Meaning Makers: cultivating growth mindset environments
The concept of a growth mindset, originally studied by Carol Dweck, involves the belief that abilities are malleable and can improve with effort, feedback, and the appropriate strategies. On the other hand, a fixed mindset is the belief that some people are naturally good at certain subjects and that this can’t be changed substantially.
Research has shown that a fixed mindset can lead to decreased engagement, decreased persistence, and decreased performance, particularly when a student faces a challenge. However, a growth mindset does not just involve pure effort, as is commonly believed.
Embracing a growth mindset is also about seeking help and recognizing when one needs to switch strategies in order to achieve a desired result, and welcoming mistakes and challenges as a part of the journey to reach a certain level of ability. A growth mindset exists on a continuum, meaning it can be more present in some domains or situations than others. Ultimately, it is a belief system, not a goal-setting strategy, that helps guide the way people react to challenges and communicates with others about their abilities.
Most of the past research on growth mindset in the past 20 to 30 years has focused on students. However, individual beliefs are often influenced by the context of the environment as well. For example, students can perceive an instructor’s mindset through messaging and course design and become influenced in turn. Faculty who have more of a fixed mindset are more likely to encourage struggling students to drop difficult courses (e.g. “It’s okay, not everyone is meant to pursue a career in math”) and less likely to emphasize learning and development.
A fixed mindset belief in the classroom is demotivating for all students. It can especially trigger stereotype threat among stigmatized groups, in which the risk of confirming a negative stereotype about one’s group leads to lower performance. When instructors endorse a growth mindset, however, students are more likely to infer that, as long as they put in the required effort, seek support, go to office hours, and try different strategies, they can improve their abilities and succeed regardless of their group membership.
Dr. Elizabeth Canning, an Assistant Professor in the Psychology Department at Washington State University, dubs professors as “meaning makers” — they influence the classroom environment by providing meaning about various matters, such as what it means to receive a poor grade, to struggle while learning, and to feel a sense of belonging in the classroom. These meanings can be adopted by students and incorporated into their own belief systems, so it is important to be cognizant of the meaning that instructors are implicitly (or explicitly) providing. For example, when students receive a poor grade in spite of their high level of effort, they may interpret it to mean that they can’t do well in the class. Another way to interpret a poor grade, though, is that they simply didn’t use the right study strategies in this instance and can improve in the future.
In her talk on April 29, 2021, Professor Canning discusses the messages that influence students, particularly underrepresented students in STEM. She presented the results of three studies and ways that instructors can be explicit about meaning.
Study 1 summary
This study aimed to look at the correlation between faculty self-reported mindsets and student grades (Canning et al. 2019). All the STEM faculty were surveyed at one university, with 150 responses total. To measure faculty mindsets, respondents were asked to indicate whether they agreed with statements such as: “To be honest, students have a certain amount of intelligence and they really can’t do much to change it.” Course grades for every student taught by these 150 faculty over 7 semesters were then examined, with more than 15,000 undergraduate student grades.
The results showed that students earned higher grades in courses taught by faculty with more of a growth mindset than those with a fixed mindset. Minoritized students, in particular, measured using grades from over 1600 minority students over a 2-year span, performed more poorly in STEM courses with fixed mindset faculty.
The achievement gap was twice as large when faculty endorsed a fixed mindset compared to when they endorsed a growth mindset. This has big implications, especially given the total number of courses needed on the path to STEM careers like medicine or engineering; the effects can add up over time if a student is exposed to multiple professors who endorse a fixed mindset.
Based on data from course evaluations, students also felt more motivated by instructors with a growth mindset. Professors who endorse a fixed mindset were less likely to emphasize learning and development. This indicates that students do have a different classroom experience depending on the professor’s mindset. Overall, faculty mindset beliefs seem to predict students’ experiences in STEM courses, and may also contribute to the racial achievement gap in STEM fields. However, this study was a correlational study, which leads to the next study.
Study 2 summary
217 undergraduate students participated in this laboratory study (under review), which looked at perceived gender stereotypes in a sample Calculus II course. This study focused on gender effects because women tend to be negatively stereotyped in math, and Professor Canning wanted to look at a context where there are negative stereotypes about the group in question.
Participants were randomly assigned to read either a growth mindset syllabus or a fixed mindset syllabus. These syllabus manipulations were based both on focus groups that asked students how faculty communicate either a growth or fixed mindset and on a repository of real syllabi. For example, a fixed mindset syllabus might say that some students do not need to attend class regularly. In contrast, a growth mindset syllabus would emphasize that all students can learn something from class and are encouraged to attend. Students then answered statements regarding perceived gender stereotypes (“I think the professor in this class would endorse gender stereotypes”) and anticipated belonging (“If you were a student in this class, how much would you feel like you ‘fit in’?”). Finally, students took a math performance exam with 30 GRE math problems.
On average, students tended to think that the professor with a fixed mindset syllabus would endorse gender stereotypes more and reported that they would feel less belonging in a course when the professor endorsed a fixed mindset. There was no significant difference between genders on these outcomes for the growth mindset syllabus.
Men also significantly outperformed women in the fixed mindset condition, answering nearly 4 more problems correctly, with a 60% reduction in gender gap in the growth mindset condition.
This study established a causal link between faculty mindset and student outcomes. Communicating a fixed mindset is detrimental for all students, but especially for those in a negatively stereotyped group (in this case, women in math).
Study 3 summary
The previous study (in preparation) aims to examine whether there is a way to intervene and change the messaging in an actual course to affect student outcomes. In spring 2020, a randomized intervention was conducted in an introductory biology course with 500+ students. The population of interest here was first-generation students, which represented 23.7% of the course.
Professor Canning was particularly interested in examining imposter feelings for the first-generation population in this course. Previous research has shown that first-generation students often feel like imposters in college, leading to negative outcomes like higher dropouts, lower performance, and less help-seeking.
Everyone in the course was randomly assigned to receive a diff syllabus — the control group received the syllabus previously used in the class for many years, while the other half of the class received a growth mindset syllabus. There was also a follow-up in week 3 via email to reinforce messages in the syllabus with selected phrases from the syllabus, ensuring that students were exposed to their assigned control or growth mindset language in some way.
In week 15, 3 student outcomes were then measured:
- imposter feelings (“In this class, I feel like an imposter”),
- effort cost (“I have so many other responsibilities that I am unable to put in the effort that is necessary for this course,” and
- intrinsic motivation (“I enjoy learning biology”).
When the course was framed in a growth mindset way, the difference in imposter feelings between first-generation and continuing-generation students went away completely despite the chaotic nature of the 2020 semester that went remote halfway through. A similar effect was seen with effort cost. Overall, faculty mindset beliefs appear to be a potential lever in narrowing achievement gaps in STEM courses through the communication of a growth mindset.
Communicating a growth mindset in the classroom
Instructors have an opportunity to create meaning for students about what it means to learn, fail and grow by being intentional about growth mindset messages. As an instructor, you can communicate a growth mindset to students through various ways:
The syllabus presents an opportunity to explicitly communicate growth messages. For instance, you may consider explaining the purpose of seeking help and using resources like office hours as ways for all students to continue improving regardless of their class performance. Showing that seeking help or looking for ways to improve is something that all students can do regardless of their current class performance. This conveys the message to students that you, as the instructor, believe in their ability to improve. It can help students see ways to seek different strategies and view challenges as something to be welcomed.
Course design (i.e., assessments and opportunities for iteration and feedback)
Course design and performance feedback can also help communicate a growth mindset. This can take shape in designing assessments that reward improvement and challenge seeking, and provide opportunities for iteration and feedback. Students may likely find it helpful to receive feedback with clear strategies for improvement, as they might not know what those strategies may be. Having clear courses of action can facilitate the process for students to adopt a growth mindset because the path towards improvement involves changeable metrics rather than innate attributes.
How you talk about challenges and mistakes
As an instructor, you have the opportunity to be very explicit in the way you provide meaning to students after they struggle or make mistakes. For instance, after handing back an exam, Professor Canning states that you may say something like: “If you didn’t get the grade you wanted, it doesn’t mean you can’t do this. Learning is a process, and sometimes it takes trying out different study strategies to find what works. I believe that everyone has the ability to do well in this course. Come talk to me, and we can develop a plan together.”
To read more about strategies you can use to communicate a growth mindset in your classroom, see the Teaching + Learning Lab’s Growth Mindset page. In addition, see MIT’s Flipping Failure initiative, a collection of students’ talking about academic challenges, which began as a way to destigmatize challenges and failure for MIT students.
Elizabeth Canning, PhD
Assistant Professor, Psychology, Washington State University
Dr. Elizabeth Canning earned her Ph.D. in Social Psychology from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and is now an Assistant Professor in the Psychology Department at Washington State University. Her research centers on student motivation and investigates the subtle interpersonal and environmental messages that perpetuate bias and inequality. Her approach includes controlled laboratory experiments, randomized intervention studies, and longitudinal field studies. Dr. Canning’s research has been featured in various news outlets, including ABC News, Business Insider, Inside Higher Ed, and the Chronicle of Higher Education.
Canning, E. A., Muenks, K., Green, D. J., & Murphy, M. C. (2019). STEM faculty who believe
ability is fixed have larger racial achievement gaps and inspire less student motivation in their classes. Science Advances. 5(2): eaau4734. doi: 10.1126/sciadv.aau4734
Written by Melissa Cao