsive to the diversity our class and designing learning environments that include all of our students” (Addy, 2021).
  • Trauma-Informed Education: Dr. Mays Imad asserted that learning is promoted through class environments characterized by security or predictability, transparent communication, peer support, shared decisions, promoting student strengths, recognizing diversity and identity, and a sense of purpose (Imad, 2020).

Applying all three approaches to your work may seem daunting, but there are common, evidence-based teaching strategies that achieve all at once. We list them below, along with how they “fit” each category and linked resources.

Pre-Semester or Early in the Semester

Use positive, student-centered syllabus language.

Gather info to learn about students & build rapport.

Align learning outcomes with what you teach & assess.

  • Growth mindset: Provides outcomes clearly; students can self-assess growth 
  • Inclusive: Sets transparent goals for all and links assessment to them 
  • Trauma-informed: Promotes security with transparent communication 
  • Tools & ideas:

Discuss growth mindset and its impacts with students.

During the Semester

Publish rubrics in advance and use them for grading.

Use active and problem-based learning.

Collect and respond to exam wrapper or mid-term feedback.

  • Growth mindset: Models growth mindset as you show openness to change. 
  • Inclusive: Respects all student voices and promotes reflection 
  • Trauma-informed: Promotes reflection on strengths and shared decisions 
  • Tools & ideas:

Use multiple methods of assessment.

Late in Semester or Post-Semester

Consider authentic assessments vs. “final exams."


Collect and reflect upon student feedback.

Learning Activities: Absorb, Do, Connect

Three types of learning activities

As you align course activities with learning outcomes by using Bloom’s taxonomy, you may find it helpful to array them using an “absorb, do, connect” structure. This structure breaks activities down into three types:


Absorb activities are those in which learners read, listen, and watch, and are used to inform and inspire. Examples may include readings, presentations, listening to audio, watching videos, or virtual field trips which help students obtain new information and gain knowledge.


These are activities in which students “do something” to learn. Examples of these are activities in which learners actively practice, explore, interview, discover, or take part in simulations or games.


These activities help students “apply” what they are learning with what they already know. Examples could include questioning activities, stories told by learners, job aids, research, or authentic work samples. The connect activities are an application of new knowledge to past experience and serve as a bridge for learning.

Arraying Activities in a Sequence

A cycle showing absorb, do, and connect.

Not every lesson will have a connect activity, but in general, it is good to plan activities so that students acquire information (absorb) and then practice information (do) and apply information (connect). A common example is for students to read a textbook (absorb) and discuss their knowledge in a Canvas discussion (do) in preparation for an exam (connect).

Sometimes these activities overlap. For example, embedding questions in a video is one way to have students practice their knowledge while they absorb it.

On other occasions, students may practice their knowledge ahead of absorbing it. For example, a pre-reading quiz or scavenger hunt can point students to important information in a complicated text. This way the instructor can help students filter out the information that they should spend their time absorbing.

Connect activities often come at the end of an absorb/do sequence as students are often practicing for activities such as group projects, speeches, exams, etc. Yet, there are other activities that students connect to course material. The student survey mentioned in the welcoming module, for example, may ask students about their motivations for taking the class. This can be a subtle way to orient the student learning toward their lived experience. Similarly, reflective exercises can be done prior to a new unit of instruction or as a way to bridge two modules together. In this way, connect activities can be the glue that holds modules together while also forging bonds between the students and the course material.

The sequence of absorb, do, and connect activities is often linear, but it does not have to be. Whatever order you go in, it is important to ask: how will students acquire knowledge (absorb)? How will they practice (do)? And, how will they apply their knowledge (connect)? Finding activities that lead students through all three phases will help answer the question: what do we do in an online class?

Collaborative Learning Assignments

A lot of students shudder at the thought of group assignments, and with good reason. A poorly-designed group assignment can be painful for the students involved and for the instructor. That being said, well-designed and properly scaffolded group activities have numerous positive effects on student learning. In a quality collaborative learning activity, students develop a deeper student understanding of course content as they learn from and teach their peers. Additionally, these activities can foster a sense of community between students and make academic dishonesty much less likely, as the group setting adds a built-in network of accountability. In terms of academic rigor, group assignments don’t necessarily need to be easier than individual exercises, but students shouldn’t be unequally yoked when they work collaboratively. One way to circumvent this issue is to have teams develop a group charter, like this example group charter (Word document) created by Kate Farley (UWGB) in which students decide on their roles and commitments before beginning a project.

UW-Extension has created a helpful guide that provides more detailed suggestions on how to design group activities, which are summarized below:

  1. Provide purpose. Make sure students know why they are doing the project and why it’s important that they work in groups.
  2. Provide support. Make sure students have the tools they need (technological and otherwise) to complete the project.
  3. Set ground rules with clearly defined milestones and timelines. If you allow students to create the ground rules and milestones for their own group, they are more likely to take ownership of the project and ensure the schedule is doable for them.
  4. Provide opportunities for peer and self-evaluation: Evaluation and reflection helps students effectively hold themselves and each other accountable for the results of their collaboration.

If you’re familiar with the concept these features might sound an awful lot like the teaching with transparency framework. If that concept is unfamiliar to you, you can learn more about it here.

Academic Excellence and Student Expectations

How do you:

  • Create a course load that is challenging but manageable for students?
  • Develop assignments that are engaging and meet the complex needs of the course and modality?
  • Communicate expectations to students on workload, attendance, and participation?
  • Discouraging academic dishonesty, particularly in online settings?

Unfortunately, there are no clear-cut answers, but this page tries to address the central theme to all these questions: academic excellence and student expectations. As you explore the concepts of academic excellence and student expectations, you will find that they are intrinsically linked to the design of course materials and assessments.

Defining Academic Excellence

Our use of the term “Academic Excellence” is informed by the three elements of culturally relevant pedagogy: academic success, cultural competence, and sociopolitical consciousness (Ladson-Billings, 1995; Ayers et al., 2008). Since Dr. Ladson-Billings first introduced this framework in 1995, many studies have extended it, creating shifting and alternative interpretations (Ladson-Billings, 2014). Our interpretation necessarily starts with Ladson-Billings, but is influenced by conversations with practitioners. When instructors promote academic success, they articulate high standards for student learning and discuss how they combine transparency of expectations with practices, approaches, and resources that support student learning. Academic excellence includes, but is not limited to, academic integrity and academic rigor, balanced with compassionate flexibility and resources to support student success. We will break down academic excellence into these three parts and refer to them as such throughout this resources page.

Academic Integrity

The Center for Teaching & Learning at UC Berkely concedes that there is no single perfect definition for academic integrity, but that it generally “entails honesty, responsibility, and openness to both scholarship and scholarly activity”. Fostering academic integrity within your students has its challenges, but it can be handled in a preventative and even positive way. In our fall panel on academic integrity, one of the top suggestions by our panelists was to develop assignments and assessments that require analysis, interpretation, and application of learned information, rather than just rote memorization and recall.

You will find that your personal definition of academic integrity might differ from one in a different discipline, or even from another instructor within your own department. Therefore, it is important to also lay out clear, specific expectations for students at the beginning of the semester on what you consider to be plagiarism, cheating, academic dishonesty, and academic misconduct. Lastly, disclose to your students any any-cheating technologies you plan on using, such as Turnitin, and for what purpose(s) you chose to use them. Academic integrity starts with instructor transparency.

Academic Rigor

Designing quality, substantive assignments and assessments is also related to the idea of academic rigor. Academic rigor is sometimes heavily connotated with the quantity of work assigned in a course when in reality it can also refer to the quality of assignments and assessments. Cathy Davidson, professor at CUNY, addresses this important distinction in an opinion piece for Inside Higher Ed and argues that our focus should shift away from the number of exercises or quizzes our course includes and that we should instead “reconsider the meaning, scope, and purpose of the work we do as well as the work we assign”.

Compassionate Flexibility

Maintaining a high standard for academic integrity and academic rigor usually leads to the highest rate of student success when it is tempered with a degree of compassionate flexibility on the part of the instructor. Compassionate flexibility for our students is particularly crucial now with the added complications of financial need, lack of access to the necessary technology, family responsibilities, and health issues (physical or mental), just to name a few. In one qualitative case study of 11 engineering students during the COVID-19 pandemic, it was found that students performed better when faculty “showed compassion and flexibility by adjusting the curriculum and assessment and effectively communicating with students”. To the greatest extreme, compassionate flexibility by an instructor can be the difference between a student surviving—and eventually thriving—in school or dropping out.

Complete flexibility can also be difficult for students to navigate. Unless you’re able to consistently check on their progress, students may find themselves at the end of the semester with many assessments left to complete, and, without the benefit of feedback. Consider what flexibility looks like within your courses, and articulate this transparently to students.

Defining Student Expectations

Communication is paramount in any course—this is especially true at a distance where even incidental contact is absent. Good communication correlates strongly with positive student feedback. The materials and content in your course could be entirely mute if students don’t know fully how you expect they interact with them. Clearly communicating course workload, due dates, etc. go a long way. You want when and how you communicate with students to be authentic to you and your course. Much as you want the materials and activities of a course to align with your course objectives, you want how you communicate to align with you.

Additional Resources

Alternative Forms of Grading

Many instructors and educational developers have begun giving new consideration to specifications gradingcontract grading and/or labor-based grading and how they may help support more equitable assessments and grading policies. One potential benefit to these approaches is that it allows instructors to maintain a series of low-stakes assessments without overburdening students with criteria-heavy weekly assignments that can feel like “busy-work.”

In Specs- and labor-based grading, you can retain well-aligned formative assessments and activities, but alleviate some of the anxiety that these may provoke amongst students (e.g., their focus is on the outcome versus their grade)—particularly if you provide students some choice in which assessments students may complete or revise.

In his book on contract grading, Asao B. Inoue argues that labor-based grading contracts support anti-racist and social justice-oriented assessment that enhance equity in the writing classroom. Other scholars have made similar arguments about contract-based and specifications grading, all of which provide more agency to students and remove the emphasis on “grading” and “grades.”  Though there are some differences between these approaches, we encourage you to worry less about those, and focus more on whether there are elements to these approaches to grading that may work well for your class. Here are some of the core elements of “ungrading” that you may wish to consider:

  • Assignments and activities are all graded as satisfactory/unsatisfactory (or acceptable/not yet, etc.).
    • Instructors provide very transparent about what constitutes acceptable work for each assignment. In labor-based grading systems, effort is central; for specifications grading, instructors often use standards that align with work that might garner a “B” in traditional schemas.
  • Students are allowed to revise unacceptable work at least once.
  • Students have some agency or choice in the assessments/assignments they complete for the course or even for each unit/module. “Bundles” of assessments and/or grading contracts are still linked to learning outcomes.

If you’re intrigued by the possibilities offered by these approaches to grading, consider reading a bit more about each before you make a decision. Check out this presentation from UNC Wilmington’s CTE for a brief overview of these alternative grading formats.

Created by: Virginia M. Schwarz

Questions for Critiquing

  1. What course is the contract for? Are the decisions appropriate for that context, audience, purpose?
  2. How might teacher identity and identities of students impact contract grading?
  3. What assignments, behaviors, and/or labor requirements are included in the tiers?
  4. Thinking in terms of importance (essential vs optional), do you agree with placement on those tiers?
  5. Build up? (C start) or Begin high? (A start) What are the benefits of each?
  6. Is this contract negotiated with students?
  7. Is peer review and self-assessment discussed?
  8. How does the instructor present/ explain this to students, if at all?
  9. Does this contract appear to be embedded into the culture and/or assignments of the course? In what ways does this respond to a larger teaching philosophy?
  10. Is “rigor” addressed? If so, how?
  11. Is student labor on assignments accounted for? (see Asao Inoue)
  12. What are the choices in length, tone, language, naming?
  13. What design choices did the teacher make? (for example, is the contract part of the syllabus)
  14. What degree of flexibility do you perceive, and are “violations/ negotiations/ surprises” addressed?
  15. How does/doesn’t this contract address the needs of traditionally high-achieving and low-achieving students according to your perception?
  16. How might the contract potentially further the working relationship with students? Students relationships to one another?
  17. How does the contract make you feel?

Questions for Composing

  1. What are the goals and outcomes of the course?
  2. How might I/ we account for teacher and student identity?
  3. What assignments, behaviors, and/or labor requirements actually help students learn and how are those incorporated into the class? [defamiliarize learning]
  4. Which of those are absolutely essential and what could be optional? [for making tiers or designing optional projects]
  5. Build up? (C start) or Begin high? (A start)
  6. Am I ready to negotiate this contract with students?
  7. How might I incorporate peer and self-assessment (process steps)?
  8. How do I plan to present/ explain this to students (and colleagues, and admin)?
  9. How do I plan to embed this in our classroom/ program culture? In what ways does this respond to a larger philosophy?
  10. How do I talk about “rigor”—do I even include that in my rationale?
  11. Do I account for student labor and if so then how? (see Asao Inoue)
  12. What should I do in terms of length, tone, language for the syllabus/ contract?
  13. What design choices did the teacher make? (for example, is the contract part of the syllabus)
  14. What degree of flexibility should I offer, and should I discuss violations, incorporate negotiations?
  15. How does/doesn’t this contract address the needs of all students?
  16. How does the contract potentially further my working relationship with students? Students relationships to one another?
  17. How do I hope students feel after reading?

Don’t Let the Canvas Gradebook Stop You

As you contemplate each of these approaches, CATL can help you deal with navigating the Gradebook so that doesn’t hold you or your students back should you wish to use a form of labor-based, specs, or contract grading.

Schedule a CATL consultation on alternative forms of grading.