In early 2017, the Mindset Scholars Network launched a new interdisciplinary initiative, called Mindsets and the Learning Environment, to explore how school and classroom environments shape students’ mindsets about learning. With funding from the Raikes Foundation, Overdeck Family Foundation, and the Joyce Foundation, the project’s aim is to rapidly generate scientific evidence about how schools and educators at all levels can convey messages to students that they can grow their ability, that they belong and are valued at school, and that what they are doing in school matters.

Eight research projects have been launched as part of the initiative. Seventeen different Network scholars are participating along with over a dozen external collaborators. The projects span a wide range of topics, from exploring how teacher practices cultivate learning mindsets and identity safety in K-12 classrooms, to the relationships between learning mindsets and neural processes throughout adolescent development.

This is the latest in a series of eight posts in which we will hear from the leaders of each research project to find out more about the questions they are exploring, what they are learning, and how their work is advancing the field of mindset science.

The next project we’re highlighting, The effect of students’ sense of belonging in school on their academic and social-emotional outcomes, is led by Mindset Scholar Matthew Kraft. Matt describes the project as a way to “contribute to a better understanding of the described experiences of kids in schools.”

Who are the members of the research team?

In addition to Matt, the team includes Mindset Scholar Chris Hulleman and their colleague Katie Buckley as well as Erik Ruzek of UVA and Katerina Schenke. The group has expertise in economics, education, psychology, survey design, and data analysis. Reflecting on the interdisciplinary nature of the team, Matt explains, “This has been both a tremendous learning opportunity and a challenge because working with such an interdisciplinary group of scholars has pushed us to think about our questions as well as research methods from different perspectives.”

About the data

The study taps into the massive dataset assembled by the eight major school districts that make up the CORE districts in California. The CORE districts collectively serve over one million students and 1,500 schools. From this group, a sample of over 400,000 students in grades 4-12 was included in this study.

Since the 2014-2015 academic year, the CORE districts have collected measures of students’ learning mindsets and sense of belonging, as well as students’ and teachers’ perceptions of school climate. “These measures are new so there’s a lot of open questions about how they perform at scale across a diverse set of schools,” said Matt, reflecting on the challenges of working with such a novel and large dataset.

What is the purpose of the project and how will it fit into the field of mindset science?

The largest dataset of its kind

This project is one of the first to leverage the CORE dataset to look for patterns in students’ sense of belonging across contexts. By working with such a large sample the team will be able to make comparisons across several traits such as gender, race/ethnicity, and grade level. Additionally, the team will explore how student perceptions differ within schools and try to identify specific school-level factors that may contribute to differences in students’ sense of belonging.

Using quasi-experimental techniques to explore causal relationships

The team is especially interested in assessing how changes in students’ sense of belonging affect their academic performance and social-emotional development. One way they will examine this relationship is by working with students who naturally transition to new schools. The team will examine the degree to which changes in these students’ sense of belonging across schools are related to entered range of different student outcomes. The researchers hope this line of inquiry will improve understanding of the relationship between various school characteristics and climates and students’ sense of belonging.

“The first thing to do is to ask whether or not the research question is relevant to policymakers and practitioners. It’s a starting point.”

Supporting collaboration between research and practice

The team had the views of non-scientific audiences top of mind as the study was designed. “The first thing to do is to ask whether or not the research question is relevant to policymakers and practitioners,” said Matt. “It’s a starting point.” With this perspective in mind, the team consistently reflects on the implications its work will have on students, and plans to write and disseminate its findings in ways that will be accessible and relevant to audiences who interact regularly with students and shape education policies.

What are the next steps for the project?

The immediate next step for the project is to arrive at a measure of belonging that is not only empirically justified, based on the data, but also aligned with previous research on measuring belonging. Once this has been completed, the team will continue to unpack trends in levels of belonging reported across subgroups and schools.

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