On November 11, 2015, learning mindset researchers joined journalists at the Education Writers Association’s conference on student motivation and engagement at Stanford University. In this next series of blog posts, we’ll be synthesizing insights from each of the research panels featured during the conference.

The first panel addressed the question “Why do motivation and deeper learning matter?” and featured Dr. Camille Farrington of the University of Chicago Consortium on School Research and Dr. David Yeager of the University of Texas at Austin. The panel was moderated by Katrina Schwartz, reporter at KQED and Mind/Shift. Camille and David spoke about what learning mindsets are, why research suggests they matter, and how they’re one piece of the larger, multi-faceted puzzle of learning outcomes.

What are learning mindsets and why are they important to academic achievement?

Camille introduced the metaphor of an iceberg in describing why we need to focus on learning mindsets when we talk about improving academic achievement. As she explained, teachers think about content knowledge & skills; their questions focus on “What am I trying to teach?” and “How do I get my kids to care about it?” But that’s like focusing solely on the tip of an iceberg that’s visible above the waterline. What’s submerged in the water determines whether students will engage with the content knowledge & skills teachers want them to learn.

What’s below the waterline are the developmentally-appropriate questions middle and high school students are focused on: “Who Am I? Where do I belong? What am I capable of? And what’s my place in the world?” Once teachers overlay academic demands on students, these questions become “Can I be successful at this? How do I feel about this? Do I know how to do this?” All of these questions are the filter through which students understand content knowledge & skills in the classroom.

Mindsets are a critical lever for improving achievement, Camille explained, because they get to these psychosocial questions that students are naturally preoccupied with in school. Mindsets are habituated beliefs that affect the way students understand themselves in schools and perceive their environment. The reason they’re important is because students’ perception of what’s happening—and their interpretation of it—determine how they behave in response to it. If they believe everyone is out to get them, they’ll see what their teacher does through that lens and they’ll respond one way. If they believe their teacher is there to support them, they’ll interpret the same behavior differently and respond in a completely different way. Moreover, working memory has limited space; if some of it is consumed with “I feel uncomfortable” or “No one likes me here” or “I don’t know why we’re doing this,” it’s harder for students to focus and make progress on a task.

In other words, mindsets are the why students engage in academic work and learning strategies are the how. Together they affect the quality and duration of academic behaviors—like studying, going to class, and doing homework—that directly affect achievement. Before we can get at the content knowledge & skills we want to teach students, we need to pay attention to what’s below the waterline—students’ mindsets and how they are shaped by the schools and classrooms in which we ask them to learn.

When are learning mindsets most important?

David explained that learning mindsets are particularly salient during life transitions, whether it’s going to a new school, becoming a new parent, starting college, or retiring from the workforce. All of these transitions entail challenges that many people face but that you as an individual have to interpret the meaning of for yourself. These interpretations have implications for how you respond to these challenges and your likelihood of success.

When you experience the first challenge or stumble in a new environment, it’s easy to ask yourself, “Is this normal? Will it ever get better?” Everyone will ask themselves these questions at some point in a transition, but for some people they are more pervasive and persistent—particularly those who are members of an underrepresented or stigmatized group in that context. If you transition to college aware of a potential cultural misfit, negative stereotypes about your group, or financial constraints you face, you may answer these questions very differently. And these answers affect the extent to which you build relationships and engage in behaviors that affect your academic success in that environment.

How can mindset programs that are so brief in duration have such relatively large effects?

Regardless of whether they target students, teachers, or parents, mindset programs work because they carefully intervene in recursive cycles that reinforce an individual’s beliefs and behaviors over time. By changing a certain belief at a given point in time, this can affect the individual’s behavior, which then reinforces beliefs, and so on.

While it does seem counterintuitive that such a short program can “stick” with adolescents when they’re out in the world and making their own decisions, David told the group that we all know that the more adolescents are told things by adults, the less they want to believe it. He noted that public health researchers are finding that shorter interventions targeting obesity, depression and drinking among adolescents seem to be most effective. It’s easier to use longer interventions in early childhood when the recipients don’t take offense to a long intervention. But as you get older, it’s increasingly seen as disrespectful, so designing programs that are brief and ask students to put the messages in their own words for the benefit of others is critical to internalization as students age.

How can we change students’ experience of school to promote learning mindsets?

Social-psychological programs that target students’ mindsets with a brief, carefully constructed message are just one tool in a broader toolkit. There is much more that can, and should be done to change the cumulative, daily messages students receive that promote, or hinder learning mindsets over time. Camille noted, “Some people say ‘it’s just about messaging,’ and that telling kids the brain is ‘like a muscle’ is a revolutionary message. Explicit messages [like this] can be important, but it’s not just little messages. It’s fundamentally how people perceive social reality.” It involves both subtle and non-subtle messages that students receive from every aspect of schooling—from almost imperceptible teacher moves in the classroom to grading practices and school policies. David agreed: “There are no shortcuts to mindsets.”

David also described a new study conducted by his colleagues Jason Okonofua, Dave Paunesku, and Greg Walton at Stanford. The study shows that we can change teachers’ mindsets in ways that can create a safer psychological environment for students. Their work builds on past research showing that unconscious biases lead teachers to observe a pattern in unrelated instances of misbehavior for African American students because it aligns with existing stereotypes. When teachers perceive a pattern of misbehavior, they’re more likely to use extreme discipline. In the new study, the researchers developed an approach that encouraged teachers to adopt an empathic rather than punitive mindset about discipline—to prioritize understanding building positive relationships with students in disciplinary encounters to help them grow. This cut by nearly half African American and Latino students’ risk of getting suspended over the school year, from 12.3% to 6.3%. Moreover, the intervention reduced suspensions for White and Asian students by a similar magnitude as well. This type of approach with teachers can produce a safer, more trusting environment for students, David said: “Mindsets are one route to creating a safer climate for students. It’s not telling students ‘trust this unjust system,’ it’s changing the system’s behavior toward students.”

How do you know what to look for in terms of learning mindsets when you’re in a classroom?

Camille cautioned that “measurement for research is easy to do, but measurement for school improvement is complicated for all kinds of reasons.” As discussed in a recent paper by Network scholars, existing non-cognitive measures were designed and validated for basic research, so any other use beyond research must be considered carefully and cautiously.

Both researchers did offer advice for journalists who spend a lot of time in classrooms. Camille suggested looking for a few things. First, when you’re in a classroom, you can look at whether the schoolwork is work that seems worth doing; is there value to it beyond just the fact that the teacher is going to grade it? Second, is the classroom a welcoming place that feels comfortable? Third, are things set up in a way where if you keep working at something, you have an opportunity to develop and demonstrate your competence over time? Is the teacher conveying verbally and through how the work is structured a consistent message that “we’re going to figure out together how to help you learn this and I’ll support you until you do”?

David noted that you can also look specifically at how teachers are helping students. When you observe expert tutors, nearly all of their interactions with students involve probing questions that constantly invite students to problem solve and take a trouble-shooting, trial-and-error approach. They’re asking “How might you think about this problem?” or “Let’s look at your process. What might you try differently so we can see what happens when you do?” The key is to push students intellectually while supporting them emotionally.

How do mindsets compare with social-emotional learning and other non-cognitive factors—is it all the same thing?

Camille provided helpful clarification to this common question. “There’s the universe of content knowledge & skills and then there’s everything else. And these other [non-cognitive] things fall into a bunch of different categories… Not all of them can be measured the same way, work the same way, or are cultivated the same way. Strategies [e.g., for interacting with others, exercising self-control, and things like metacognition] are skills you can teach and kids can practice. Mindsets don’t get imparted in the same way and aren’t measured in the same way. These aren’t interchangeable things in the non-cognitive realm; they’re very discrete sets of phenomena.” The Mindset Scholars Network features additional information in its FAQs about how learning mindsets differ conceptually from other non-cognitive factors.

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