Research Library

Search over three decades of research on mindsets, including Mindset Scholars Network briefs and working papers, and other publications from Network studies and initiatives.

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Previous experiments have shown that college students benefit when they understand that challenges in the transition to college are common and improvable and, thus, that early struggles need not portend a permanent lack of belonging or potential. Could such an approach—called a lay theory intervention—be effective before college matriculation? The lay theory interventions raised first-year full-time college enrollment among students from socially and economically disadvantaged backgrounds exiting a high-performing charter high school network or entering a public flagship university (experiments 1 and 2) and, at a selective private university, raised disadvantaged students’ cumulative first-year grade point average (experiment 3). These gains correspond to 31–40% reductions of the raw (unadjusted) institutional achievement gaps between students from disadvantaged and nondisadvantaged backgrounds at those institutions. Further, follow-up surveys suggest that the interventions improved disadvantaged students’ overall college experiences, promoting use of student support services and the development of friendship networks and mentor relationships.

The authors propose a cultural mismatch theory that identifies one source of the social class achievement gap between first-generation and continuing-generation college students. Four studies test the hypothesis that first-generation students underperform because interdependent norms from their mostly working-class backgrounds constitute a mismatch with middle-class independent norms prevalent in universities. First, surveys of university administrators revealed that American universities focus primarily on norms of independence. Second, a longitudinal survey revealed that universities' focus on independence does not match first-generation students' relatively interdependent motives for attending college and that this cultural mismatch is associated with lower grades. Finally, 2 experiments revealed that representing the university culture in terms of independence (i.e., paving one's own paths) rendered academic tasks difficult and, thereby, undermined first-generation students' performance. Conversely, representing the university culture in terms of interdependence (i.e., being part of a community) reduced this sense of difficulty and eliminated the performance gap without adverse consequences for continuing-generation students.

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