Mindsets and the learning environment: What can teacher and student survey data teach us about school organization and equitable development of students’ learning mindsets?
The Student Experience Research Network launched an 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 the initiative. Funding was generously provided by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Joyce Foundation, Overdeck Family Foundation, and Raikes Foundation. Seventeen different Network scholars are participating along with over 20 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 part of a series of blog posts in which we will hear from the leaders of each of the projects funded in the second round of the initiative 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 Learning Mindsets, Teacher Practice, and School Organizations: Becoming Effective Learners Survey and 5Essentials is led by Mindset Scholar Camille Farrington and the Student Experience Research Network Research Director Shanette Porter. In this study, Camille, Shanette, and their colleagues explore how elements of school organization (e.g., leadership and professional collaboration and supports) are related to teacher practice and students’ learning mindsets and performance.
Who are the members of the research team?
Camille Farrington, Shanette Porter, Sangyoon Park, Christopher Young, and Faye Kroshinsky comprise the research team. With expertise in social psychology, educational policy, cognitive psychology, psychometrics, and survey methodology, the team is able to draw on multidisciplinary approaches to produce rigorous and thoughtful conclusions. Camille also has fifteen years of experience as a classroom teacher to aid in the interpretation of findings and application to school and classroom policy and practice.
What is the purpose of the project and how will it fit into the field of mindset science?
This project leverages rich survey data collected by the University of Chicago Consortium on School Research to illuminate the role of learning environments in fostering students’ mindsets and shaping academic performance. This project aims to identify school characteristics, teacher mindsets, and teaching practices that are related to both academic metrics and socioemotional variables.
The project also explores the ways in which teachers’ perceptions of the professional environment in their school (e.g., teacher-principal trust, teacher-teacher collaboration), teachers’ mindsets (e.g., growth mindset, feelings of belonging), and teachers’ classroom practices (e.g., assessment practice, homework policy) differentially predict students’ learning mindsets and academic performance – that is, the extent to which the relationships between teacher and school factors vary based on students’ demographic background and incoming achievement.
While most research to date has focused on differences among students or classrooms in the same school, a second set of questions posed by this research team will address the extent to which students in the same classroom have different experiences, and how those different experiences are related to students’ learning mindsets and course grades. Finally, this research will seek to unpack differences between students in the same classroom by examining (1) what predicts students’ individual ratings of their classrooms and (2) what predicts variation in ratings within classrooms.
About the data
This study uses Becoming Effective Learners teacher and student survey data collected during the 2015-2016 academic year. Student demographic information, course grades, and test scores are provided by the school district or charter management organization.
Since 2012, the University of Chicago Consortium on School Research has been administering the Becoming Effective Learners Student Survey (BEL-S) and, in 2015-16, the Becoming Effective Learners Teacher Survey (BEL-T) to schools and districts around the country. The BEL Student Survey measures students’ perceptions of their classroom conditions and student learning mindsets and behaviors. The BEL Teacher Survey measures teacher perceptions of their professional environment, teacher perceptions of their students, teacher mindsets, and teacher practice.
For the current project, the researchers first used BEL-S and BEL-T data to examine the relationship between student and teacher reports of teacher practices. They compared student measures aggregated to the teacher level (i.e., the average of all student reports of classroom practices for a given teacher) to teacher measures (i.e., a teacher’s own report of his or her practice). Results showed that there was only a weak correlation between student and teacher measures of teacher classroom practices.
Next, the team tested whether student or teacher perceptions of teacher practices predicted students’ grades. They found that both student and teacher reports were significantly related to students’ course performance, with student reports being the better predictor of course grades.
There are many possible explanations for this finding. For example, what students see and feel (students’ perceptions of their teacher’s practice) may matter more for their course performance than positive but invisible teacher beliefs and behaviors (as perceived by teachers). Likewise, teachers could be unintentionally conveying beliefs that nevertheless influence students’ perceptions of them.
Alternatively, there may be methodological reasons for this finding. Teachers were asked to report on their “typical classroom,” which may be biased and fail to capture important variation between their best and worst classroom practices. Students, on the other hand, report on their experience with a teacher within a specific classroom context. The average of students’ reports of their teacher may represent a better summary than a single self-report from a teacher.
What are the next steps for the project?
“The question of why different students report different classroom conditions within the same classroom is a critical one, if our research is going to be able to inform teachers’ practice.”
An interesting new finding from our research is the wide variability in students’ individual reports of teacher practice within the same classroom. “We know from our earlier research that how a student experiences their classroom learning environments and teacher practices predicts that student’s beliefs, specifically sense of belonging, growth mindset, and relevance—and those beliefs in turn predict the student’s performance in the class,” Camille explained. “The question of why different students report different classroom conditions within the same classroom is a critical one, if our research is going to be able to inform teachers’ practice.”
The team’s final set of analyses will take up this question, examining whether there are systematic differences in students’ classroom reports by student background characteristics such as achievement level, racial/ethnic background, gender, or family socioeconomic disadvantage – and unpacking why these differences may exist. Shanette explains, “we have new descriptive analyses that show that students with lower incoming achievement rate their classrooms more poorly and have worse grades. This had led us to look more closely at our data in order to examine the strength of the relationship between teacher practices and lower achieving students’ outcomes specifically, as well as the extent to which lower achieving students (relative to their higher achieving peers) are differentially exposed to higher quality classrooms.”
Together, these analyses will inform policy-oriented questions about both teacher instructional practices and tracking within schools. The Student Experience Research Network will continue to feature the findings from this project as the results are released.