We started our 3-month customer sprint in early June. Our goal was to meet people in our community who fit our target market, and hear their stories.

Over the course of this sprint, our app idea has begun to crystallize. It started with a story, not from a customer, but from my co-founder, Paul. He recalled working on a problem in a college science course lab, getting stuck on it, and being unable to get help from the outnumbered T.A., while also not knowing anyone in the lab to ask for help.

protagonist lab app ideaHe and I have several of those types of recollections from college, and when we started talking to current college students, we found that lots of them had experienced something similar. Current innovations in education, such as greater integration of technology and media and the experimentation with a “flipped classroom,” can exacerbate the feeling of isolation or being confused by a concept and left on your own to figure it out.

The feeling of getting stuck can also happen outside of a classroom or lab environment. A student might be in a panic over an upcoming test or exam. Or a student might have received her first mid-term grade and feel shocked and disappointed.

What we heard from students seemed to involve two things. First, there is an emotional response: “OMG what do I do now? I’m terrified!” Second, this feeling of stuck-ness may cause students to doubt their basic innate abilities and potential: “I suck. I’m not good at this. I made the wrong choice of majors. What am I even doing here?”

During our discussions with students, we’ve tried to learn how they cope with this experience of getting stuck on something and needing help. We’ve also met with college faculty and staff who have shared how they coach students in this situation. To us, the most interesting technique that has emerged is the use of study buddies, study groups, and turning to a friend for emotional support.

It’s no surprise that turning to a friend, peer, lab-mate, or just a friendly face from class can alleviate emotional dejection. The student receives empathy and support.

In addition to emotional support, working in pairs, trios, or groups can have other benefits. First, students can work on problems together, find solutions, and share strategies. So if someone is stuck on a problem, working with others might help get to the answer.

Beyond that, however, is something deeper and even more fascinating to us. We’re starting to explore the relationship between co-learning and the development of a growth mindset.

Fixed vs. growth mindset is a concept pioneered by Carol Dweck, a researcher and professor at Stanford University who studies psychology and motivation. Whereas students with a fixed mindset view effort and difficulty as things that make them feel dumb, students with a growth mindset view effort and difficulty as things that make them feel smarter. The experience of putting effort into learning spurs their minds to make new connections, and that feels exciting and rewarding. These students seek engagement with the material, even if – or especially if – it is challenging, while their fixed mindset peers try to avoid challenges, and may cheat or seek easier work. The growth mindset is linked to greater academic and professional success, as well as less stress and greater personal satisfaction.

Students and faculty have told us that working in groups does a few things:

  • Makes them feel more optimistic about the course.
  • Ignites more curiosity and interest in the material.
  • Gets them through difficult obstacles.
  • Makes them feel good about having helped others.
  • Motivates them to engage more actively in the coursework than watching videos and doing worksheets.


These seem to us like behaviors that indicate a shift away from the fixed to the growth mindset. Away from “I suck,” to “I’m on a learning curve.”

So here’s what we’ve learned:

  • Getting stuck is frustrating and scary.
  • Working with others can help get over that initial frustration and fear.
  • Co-learning may also help develop a growth mindset, which could have lasting benefit.


Our big questions now are:

  • Do students view co-learning as beneficial?
  • Do they pursue co-learning to get through academic obstacles?
  • If so, how do they do it? What are the logistical barriers to finding study partners?
  • What frustrations occur within a study group or partnership that hinder its success?
  • What kinds of solutions do students want to ease the logistical barriers and complexities of forming study groups?


When we first started our conversations with students we had a rather different set of questions. But questions have led to more questions, not answers. As we’ve learned more, we’ve adapted our questions and our thoughts about possible solutions.

We’ve also realized that through this exciting and compelling process we’re developing our own growth mindset – embracing effort and challenge because it feels good to flex our brain cells and gain new insights. Accepting that what we thought we would do in the beginning is not what this customer sprint has led us to.


Erika Williamson, founder of Protagonist Lab. Database developer and IT consultant. Future philanthropist.