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 teaching 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 role of psychologically-wise teaching in student achievement, is led by Mindset Scholar Geoff Cohen and Tanner LeBaron Wallace. The project uses the comprehensive Measures of Effective Teaching (MET) Longitudinal Dataset to explore the relationships between teaching practices, student mindsets, and academic achievement.

Who are the members of the research team?

Geoff, Tanner, Mindset Scholar Ron Ferguson and Hannah Sung and Qiana Lachaud from the University of Pittsburgh make up the primary research team. They bring expertise in psychology, education, policy, and economics. “Being in an interdisciplinary team allows us to think differently” and to design the study in a way that examines questions from multiple theoretical perspectives, said Tanner.

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

The first question the research team is exploring is, How much do students’ mindsets influence their academic growth relative to other, more traditional predictors of academic outcomes? In looking across a large group of schools, the team hopes to better understand the relative importance of students’ mindsets and how those mindsets influence student achievement across different classroom contexts.

How do teachers create environments that support the development of learning mindsets?

Another goal of the project is to identify specific techniques that teachers use to foster adaptive learning mindsets. As Geoff explains, the team is “trying to understand how teachers weave these messages of belonging, growth, and potential into their day-to-day practices. We’re trying to take a magnifying glass to the classroom to see what is it that really artful teachers do in their classrooms that instill these positive mindsets in kids.”

“We’re trying to take a magnifying glass to the classroom to see what is it that really artful teachers do in their classrooms that instill these positive mindsets in kids.”

About the data

The MET is the largest and most comprehensive dataset available that links student perceptions to student achievement and instructional practices. It includes a variety of indicators of teaching quality collected in classrooms of more than 2,500 4th– through 9th-grade teachers in over 300 U.S. schools and six school districts. It also provides access to an abundance of qualitative data in the form of more than 11,500 videos recorded in over 1,400 classrooms.

In this study, the researchers will analyze the videos and the quantitative data to develop a clearer picture of “psychologically-wise” teaching practices, based on analysis of classroom interactions and lessons.

Building off of decades of previous research

The team began the project with a thorough literature review to help them identify psychologically-wise teaching practices. Based on previous research and the researchers’ own expertise, they developed a preliminary list of practices that promote learning mindsets (such as process praise), along with a list of practices that could potentially undermine learning mindsets (such as ability praise). The researchers also interviewed experts in the field to refine their understanding of what types of actions and cues to look for in the videos.

In continuing to incorporate perspectives from other disciplines, the team consulted with Mindset Scholar Barbara Schneider, a preeminent sociologist. She provided guidance on how to code the structure of classroom activities. For example, because teachers may interact with students in a full class differently than they do while working with small groups or with individual students, it’s important to develop a way to label types of interactions. This allows the team to be more certain that the differences in practices between classrooms are not due to the type of interaction that is occurring. As Tanner explains, “it sharpens the comparisons we’re making.”

Initial findings

The team’s initial findings echo previous research that found students’ learning mindsets play a significant role in their academic outcomes. As Geoff explains, based on initial analyses, “mindset matters a lot.” Measures of students’ psychology – in particular, students’ perceptions of relational and instructional support, fixed mindset, and feelings of anxiety – predicted student achievement gains in classrooms over and above observational measures of the quality of classroom instructional practices, accounting for student background characteristics (such as student age, gender, race, free/reduced lunch status, etc.). This suggests that continuing to explore how teachers are able to create environments that foster the development of learning mindsets is important for students’ psychological experience of school and their academic outcomes.

Additionally, the team’s early findings suggest there is more variation in how students perceive the mindset environment within a single classroom than there is between classrooms. As Geoff explains, “kids may be inhabiting the very same classrooms but their experience may be as different as two kids inhabiting different classrooms in different schools.” This finding is significant because it suggests that researchers and teachers need to focus on individual students’ experiences rather than rely on averages to get a picture of what is happening in a classroom.

What are the next steps for the project?

The team is currently in an exploratory phase of video analysis. They’ve created subsamples of classrooms that are academically high performing and low performing, and they are looking for patterns of differences and similarities in teaching practices. Their analyses will help them develop a protocol for analyzing the full set of videos.

The researchers have also created samples of classrooms that are grouped according to structural characteristics, such as features of the classroom environment or instruction (as measured by observational protocols), that tend to predict achievement. Once the video analysis protocol has been developed, the research team will analyze these classrooms and predict whether the students will have high or low academic growth based on the use of psychologically-wise practices. The team will then compare its predictions to students’ actual academic outcomes, to test the predictive strength of their video analysis protocol.

Tanner said the team is also thinking about how it will present its findings to groups of teachers once they’ve been finalized, so the researchers can understand “how [practitioners] view our findings and how it integrates into their own professional sense of practice.” The team’s commitment to sharing their results with practitioner and policymaker audiences has been a driving force for each component of their project.

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