Student Experience Research Network Blog

In a higher education session at the Education Writers Association’s 69th National Seminar, Paul Tough made the case for why research on learning mindsets is so critical to systemic efforts to expand educational opportunity.

Recent media attention has focused on low-cost learning mindset interventions that lessen ‘psychological friction’ and improve grades and persistence by enhancing a sense of belonging, particularly among students from underrepresented groups. Mindset Scholar Mary Murphy presented the College Transition Collaborative’s work on such programs in one of the EWA ‘solution showcases’ earlier that day.

But Paul highlighted one of the other featured solutions—Temple University’s multi-pronged initiative designed to boost retention rates—as evidence of why learning mindset research is even more powerful in looking beyond brief interventions to more comprehensive reforms in education.

Unlike mindset interventions, which target specific beliefs with laser-like precision, these structural interventions attempt to create changes in students’ circumstances as a way to promote better outcomes.

Temple’s Senior Vice-Provost for Undergraduate Studies, Peter Jones, described several major, university-wide initiatives designed to build students’ “commitment, bonds, and ties” with the institution in order to increase retention.

Temple’s data show dramatic increases in achievement and persistence among students at greatest risk for leaving college without a degree, but Peter told the audience of reporters that he is unable to disentangle which of the initiatives are responsible for these outcomes.

In his remarks, Paul offered his take on promising comprehensive programs like Temple’s. In particular, he drew out the link to research on learning mindsets.

Mindset research utilizes randomized controlled trials that follow students for many months and years. These studies have shown repeatedly that students’ psychological experience of school has a direct, causal effect on their academic motivation and achievement over time. When students believe they ‘belong’ on campus, for example, they are more likely to interpret setbacks as temporary and build social and academic ties that enhance their grades and persistence over time.

Due to this unusual level of scientific rigor, Paul argued that the evidence of the importance of learning mindsets is the “clearest” of all the recent work exploring factors in college success.

“Even the people running these [comprehensive] programs aren’t exactly sure what’s going on because of all the moving parts,” Paul said. But he believes that research on learning mindsets offers a valuable glimpse inside the ‘black box’ of these systemic efforts.

In doing so, learning mindset research can provide insight as to these comprehensive programs’ most essential components—critical considerations when higher ed institutions, intermediaries, and funders are thinking about replication and adaptation of promising reforms.

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