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Center for Teaching Excellence

East Tennessee State University

Positive Identity

Positive Identity
Why Work to Help Students Build Positive Identities?

Have you noticed that when you - or someone else - labels you with positive traits, you're motivated to demonstrate, support, or keep that identity? Good parent. Helpful colleague. Expert in your field.

You want to do things to keep that identity - that show you possess those traits. You might even go out of your way: Read more about parenting, mentor a new faculty member, provide a pro bono seminar to a group interested in your work.

This is natural, and it can be used with students, too. The trick is to provide them with identities that will resonate and that they will want to live up to.

What kinds of positive identities can I provide to my students?

Types of positive identities can vary. Consider proposing to students identities that reflect

  • Expertise (e.g., in the course content or a course topic)
  • Professional Aspirations (e.g., "pharmacist," "educator")
  • Skill Level (e.g., "advanced," "senior-level")
  • Valued Personal Characteristics (e.g., "conscientiousness")

How Can I Convey to Students the Positive Identities I Want Them to Have?

1. Announce your expectations to the class. This is best done either at the beginning of the semester or at the beginning of a specific assignment.

  • Examples:
      • "By the end of this semester, you should all be knowledgeable enough to consider yourselves experts in [course content]."
      • "This assignment will help you to hone a valuable professional skill that will help you to be the excellent [biologist/mathematician/musician] I know you want to be."
      • "I believe that the work in this course will help you learn how to think deeply, so that by the end of the semester, you will beadvanced thinkers."

2. Encourage individual positive identities when necessary.

  • Examples:
      • "Tara, your work shows great integrity. I think you demonstrate the characteristics of a master student."
      • "John, I think you've gained a great amount of knowledge and are becoming a real authority on autism."

3. Allow students to self-select a positive identity.

  • Examples:
  • Have students self-reflect and put in writing what they believe to be their best characteristics as a student. Sharing this publicly would work best as it provides incentive to demonstrate their best traits.
      • Have them discuss or post these traits in an introductory class discussion.
      • Have them write a "student resumé" that is then posted for other students' reviews. (This strategy could also help you when students need to work in groups - they can select groupmates based upon the resumé information.)
  • Allow students to select specific course material about which they will become the class expert. Note that this option also provides students with a sense of choice or autonomy.
      • Have students select content from a chapter or segment of the course that they learn more about and allow them to facilitate class discussion about it.
      • Allow students to select a topic for their larger course assignments (e.g., term paper, culminating project) and convey that you will consider them the experts in these topics.
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