The Student Experience Research Network is excited to share results from six projects funded in the first round of our Mindsets & the Learning Environment Initiative. Snapshots from each of the individual projects are linked below, followed by a discussion of emerging themes from across the portfolio and implications for future research.
About the initiative
The Student Experience Research Network launched the interdisciplinary initiative in Fall 2016 to explore how learning environments shape the mindsets students develop about learning and school. The project’s aim is to generate scientific evidence about how educators, school systems, and structures can convey messages to students that they belong and are valued at school, that their intellectual abilities can be developed, and that what they are doing in school matters.
Fourteen projects were awarded over two rounds of this initiative. Funding for the initiative was generously provided by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Joyce Foundation, Overdeck Family Foundation, and Raikes Foundation.
Six of the eight projects funded in the first round have been completed and research snapshots with their findings are linked below. Findings from the remaining two projects and the second round projects are slated to be released this winter.
- Understanding the impact of “psychologically wise” classroom practices on student achievement (Principal Investigators: Geoffrey Cohen & Tanner LeBaron Wallace)
- Relationships between mindsets, socioeconomic status, and academic achievement (Principal Investigator: Mesmin Destin)
- A big biodata approach to mindsets, learning environments, and college success (Principal Investigators: Sidney D’Mello & Angela Duckworth)
- Relationships between mindsets and academic outcomes in a statewide system of higher education (Principal Investigators: Christopher Hulleman & Stephanie Wormington)
- Developmental neural and psychosocial correlates of learning mindsets among low socioeconomic adolescents from two cultural groups (Principal Investigators: Mary Helen Immordino-Yang & Camille Farrington)
- Evidence from half a million students on the importance of belonging in schools (Principal Investigator: Matthew Kraft)
Observations and emerging themes across the six completed projects
What have we learned from these six projects about the environments that meet the needs of students and support them to succeed? The following synthesizes across the individual contributions described in the research snapshot for each individual project, and highlights what we can learn from these projects when viewed as a collective.
- Think broadly about what constitutes an environment
Each of these research projects sought to expand our understanding of the environments that matter for student learning. So, what exactly is an environment? Certainly, the teacher and classroom constitute the most proximal environment for students’ learning. To that end, Cohen and colleagues focused on classroom context and assessed features of students’ direct learning context, by asking whether what a teacher says (consistent or in conflict with principles from mindset science) is related to students’ academic growth. The research teams lead by Kraft and Hulleman focused on whether students’ experiences of their institution influenced their academic achievement. Destin’s and Immordino-Yang’s research teams zoomed out, examining the role of environment outside of school (home life and socioeconomic conditions) in shaping what students’ believe about themselves, and in turn, the degree to which that matters for academics and social success. Collectively, these projects showed the importance of considering the psychological experience of students across various definitions of environments.
- Applying new methods can lead to new discoveries
Incorporating underutilized methodologies into research on mindsets shed light on important questions and also opened the door to new possibilities. D’Mello and colleagues’ research reinforced prior findings that mindsets matter for long-term postsecondary outcomes. His team used a machine learning approach to analyze biographical data (“biodata”), extracting behaviors associated with students’ mindsets from self-reports of work and extracurricular activities found in college applications. Immordino-Yang and colleagues applied neuroscience methodologies to examine how mindsets relate to developmental changes in social-emotional processing during adolescence. And Cohen and colleagues paired qualitative video-coding with quantitative methods to create a fuller picture of 9th-grade classroom environments that support learning mindsets. All of these projects strike at questions that could not adequately be addressed with traditional social psychological approaches alone.
- Large-scale data is a burgeoning frontier for mindset and learning environment research
MSN scholars are at the forefront of new opportunities to conduct large-scale research on environments that support student mindsets. Interdisciplinary work by Hulleman, Kraft, D’Mello, and Destin, and their colleagues all investigated whether and how students’ environments matter for their beliefs about belonging, purpose and relevance, and growth mindset in educational contexts. Together, these projects provide evidence that there is variation in self-reported mindsets based on individual student background and that these differences predict meaningful variation in outcomes. Research using large-scale data has the potential to produce more generalizable findings, providing fertile ground for asking new questions about learning environments and replicating or reproducing previous findings. Pairing already-collected large-scale data with new data collection on the same population (e.g., D’Mello’s and Hulleman’s research teams) is a clever way to leverage large-scale data for answering questions that were not anticipated during the original data collection process.
- The learning environment matters for mindsets and outcomes across developmental stages
Taken together, there is an emerging body of evidence suggesting that environment matters for students’ mindsets and academic and social outcomes across the developmental trajectory. This evidence comes from studies that leveraged longitudinal data that tracked students across multiple years in K-12, postsecondary education, or both (e.g., research teams lead by Immordino-Yang, D’Mello, Hulleman, and Kraft). That is, environment shapes immediate psychological experiences, but also later outcomes. This suggests the need to take a dynamic, longitudinal look at the environment, mindsets, and outcomes, such as that suggested by social psychological research on ‘recursive’ processes—that is, the interplay between individuals’ psychological experiences and social environments over time that contributes to later outcomes.
- Students perceive different messages from their environment that are associated with important outcomes
Prior research has found causal links between students’ psychological beliefs—that they belong in school, that they can grow and excel academically, and that their schoolwork is relevant to their lives or a larger purpose—and a number of academic outcomes (e.g., better attendance, grades, and college persistence). These projects illustrated that students are not receiving those messages equitably from the environment, both inside and outside of school. Destin and colleagues found that, relative to peers from more advantaged backgrounds, students from more economically disadvantaged backgrounds were less likely to report a growth mindset, on average, in a nationally representative sample of regular public U.S. high schools. Likewise, Kraft and colleagues found large average differences in self-reports of belonging in five of the largest districts in California. Black students, and Black girls in particular, reported significantly lower levels of belonging in school than their Asian, Latinx, Multiracial, and White peers. And in a sample of 20 mathematics classrooms, Cohen and colleagues found that lower-achieving 9th-grade students were less likely than their higher-achieving peers to be in classrooms where teachers conveyed psychologically-wise messages related to growth, belonging, purpose, and affirmation. These differences in students’ experiences were related to meaningful differences in academic behaviors and educational outcomes.
Where should the field go from here?
The Student Experience Research Network’s investment in interdisciplinary research encouraged the scientific community to look beyond intervention studies to understand how students’ psychological processes are shaped by environments in ways that matter for academic and life outcomes, often using large samples, or cutting across multiple developmental stages. There are many important directions for future interdisciplinary research about mindsets and the environment.
- Research should dig deeper on how students differentially perceive, and are differentially exposed to environments; these inquiries should involve complementary quantitative and qualitative approaches that together can produce a richer picture of different students’ psychological experiences of school, as well as their experiences of outside environments that matter for school. This would benefit from equity-centered approaches that, for example, take students’ various identities, and the intersectionality of those identities, into account.
- The field needs to develop and validate measures of the mindset environment (at multiple levels: from instructional tasks and pedagogy to institutional policies and broader socio-cultural contexts) that will allow a deeper understanding of students’ psychological experience of school and how reforms are changing students’ psychological experience in ways that affect their outcomes. Such measures could be incorporated into future large-scale data collections to enable more generalizable, policy-relevant analyses.
- And finally, research should elucidate “psychologically-active” ingredients in environments; such insights could help promote more effective real-world implementation and adaptation of promising research on environments by explaining why some environments are positive, how environments are experienced differentially by different students, and to what effect (i.e., what impact on which outcomes for which students). This could be accomplished by including quantitative and qualitative measures of psychologically-relevant features of environments as well as students’ own psychological experiences of their environment, as part of rigorous research on educational programs and policies.