Mindsets and the learning environment: Pairing light-touch learning mindset interventions with a long-term campus initiative
The Mindset Scholars Network launched an interdisciplinary initiative in Fall 2016 to explore how learning environments shape the mindsets students develop about learning and school. The project’s aim is to generate scientific evidence about how educators, school systems, and structures can convey messages to students that they belong and are valued at school, that their intellectual abilities can be developed, and that what they are doing in school matters.
Fourteen projects were awarded over two rounds of the initiative. Funding was generously provided by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Joyce Foundation, Overdeck Family Foundation, and Raikes Foundation. Seventeen different Network scholars are participating along with over 20 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 part of a series of blog posts in which we will hear from the leaders of each of the projects funded in the second round of the initiative 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.
Developing Spartan Persistence: Connecting Students to Resources in a Public University, is a project that analyzes the impact of online learning mindset programs taken by prospective Michigan State University (MSU) students in the summer before matriculation. The study measures the impact of the interventions on students’ academic performance and persistence. Specifically, the study investigates how impacts on GPA and challenge-seeking behavior differ between students, based on students’ gender and race/ethnicity. The study also examines the impact of pairing the online mindset intervention with an on-campus mentoring program.
Who are the members of the research team?
The principal investigators are Mindset Scholar Barbara Schneider, Professor John Yun, and postdoctoral fellow Soobin Kim. The team also includes Hwanoong Lee, Rachel Marias, and Dan Fitzpatrick, graduate students in economics, higher education, and education policy, respectively.
What is the purpose of the project and how will it inform the field of mindset science?
This project investigates two light-touch online mindset interventions: one focused on fostering a growth mindset in students, and one seeking to build a sense of belonging. The research team measures the impact of the interventions on students’ academic performance and persistence by looking at their GPA, the number of credits attempted and earned, their selection of challenging courses and majors, and rates of course completion and re-taking.
It is part of the Spartan Persistence Project, a multi-year (longitudinal) study that uses a rigorous randomized control trial design. Beginning in 2013, each cohort of prospective MSU students has received an email with a link to an online survey about growth mindset in the summer before their first year of college. The email also randomly assigns prospective students to one of three conditions: 1) growth mindset intervention; 2) belonging intervention; and 3) no intervention (control). The students assigned to the growth mindset intervention read an article and completed an exercise that emphasized that intelligence can be developed with effort, effective learning strategies, and asking for help. Students assigned to the belonging condition read a series of stories written by older students, describing what belonging at MSU means as well as their experience of developing a sense of belonging at MSU. Stories are matched with each reader’s identified gender and race/ethnicity.
In the 2017-2018 academic year, the researchers added a new component to their study. They examined the impact of complementing the light-touch intervention with an ongoing mentorship program offered by the university. For the first time, prospective MSU students who were classified as “at-risk” of not completing their degrees were assigned a “Spartan Mentor.” This adult mentor was trained to build a sense of belonging by communicating that MSU values each student as a member of the community and wants them to succeed. Specifically, mentors met students at orientation, followed up at critical times during the year (i.e., first exam, preparing for term break, financial aid deadlines etc.) and connected them to financial, social, psychological, and academic resources as needed.
Along with informing the evolution of MSU’s orientation for new students, this research can help to refine other light-touch social psychological interventions for postsecondary students, especially based on their interaction with other on-campus programs for student success. The work is also building important knowledge about how the impact of these interventions varies across students. Given mounting pressure from various stakeholders in higher education to increase the number of students not only starting but graduating from their institutions, it is critical to examine how light-touch and sustained college completion initiatives can work together and under what conditions.
About the data
The study includes four cohorts of prospective MSU students, each consisting of more than 6,000 students, who were admitted to enroll at the university in fall 2014 though fall 2017. Data on academic outcomes including GPA, the number of credits attempted and earned, course selection, and major was collected from the Office of the Registrar for participants during each semester from fall 2014 to spring 2018. Student demographic and background data include: gender; race and ethnicity; date of birth; first-generation college student status; high school name and GPA; ACT or SAT scores; and Pell grant eligibility.
Pairing the belonging intervention with mentoring support benefited students at-risk of not graduating
The research team found preliminary evidence that first-year students who were identified as at-risk of not graduating, and thus received both the belonging intervention and a “Spartan Mentor,” showed positive growth in GPA during their first semester. The mentorship program alone had no positive effects on GPA.
The growth mindset intervention led to more challenging course-taking
To understand how the growth mindset intervention might impact students’ academic outcomes, the team assessed three student behaviors that are consistent with growth mindset: taking difficult or challenging classes, choosing a challenging major, and re-taking courses. Students who completed the growth mindset intervention were more likely to take challenging courses (the top tenth percentile of courses with the most students receiving a grade of 2.0 or lower) during their first year of school. They were also more likely to opt into a challenging major during their second year of school. Both of these effects were most pronounced for students from low-income backgrounds (as determined by eligibility for Pell grants.) In addition, only Pell-eligible students were more likely to re-take failed courses (1.0 GPA or lower) post-intervention.
These findings have important implications. First, consistent with prior research, the growth mindset intervention led to more challenge-seeking behavior, particularly for students from lower income backgrounds. However, it did not raise students’ GPA on average. It follows that GPA may be a poor indicator of the effectiveness of some mindset interventions; students who take tougher courses within more challenging majors may earn lower GPAs than they would have in less challenging courses, but research across multiple disciplines has shown that these types of course-taking behaviors have long-term academic benefits. John Yun describes, “Looking beyond GPA could allow researchers to understand the myriad ways in which growth mindsets may improve student outcomes in higher education, including the development and demonstration of persistence that could lead to students enrolling in more selective majors, and having more options after graduation.”
The effects of the growth mindset intervention on Latinx students’ GPA persisted over multiple semesters
While the growth mindset intervention did not raise MSU students’ GPA on average, it did increase Latinx students’ GPAs at the university. The researchers examined the degree to which these intervention effects on GPA persisted over time by tracking the fall 2014 student cohort over the course of their first four semesters at MSU. The researchers found that the growth mindset intervention improved first-year fall GPA among Latinx students at MSU, and this effect persisted into the students’ second year. Combined with the positive effects on other academic outcomes related to course-taking at MSU (and the positive effects of growth mindset interventions on GPA at other colleges), this sub-group effect for the growth mindset intervention suggests that more research would be useful to understand the complex relationships between contexts, students, and outcomes.
What are the next steps for the project?
The team will continue to investigate the mentorship program’s impact on GPA. Students participated in the program at a higher rate in the 2018-19 academic year, and the research team is developing a machine learning algorithm that will produce a more accurate measure of GPA improvement, giving them more data to complete additional analyses. They plan to look for differences in outcomes based on students’ backgrounds and based on the individual adult mentors delivering support.
They will also examine the degree to which the growth mindset intervention can affect students’ academic outcomes after their first four semesters. Given that nearly 20 percent of students who enter MSU do not graduate within 6 years, investigating whether the intervention helped students to graduate on-time has important implications for institutional policy, especially for students from underrepresented groups. The team also hopes to examine whether the growth mindset intervention increases completion of Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) courses. “Our understanding of how these mindset interventions work and who they work for is still in its infancy,” John concludes. “We all must work to explore these critical questions so that we can best use this potentially powerful tool to improve student outcomes in higher education.”