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Racial STEM Gaps Shrink When Faculty Buy into Growth Mindsets

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When college instructors believe intelligence is unchangeable — "fixed" in growth mindset parlance — students are "demotivated" and have more negative experiences in class. These findings from a recent research project suggest that faculty who believe some students have strong, innate intellectual abilities (White and Asian students, in particular), while others do not (Black, Latino and Native American students) will produce the very outcomes that support their biases.

The research was undertaken by the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences at Indiana University in Bloomington and published in the journal Science Advances.

The hypothesis was this: STEM faculty who endorsed fixed mindset beliefs communicated a "stereotype threat" to their underrepresented racial/ethnic minority students. The result was lower student motivation and substantially larger racial achievement gaps in those courses, compared to courses taught by STEM professors who endorsed growth mindset beliefs.

To test the theory, the researchers looked at the links between faculty mindset beliefs and the racial achievement gaps in their courses over two years and more than 15,000 undergraduate student records. Mindset beliefs were measured through a STEM faculty survey, in which the 150 participants were asked to evaluate statements such as: "To be honest, students have a certain amount of intelligence, and they really can't do much to change it." More than half of the sample included people who were tenured faculty. The average STEM teaching experience was 18.4 years. Faculty demographics tracked along with the demographics of STEM faculty nationwide.

On average, the project found, all students performed worse in STEM courses taught by faculty who endorsed more fixed mindset beliefs. Yet, poor performance was even stronger among Black, Latino and Native American students than among the White and Asian students. Overall, the "racial achievement gap" was almost twice as large in the courses taught by the instructors with fixed mindset beliefs than it was in the classes taught by those with growth mindset beliefs.

Students in such classes reported less "motivation to do their best work" and less use by the faculty member of instructional practices that emphasized learning and development.

Interestingly, the researchers found that fixed mindset beliefs were "endorsed equally" across genders, racial and ethnic lines, ages, STEM disciplines or years of teaching experience and, across the board, they had the same devastating effects on student learning outcomes.

The results of the project suggested that because the mindset beliefs of STEM college professors change how "they structure their courses, how they communicate with students and how they encourage (or discourage) students' persistence," those beliefs will also "shape the motivation and achievement of students in their classes," especially those in underrepresented groups.

The report included a suggestion: Invest in "faculty mindset interventions," a low- or no-cost activity, to help instructors "understand the impact of their beliefs on students' motivation and performance and help them create growth mindset cultures in their classes." Doing so could have a positive outcome: "Even a small increase in STEM course grades could mean the difference between receiving credit for the course, retaining financial aid and/or advancing toward a STEM degree." And that, the researchers concluded, might inspire more under-represented students to pursue STEM careers.

The research report is openly available on the Science Advances site.

About the Author

Dian Schaffhauser is a former senior contributing editor for 1105 Media's education publications THE Journal, Campus Technology and Spaces4Learning.

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