Student Experience Research Network Blog

In early 2017, the Student Experience Research Network launched a new interdisciplinary initiative, called Mindsets and the Learning Environment, to explore how school and classroom environments shape students’ mindsets about learning. With funding from the Raikes Foundation, Overdeck Family Foundation, and the Joyce Foundation, the project’s aim is to rapidly generate scientific evidence about how schools and educators at all levels can convey messages to students that they can grow their ability, that they belong and are valued at school, and that what they are doing in school matters.

Eight research projects have been launched as part of the initiative. Seventeen different Network scholars are participating along with over a dozen external collaborators. The projects span a wide range of topics, from exploring how teacher practices cultivate learning mindsets and identity safety in K-12 classrooms, to the relationships between learning mindsets and neural processes throughout adolescent development.

This is the latest in a series of eight posts in which we will hear from the leaders of each project to find out more about the questions they are exploring, what they are learning, and how their work is advancing the field of mindset science.

Mindset Scholar Chris Hulleman and his colleague Stephanie Wormington are leading a project entitled, Learning mindset development in co-requisite courses across learning contexts. The project uses a large dataset from the Tennessee Board of Regents that features over 6,000 first-year students enrolled in co-requisite courses across 19 institutions of higher education, including both community colleges and four-year colleges and universities.

What is the purpose of this project and how will it advance the field of mindset science?

“What [the research team] is really interested in is helping an entire state address a problem that was very real for them.”

More and more jobs in the United States require applicants to hold a college degree. Yet many students struggle to graduate from college. Institutions of higher education across the country are working to adopt creative solutions to improve college enrollment, retention, and graduation rates.

In the state of Tennessee, 40 percent of community college students drop out after their first semester. A key goal across Tennessee’s higher education system is the Drive to 55, which seeks to ensure 55% of adults statewide hold some sort of post-secondary degree or certification. Achieving success on the Drive to 55 will require the state to significantly increase graduation rates across all of its higher ed institutions.

Tennessee’s Board of Regents has implemented a number of policy changes to address the issue of graduation rates and dropout, and one of the issues they identified as critical was students holding adaptive learning mindsets when they arrive at college.

Working with students enrolled in co-requisite courses

A new statewide initiative aimed at improving higher ed retention eliminated a traditional developmental model, where students who place below college-level in reading, writing, or math take non-credit courses before placing into courses that count towards a degree. These non-credit courses often serve as significant barriers to graduation, with some students failing the course more than 10 times.

In the new model all students enroll in credit-bearing courses from day one, but these courses are paired with a one-credit, “co-requisite” course that helps students develop core college-level academic skills alongside the regular course work. This approach enables students to earn credits towards their degree while also receiving the academic support they need to succeed. While other states have begun to use the co-requisite model, Tennessee has been at the forefront of adopting this method as a way to improve college graduation rates.

The majority of students participating in this study are enrolled in co-requisite courses.

How can mindset science be used to improve college outcomes?

The project uses data the state collected about the learning mindsets of incoming community college and four-year university students enrolled in co-requisite courses. By considering how learning mindsets relate to important academic outcomes like retention rates over time, while also acknowledging that mindsets won’t function in the same way for all students at all institutions, the team hopes to provide a more nuanced perspective about what mindsets are critical for incoming higher education students to be successful, specifically for students who are enrolled in co-requisite courses.

In looking for differences across contexts, the researchers will explore how individual student (e.g., socioeconomic factors), classroom (e.g., average reported growth mindset), and institution-wide factors (e.g., racial/ethnic makeup of student population) affect the relationship between students’ learning mindsets and academic performance.

By exploring these relationships, the project will provide insights about which learning mindsets – such as belonging, growth mindset or purpose and relevance – most influence academic performance and retention and under what circumstances. According to Stephanie, “What [the research team] is really interested in is helping an entire state address a problem that was very real for them by leveraging what we already know about learning mindsets from our own work and others’.”

The research team is incredibly interested in applying their research to on-the-ground work happening in higher ed institutions across the country. The team is using findings from this project along with qualitative data collected through focus groups and interviews to design interventions that promote adaptive mindsets across contexts.

Who are the members of the research team?

The team working on this project is multidisciplinary, with scholars from several fields collaborating and sharing their expertise. It includes three psychologists: Chris, Stephanie, and Tim Wilson, all based at the University of Virginia. Other members of the team include statistician Beth Tipton and economist Ron Ferguson. Together, the group shares decades of experience with field interventions, partnering with schools and local governments, and data analysis.

Initial findings

Initial findings suggest a relationship between whether students feel like they belong when they first enter college and retention rates. Students who reported feeling like they belonged at their school in the first few weeks of college were more likely to be enrolled in the spring semester. The same pattern was found for the subsequent three semesters as well, with students’ early perceptions of belonging predicting whether they remained enrolled through the first two years of college.

Additionally, students’ socioeconomic status predicted whether students were likely to feel they belonged at school. Students identified as low income through both self-reports and Pell grant eligibility were more likely to feel they did not belong. This finding suggests that institutions should pay attention to students’ sense of belonging as they transition to college, especially for students from lower socioeconomic levels.

As the research team continues their analysis, they will explore how this relationship and others are influenced by classroom and school-level factors in order to contextualize belonging and other mindsets in postsecondary environments. In future analyses, the research team will also examine intersectional questions by exploring how belonging varies among low-income students from different demographic backgrounds.

What are the next steps for the project?

“With the burgeoning research on academic mindsets, there is an increasing appetite among educators to enhance student mindsets through their educational practices.”

Chris and Stephanie are continuing their partnership with the state of Tennessee to explore how the relationship between learning mindsets and academic outcomes develops over time. To do so, they will look at additional outcomes including retention beyond the first year of college, grade point average, employment status, and income. They are collecting qualitative and quantitative data with students, faculty, advisors, and administrators across the state and using those insights to co-create interventions in community college contexts. They are also collecting data from students in technical colleges across the state.

Chris and Stephanie are also beginning a partnership with the state of Georgia to conduct similar research and help improve college outcomes in Georgia. Partnering with statewide groups of colleges and universities allows the researchers to work with data drawn from a large, diverse group of students. As Chris explains, “With the burgeoning research on academic mindsets, there is an increasing appetite among educators to enhance student mindsets through their educational practices. As the evidence supporting the importance of learning mindsets grows, higher education organizations are trying to determine how to support adaptive mindsets for students across their systems. The idea of scaling-up mindset interventions using evidence-demonstrated methods is catching, and our work contextualizing the role of learning mindsets across students and institutions will help provide useful evidence for scaling up our efforts.”

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