Mindsets and the learning environment: Exploring the links between socioeconomic contexts and mindsets
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 first in a series of eight posts in which we will hear from the leader of each research 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.
The first project we are highlighting, The nature and reproducibility of mindset effects across diverse contexts, is led by Mindset Scholar Mesmin Destin, a professor of psychology at Northwestern University. Mesmin describes the project as “a chance to contextualize the role of mindsets in some of these larger socioeconomic disparities in educational achievement and outcomes.”
The project uses three datasets: a nationally representative sample of public high schools from the National Study of Learning Mindsets (~16,000 students); a group of schools in a large urban district in the southwest (~1,500 students); and a group of schools from the National Study of Learning Mindsets pilot study (~7,500 students). Mesmin and his team are using this diverse sample of students to explore how environmental factors may influence students’ mindsets about intelligence (i.e., fixed vs. growth mindset), particularly their socioeconomic status (SES).
“This [project] is a chance to contextualize the role of mindsets in some of these larger socioeconomic disparities in educational achievement and outcomes.”
Who are the members of the research team?
In addition to Mesmin, the team includes Mindset Scholars Elizabeth Tipton, Stephanie Fryberg, David Yeager, Robert Crosnoe, Chandra Muller, and their colleague Paul Hanselman. The group includes experts in psychology, statistics, sociology, and data analysis.
What is the purpose of this project and how will it further the field of mindset science?
National trends in mindsets about intelligence among 9th graders
Mesmin explains that the project offers “a unique opportunity to use data that’s been collected from across the country with students from different backgrounds.” This will enable the team to observe how mindsets about intelligence vary across a wide range of communities nationwide, something that has never been done at this scale. Additionally, the data will allow the team to explore national trends in the relationship between these mindsets and student outcomes, and assess how students’ mindsets may be influenced by differences in their socioeconomic context.
“This is a unique opportunity to use data that’s been collected from across the country with students from different backgrounds.”
The relationship between SES, students’ mindsets, and academic performance
Previous researchers have documented a strong correlation between SES and academic achievement; students from higher-income backgrounds tend to perform better on average than students from lower-income backgrounds. Recent research in Chile found that the mindsets students held about intelligence helped explain a portion of this relationship, as students from higher-income backgrounds were more likely to hold a growth mindset about their ability to learn and improve while students from lower-income backgrounds were more likely to hold a fixed mindset and regard their intelligence as a fixed trait. This relationship held even after controlling for many other individual- and school-level factors.
The project that Mesmin is leading will provide the first U.S. estimate of how much perceptions about the nature of intelligence explain the relationship between SES and academic performance compared to other factors, based on a national sample of American students.
Using three different datasets allows the researchers to work with multiple samples of students to see whether trends in mindsets differentially affect academic performance for students from different SES backgrounds. This information could help researchers more effectively target interventions aimed at helping schools and teachers cultivate growth mindsets in students.
Addressing the importance of reproducibility in psychological research
The use of multiple datasets is a critical component of the project. It allows the research team to explore how trends replicate across datasets and solidifies scientists’ confidence in their findings. Team member Elizabeth Tipton, an expert in statistical analysis, will be providing guidance in analytical techniques and sample design. She is leading a component of the project testing the reproducibility of patterns and effects across samples.
About the data
The key dataset featured in the project, the National Study of Learning Mindsets, is the largest-ever randomized controlled trial of mindset interventions. It is one of the only studies in the history of the social and behavioral sciences to use the gold standard for testing cause and effect – a randomized experiment – as well as the gold standard for making claims about a population of schools – a random sample.
Because of its unusual design and the rich data collected on students’ psychological experience of learning and school, the dataset will help illuminate the role environments play in shaping students’ mindsets and motivation. These insights will help practitioners and policymakers design school contexts where all students feel that they can grow their ability, that they belong and are valued, and that what they are doing in school matters.
What are the next steps for the project?
The research team is about to receive the data from the National Study of Learning Mindsets. These data will allow the team to see whether the findings from their analyses of the two smaller datasets are replicated in the larger, nationally representative sample of public high schools.