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6 Actions to Help Students Develop a Growth Mindset

Dr. Kimberly Mulligan shares her adaptation of the DAPPS goal-setting system that helps biology students see—and seek—their own potential.

Dr. Kimberly Mulligan shares her adaptation of the DAPPS goal-setting system that helps biology students see—and seek—their own potential.

Kimberly Mulligan, PhD


Assistant Professor of Biology,
California State University, Sacramento

PhD in Developmental Biology, BS in Biochemistry and Cell Biology

It is easy for students to think that learning is a passive endeavor: If you show up for class, pay attention to lectures, and turn in homework, then wisdom will naturally flood your brain. But without a strong belief in one’s own potential—and the strategies needed to reach toward it—educational experiences can turn out to be lost opportunities.

Kimberly Mulligan, PhD, says that students need tangible touchstones to help them imagine their own success and go that extra mile. And during her years as a biology professor at California State University, Sacramento, she has developed a system to help students create those touchstones for themselves.

It is all in service of helping students create a “growth mindset,” which Mulligan describes as a “personal, optimistic, and focused frame of mind.” To create this mindset and spur academic success, Mulligan has adapted a tried-and-true matrix of actions and reminders known as the DAPPS goal-setting system—a five-step process with a special “debugging” kicker that she uses with students after each major exam.

Best of all: “These are really simple interventions instructors can do that don’t really take much time away from their curriculum,” Mulligan says. Read on to learn what each part of the acronym means—and how she puts the associated principles to use.


“I talk to some students and think, ‘It’s just a miracle that you are even here, given the obstacles you have faced in your life. So what can I do to help you be successful?’ Because the world needs these brains contributing to our communities and societies.”
-Kimberly Mulligan, PhD

Course: BIO 121 Molecular Cell Biology

Course description: Comparison of the cellular and molecular biology of prokaryotic and eukaryotic cells. Emphasis will be placed on membrane structures, transport phenomena, cell to cell communication, cellular reproduction, genetic architecture, gene expression and metabolism, as well as the eukaryotic endomembrane, cytoskeleton and extracellular matrix systems.

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Mulligan’s DAPPS + Debugging approach

Many of the young people taking Mulligan’s courses are the first in their family to attend college. For others, challenges beyond school or a lack of organizational abilities (and executive function skills) threaten to stymie their college careers. These students need to know how to set goals, how to focus on them, and how to plan for success.

She wraps all of this into her “DAPPS + Debugging” approach, with DAPPS standing for Dated, Achievable, Personal, Positive, and Specific. Course Hero recently connected with Mulligan to learn the methods she teaches to her students. Here, she shares the how and the why of each one:

Dated: Create calendars around academic goals

Mulligan insists that her students create written or computer-based calendars with information boxes large enough to enter every action necessary for each class (not just Biology) on each day of the week. During class, she then helps them understand how and why to pick a specific date for each of these steps—studying, reading, doing homework, etc. “I spend 5–10 minutes discussing the purpose of goal setting, scheduling/time management, and how to set achievable goals during lecture,” she says.

“There’s evidence that suggests that if students set up their goals and set up their schedules, they’re more likely to stick to them,” she explains. “[This way,] they’re always working toward [their goals] in a tangible way.”

Achievable: Be realistic about grade expectations

Mulligan notes that, contrary to most professors’ assumptions, not every student is aiming for an A-plus in every course. Some students may be satisfied with a C, for example, if they are juggling courses to reach an overall academic average or simply using Biology to satisfy another course prerequisite. And other students may be hoping for that A even though it is unrealistic for them.

“I say in class that if you’re someone who’s white-knuckling it through all your biology classes, and you’ve gotten Cs in all the prereqs for this class, and you’re having a real hard time understanding this, maybe 100% is not going to be an achievable goal for you,” she says. “But maybe 82% is, and that is something that is awesome for you. So create a goal that you’re going to work hard to get, but that’s achievable nonetheless.”

Personal: Embrace goals that matter to you

It is natural for students to compare themselves to others or to seek goals they think will impress the professor or their parents. But Mulligan encourages students to chart their own path to help keep stress and despair at bay.

Mulligan sets the stage for this by distributing a voluntary feedback form at the start of the semester that asks students who they are, what challenges they are facing in their lives outside of school, what they wish to gain from class, and what they want to do after college. This gets them focused on their own desires, goals, and progress versus those of other people.

Positive: Focus on solutions, not problems

Mulligan knows that thinking and talking negatively can affect behavior and achievement. So she encourages students to stick to a mindset that accentuates positivity.

“I always talk to my students about being solutions-based instead of just being negative,” she says. “I tell them, ‘It’s important to vent, and it’s good to vent, but being negative is the easiest thing to do.’”

Instead, she pushes students to create positive mental energy by focusing on possible solutions to any problems that might crop up in their studies. “Your goal shouldn’t simply be not to fail, because that’s a negative goal,” she says. “The goal should be, ‘I am going to achieve this grade on this exam.’”

Specific: Write down goals in detail

Any goal worth having is worth writing down, Mulligan believes. So whether students are aiming to earn a specific grade, write a paper of a certain length, or hit a due date for a project, students should write down exactly what they expect to accomplish. This helps them envision a successful result, and the visualization may help that result come true because it can foster dedication and perseverance.

“That, to me, is helping students appreciate that we don’t just set a goal and hope to achieve it,” says Mulligan. “I tell them, ‘Look back at everything you have written on your schedule. Now look at your goal. Do you think you’ve dedicated enough time for engaging with course material to achieve it?’”

An extra step: Debugging after exams

Mulligan has added an unofficial sixth goal-setting step to DAPPS: a “debugging” strategy designed to spark introspection. After exams, Mulligan distributes a 20-question handout that asks students to reflect on their performance and work habits leading up to that moment. (This can also be used after an assignment or project.)

The handout specifically inquires about how they kept up with course review, participated in discussion-board posting, maintained class attendance, took advantage of office hours, sought out free campus tutoring, and other such subjects.

Mulligan does not require them to turn in this handout, as its purpose is personal to each of them. She tells them, “The intention isn’t to make you feel bad but to help you realize there’s a lot more you can do next time.”

Her goal? “It’s connecting their effort to their outcome, which is really what a growth mindset is all about—the realization that if I do more, I can improve my understanding of this content.”

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