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.

Our next featured project, How do teachers’ behaviors and classroom environments promote identity safety, growth mindset, and performance for underserved students? is led by Mindset Scholar Steph Fryberg. The study uses multiple datasets, including the National Study of Learning Mindsets, to explore how environments influence students’ learning mindsets, with a specific focus on what these relationships look like for Native American students.

Who are the members of the research team?

Steph Fryberg is jointly appointed as an associate professor in American Indian studies and psychology at the University of Washington. Her collaborators include Zoe Higheagle Strong, Laura Brady, Bruce Austin, Amy Roth McDuffie, and Mindset Scholars Mesmin Destin and Chandra Muller. The interdisciplinary group includes experts in American Indian studies, psychology, education, statistics, and sociology.

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

The primary resource for the project is the National Study of Learning Mindsets, an unusually large dataset that includes roughly 20,000 9th grade students attending a nationally representative sample of 76 U.S. public high schools. Data on mathematics teachers’ mindsets and environmental cues in their classrooms was also collected. In addition to the survey data collected from participating students and teachers, students in the study were also randomly assigned to a brief, online growth mindset intervention or a control condition.

The project also utilizes two additional datasets: a subset of the National Study of Learning Mindsets from a large urban school district, and the National Indian Education Survey (NIES). Using the three samples allows the team to explore the relationships between teacher behaviors, classroom environments, and students’ learning mindsets across an unusually diverse mix of students, with a specific focus on Native American students.

How do environmental factors influence identity safety, growth mindset, performance, and intervention efficacy?

Researchers have demonstrated that growth mindset interventions can be effective in other studies with large groups of students. The main focus of this project is to explore how classroom environments influence the development of learning mindsets. For example, the research team is looking into whether classrooms that provide growth mindset environmental cues (e.g., teachers’ endorsement of growth mindset, encouragement of challenge seeking, or use of growth-oriented feedback) lead to improvements in educational outcomes (e.g., academic performance and responses to setbacks) for students of color and low-SES students. Additionally, the project will study how specific classroom-level characteristics might increase or decrease the effectiveness of the growth mindset intervention and promote positive social, academic, and growth mindset outcomes for students.

One of the key student-level factors that the team is studying is identity safety. Classrooms that are identity safe signal to students that they are valued and that they can be successful. They are also free of identity threats, such as endorsements of negative stereotypes about groups of students. When students feel a sense of identity safety in their school environments, they feel open to seeking out challenges and making mistakes. The researchers hypothesize that students’ perceptions of identity safety may help to explain how growth mindset classroom environments and interventions improve students’ outcomes.

How are these relationships similar or different for underserved students?

One of the novel components of this project is its focus on the different ways environmental cues may affect different groups of students, with an emphasis on Native American students. By using the NIES survey to focus on this group of students, the researchers will be able to unlock insights for students that are not often included in large numbers in nationwide educational studies.

Initial Findings

For their initial analyses, the research team looked exclusively at the National Study of Learning Mindsets dataset to explore how environmental cues influenced students’ mindsets and academic outcomes. The two environmental cues they measured were:

  • Students’ perceptions of their teachers’ mindsets about intelligence
  • Students’ perceptions of their teachers’ use of growth mindset practices

They found that when students perceive that their teachers endorse a growth mindset and use growth mindset teaching practices, students are more likely to trust their teachers, have high expectations of their future academic performance, earn higher GPAs, exhibit more productive responses to failure, and endorse more positive learning goals.

Next steps for the project

Next the research team will explore whether trends they found in their initial analyses replicate across the other datasets they are examining. Additionally, they will look at how these trends vary across subgroups, focusing in particular on whether growth mindset classroom environments have a more powerful impact on racial minority and low-income students’ outcomes than White and middle-class students’ outcomes. They will also examine whether growth mindset environmental cues enhance the effects of student-level growth mindset interventions.

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