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STEM Profs’ Views on Intelligence May Affect Student Outcomes

Students, especially racial minorities, tend to perform worse when professors believe intelligence is fixed

Feb 15, 2019
Carolyn Wilke

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STEM professors’ beliefs about their students’ intelligence may factor into their academic performance, researchers reported today (February 15) in Science Advances.

The researchers surveyed 150 professors spanning many STEM departments at a large public university to see if they held a growth mindset, namely, the view that intelligence and ability can develop over time, or if they thought intelligence was fixed. They also examined the academic records of more than 15,000 students to correlate classroom performance with their professors’ views on intelligence. 

The results showed that professors who viewed intelligence as malleable had narrower racial achievement gaps and better overall performance in their classrooms. In growth-minded classrooms, the gap between minorities, black, Latino, and Native American students, and white and Asian students was 0.1 GPA points. The difference almost doubled to 0.19 points in classes taught by professors with a fixed mindset.

The faculty members’ mentality outweighed any other factor the researchers considered, including their teaching experience, age, race, or gender.

Students also reported having better learning experiences and more motivation in growth-mindset classrooms, but not that the classes were necessarily easier, according to the authors. 

The results “call for a more in-depth study of what professors with different mind-set beliefs are doing in their classrooms and how this [affects] the motivation of their students, including underrepresented minorities,” says David Geary, a psychologist at the University of Missouri in Columbia who was not part of the study, to Science News

The differences in performance can add up over the course of a student’s college career, possibly jeopardizing future admittance to graduate school or financial aid contingent on grades, study coauthor Elizabeth Canning of Indiana University in Bloomington tells Science News

Through the culture they create in their classrooms, professors influence their students’ engagement and motivation, says Mary Murphy, one of the study’s authors and a professor at Indiana University in Bloomington, in a statement. “It’s clear that helping faculty understand how to employ growth-mindset practices in their teaching could help thousands of students,” she says.

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