Mindsets and the learning environment: How teachers’ mindsets about mathematical ability influence their practice
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 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 research project, Teachers’ mindsets about mathematical ability as a feature of the learning environment, is led by Mindset Scholar Andrei Cimpian. In this study, Andrei and his teammates are using data from the National Study of Learning Mindsets in order to explore the relationship between teachers’ mindsets, classroom environments, and students’ academic outcomes.
Who are the members of the research team?
Andrei, the team leader, is an expert in exploring how environmental cues influence individuals’ mindsets and behavior. Other members of the team include Mindset Scholars David Yeager and Matt Kraft and their colleagues Joseph Cimpian and Sophia Yang Hooper. The team includes experts in psychology, economics, education policy, and data analysis.
What is the purpose of the project and how will it fit into the field of mindset science?
The National Study of Learning Mindsets draws upon an unusually large data set that includes roughly 20,000 9th grade students attending a nationally representative sample of 76 U.S. public high schools.
Leveraging such a comprehensive sample allows the team to explore the complex relationships between teachers’ beliefs, their behaviors in the classroom, and their students’ mindsets and academic performance.
How do teachers’ mindsets about intelligence and ability influence their classroom culture and practices?
Teachers are an incredibly important factor in student outcomes, though the ways they influence their students’ experiences and performance can be difficult to measure. “Teachers set the tone for the classroom through their behaviors, which are influenced by their beliefs,” said Andrei. For example, when teachers report they believe intelligence or math ability can improve over time, this could affect how they respond to students who are struggling with a math problem.
This study is using both qualitative and quantitative data to explore how teachers’ reported beliefs influence the way they teach and respond to students. The researchers hope their findings will further understanding of the way teachers’ beliefs may influence both the classroom contexts they create, as well as students’ individual perceptions of those contexts.
“Teachers set the tone for the classroom through their behaviors, which are influenced by their beliefs.”
How do messages teachers send about their beliefs about ability influence students’ own mindsets and their academic performance?
What if your teacher believes that only certain students can be good at math? Or, conversely, what if your teacher believes that all students have the potential to grow their math ability over time? How might these differing beliefs affect a teacher’s pedagogy—and how their students interpret the teacher’s instruction? This project explores how students’ perceptions of their teachers’ beliefs about math may influence their own academic behaviors and mindsets about learning.
About the data
The dataset featured in the project, the National Study of Learning Mindsets (NSLM), 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. Insights from this project and others using the data from the NSLM 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.
The data being used for this study also includes rich qualitative data focused on teachers’ attitudes about math and math ability. Teachers responded to the following prompts:
- “Imagine that one of your 9th grade math students was very discouraged in math class. What would you say?”
- “Imagine one of your math students was doing very well in math class. What would you say?”
Teachers’ written responses were analyzed to see whether they used growth-oriented language. These qualitative data are allowing Andrei and his team to supplement the findings from the survey items and provide a more complex look at how teachers’ beliefs may relate to their practice. For example, a teacher who uses growth-oriented practices may ask a struggling student about the process she uses when attempting to solve a problem, or may suggest new strategies for the student to try.
“Teachers’ beliefs about what it takes to be good at math were a good clue as to how they would behave in the classroom.”
The research team has completed preliminary analyses comparing teachers’ responses to the National Study’s qualitative prompts, and their self-reported mindsets about intelligence and mathematical ability. Initial analyses have found a weak relationship between teachers’ self-reported mindsets about intelligence and their propensity to respond in growth-oriented ways to students struggling with math. For example, even when teachers report having a growth mindset about intelligence, they are not especially likely to provide growth-oriented feedback, such as conveying to students that they will be able to improve over time with effort and effective strategies, when given hypothetical classroom prompts.
However, as Andrei explains, “teachers’ beliefs about what it takes to be good at math were a good clue as to how they would behave in the classroom.” Teachers who report that they do not think students need a natural gift or talent to excel at math are more likely to respond in growth-oriented ways to students struggling with math. This suggests that teachers’ beliefs about mathematical ability may be a better predictor of the way they will interact with their students, and the type of classroom environment they create for their students, than teachers’ general beliefs about intelligence.
What are the next steps for the project?
The research team is preparing to receive additional data from the National Study of Learning Mindsets to complete their analyses. Once the data is received, they will explore how these trends and relationships vary across groups. For example, do environmental contexts and cues from teachers matter more for students who belong to groups that tend to be negatively stereotyped about their mathematical abilities, such as female or African American students? The Student Experience Research Network will continue to feature the findings from this project as the results are released.