Study finds STEM achievement gaps shrink by nearly half when faculty view intelligence as malleable

First universitywide analysis of its type finds professors' 'growth mindsets' are associated with better educational outcomes for all students, especially underrepresented minorities

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- In a major analysis of university faculty and students in science, technology, engineering and math, Indiana University social psychologists have found that professors' beliefs about intelligence play a measurable role in the success of all students in STEM, especially underrepresented minorities.

The results of the study, published in the journal Science Advances, were presented today during a press conference at the 2019 meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Washington, D.C.

"In a universitywide sample, we found that all students -- and black, Latino and Native American students in particular -- earn significantly higher grades in STEM courses when their professors believe intelligence is a malleable quality that can be developed over time, compared to when their professors believe intelligence is a fixed trait that cannot change very much," said first author Elizabeth Canning, a postdoctoral researcher in the lab of Mary Murphy, a professor in the IU Bloomington College of Arts and Sciences' Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences, who is the study's principal investigator.

Infographic on growth vs fixed mindsetsView print quality image
An infographic on fixed versus growth mindsets. An accessible version of this graphic is available online. Graphic by Samantha Thompson, Indiana University

Moreover, the researchers found that all students did better on average in classes taught by faculty who endorsed more of a growth mindset.Black, Latino and Native American students earned 0.19 fewer GPA points in fixed-mindset classrooms compared to white or Asian students. This gap shrank nearly in half -- to 0.10 fewer GPA points -- in growth-mindset classrooms.

"Students in growth-mindset classrooms reported being 'motivated to do their best work' and felt their instructor really cared about their learning and development in classes," Canning said.

Classroom practices and behaviors that convey a fixed or a growth mindset have been identified by Murphy and colleagues' previous research. Faculty who endorse fixed-mindset beliefs tend to prize flawless performance, for example, while faculty who endorse growth-mindset beliefs tend to value and praise the process of learning, and use mistakes as learning opportunities.

To conduct the study, the researchers collected data on 150 faculty and 15,000 students over two years at a large public research university. The study also found that faculty mindset beliefs predicted the racial achievement gaps in their classes more than any other variable, including the faculty member's gender, race, age, tenure status or teaching experience.

"Younger and older faculty -- as well as male and female professors from any racial-ethnic background -- were equally likely to endorsed fixed ideas about intelligence," Murphy said.

Murphy's lab is working in collaboration with the IU Center for Innovative Teaching and Learning to create educational modules for first-time university instructors that review the influence of faculty mindset beliefs on student outcomes and provide evidence-based practices that convey growth-mindset beliefs to students in the classroom. She and collaborators have also developed an institute in the Seattle area that trains K-6 teachers to create growth-mindset cultures in their classrooms.

"The overall message here is quite optimistic," Murphy said. "It's clear that helping faculty understand how to employ growth-mindset practices in their teaching could help thousands of students. After all, faculty set the culture of their classroom; they are the culture creators. This work shows professors have the power to shape students' motivation, engagement and performance through the mindset culture they create. We need to educate faculty about how their beliefs shape students' motivation and performance and give them tools to support students in the classroom."

Other authors on the paper are Dorainne Green, a postdoctoral researcher at IU, and Katherine Muenks, a postdoctoral researcher at IU at the time of the study. This work was supported in part by a National Science Foundation CAREER award to Murphy.

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