Mindset has been a recurring theme throughout my blog posts. (If you need a quick primer on the difference between fixed and growth mindset, you can find a good summary here.) In a nutshell, people with a fixed mindset believe that intelligence and talents are pretty much fixed, whereas those with a growth mindset believe that these same attributes can be developed with practice.
Students with a growth mindset tend to be more productive learners, so I have written quite a bit about helping students cultivate a growth mindset; here are a few examples:
I have also written about having a growth mindset myself, as an instructor. For example, the post entitled Instructors: Be kind to your future self gives a few tips for quickly noting your observations about each class session so you can improve your teaching in the future when you teach the same course again.
But other than developing our talents as instructors, does having a growth mindset matter to our students in any measurable way? According to this article, the answer is yes. The article, which appeared in Science Advances, is entitled “STEM faculty who believe ability is fixed have larger racial achievement gaps and inspire less student motivation in their classes.” The four-author team consisted of Elizabeth A. Canning, Katherine Muenks, Dorainne J. Green and Mary C. Murphy.
The title pretty much says it all, but let’s dive in a little deeper. Here’s a quote from the article’s abstract:
Faculty mindset beliefs predicted student achievement and motivation above and beyond any other faculty characteristic, including their gender, race/ethnicity, age, teaching experience, or tenure status.
Surprised? I confess that I was, especially at the thought that faculty beliefs about student mindsets was the single most important factor in predicting student achievement and motivation. It’s even more important than teaching experience! So I looked more closely at the article to evaluate the strength of their evidence. Read on to learn more.
The article begins with the premise that, on average, underrepresented racial minorities (URM) do not do as well as their white peers in STEM classes. In addition, the authors recognized that faculty members may harbor racial stereotypes and are likely to have varying beliefs about whether or not student abilities are fixed. The researchers designed their study to learn whether “these faculty beliefs are associated with URM students’ motivation and their academic achievement in those professors’ STEM courses.” In particular, they predicted that URM students in classes taught by professors who endorse fixed mindset beliefs would “experience lower motivation and underperform relative to their non-stereotyped peers.”
The study was impressive in its scale. Over seven semesters, the researchers surveyed 150 STEM faculty from 13 STEM departments at one university. The survey questions assessed the degree to which each faculty member identified with fixed or growth mindset beliefs. The researchers also retrieved grades and racial identifiers for all of the 15,000+ students enrolled in the classes taught by these 150 STEM faculty.
Overall, students performed more poorly in courses taught by faculty endorsing a fixed mindset (P = 0.011). But the effect was stronger for URM students than for white or Asian students. While racial achievement gaps persisted in STEM classes overall, the gap for classes taught by professors endorsing fixed mindset beliefs was 0.19 grade points (GPA scale of 4.0), whereas the gap for their counterparts with growth mindset beliefs was 0.10 grade points.
Interestingly, the researchers did not find that a faculty member’s gender, race, age, STEM discipline, tenure status, or years of teaching experience influenced the likelihood of endorsing fixed vs. growth mindset. Nor did any of these characteristics predict student performance as strongly as faculty beliefs about mindset.
The researchers mined student course evaluation data to learn more about the student experience. For example, one possible explanation for the results is that faculty who believe in fixed abilities happen to design classes that are tougher than those of their growth-mindset colleagues. To test for this possibility, the researchers analyzed responses to this student evaluation question: “Compared to other courses you’ve taken how much time did this course require?” The result? No difference, suggesting that the differences could not be explained by course difficulty.
Instead, two other evaluation responses turned out to be important: “How much did the instructor motivate you to do your best work?” and “How much did the instructor emphasize student learning and development?” The researchers found that faculty endorsing a fixed mindset tended to be “demotivating” and to use teaching practices that were less likely to emphasize learning and development. In turn, these practices were associated with lower course grades.
The results of this large study are noteworthy because they point to potential steps that all faculty can take to boost equity and help erase achievement gaps. In particular, as instructors, we can each take an honest look at where our beliefs lie. Do you think that some students are inherently brilliant and others are doomed to fail? If so, you probably think it doesn’t matter what you do in the classroom. On the other hand, do you think that students who are willing and able to put in the work can be guided to higher achievement, regardless of their starting point? I do, and research like this shows that working toward a thoughtful approach to teaching really does make a difference in student lives.
How can students tell if their instructor believes in their potential to develop and grow? For one thing, it doesn’t hurt to tell them! But those encouraging words should be backed up by teaching practices that give students a chance to practice, discuss, struggle, receive feedback, and reflect. That doesn’t mean reworking your class from the ground up. It can instead involve adding small practices that make a big difference. For ideas, please click over to one more blog post from the past: It is about an article by Kimberly Tanner, in which she promotes “Twenty-One Teaching Strategies to Promote Student Engagement and Cultivate Classroom Equity.” I urge you to check it out. Picking up a few of her ideas can help bring energy and equality to your classroom, two good steps on the road to cultivating a growth mindset in your own students.