What does it mean to get a bad grade on one exam? For some students, it’s a blip, a particularly hard test, or a minor setback. For other students, it’s a clear message they aren’t cut out for the subject. Decades of psychological research gives us insight as to why students can interpret, and respond to setbacks in such different ways.
A person’s mindsets shape how he or she interprets, and responds to daily experiences in the world, particularly challenges and experiences of adversity. In school, mindsets shape how students perceive their learning experiences. These mindsets include students’ beliefs about the nature of ability, the extent to which they feel they belong in their school, and whether they perceive their schoolwork as personally relevant or connected to a larger purpose.
Mindsets influence whether or not students engage productively with day-to-day academic and social challenges in school because they affect the way in which students understand the meaning of these challenges. These challenges are important because they are opportunities for students to experience the greatest growth. When students see these experiences as normal and opportunities to grow and learn skills that matter, they’re more motivated to embrace challenges and exhibit resilience when they struggle or make mistakes.
Mindsets are not fixed traits. Students learn them from society, their interactions with others, and their experiences in school. Researchers have found that we can encourage students to adopt learning mindsets by changing the messages they receive from their learning environments and by delivering brief programs directly to students.
Over the past decade, researchers have tested a series of brief programs that use precise, carefully constructed messages to encourage students to adopt learning mindsets that in turn, shape their academic trajectories months and years later. These mindset interventions include programs that teach students about neuroscientific findings about how our brains gets smarter; programs that present evidence to students that everyone struggles when they first get to college, but things typically get better with time; and programs that help students connect what they’re learning to their lives and a larger purpose.
Researchers are also currently exploring how parents, teachers, and even institutions convey certain mindsets about learning and school implicitly through what they say and do. By changing how adults interact with students in the learning context, we can encourage students to adopt learning mindsets.
At this critical stage, mindset research is taking on several important questions, including:
- In what kinds of schools and classrooms are mindset programs most effective? Do they need to be customized for specific institutional settings?
- How can mindset programs be adapted to be relevant and impactful in different cultural settings?
- What instructional practices, school climates, and structural aspects of schooling promote—or hinder—the development of learning mindsets?
- How can mindset interventions work hand in hand with other approaches to reducing educational inequality?
These are the types of questions that lend themselves to an interdisciplinary lens and that the members of the Student Experience Research Network are addressing in their research collaborations.
Regardless of whether we try to promote learning mindsets through our interactions with students or brief, social psychological programs, learning mindsets are not a silver bullet, nor a solution to the problems of structural inequality in education. They can position students to take greater advantage of the learning resources that are already present in their schools. But even when students adopt learning mindsets, their educational outcomes are shaped by the structural opportunities in their schools and communities. As such, mindsets may have an important role to play in broader, systemic efforts to improve student outcomes and expand educational opportunity.