212. Faculty Mindset

Research on the impact of mindset has often centered on the mindset of the student. In this episode, Elizabeth Canning joins us to discuss the impact that faculty mindset has on student achievement. Elizabeth is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Psychology at Washington State University. Her research focuses on how to create equitable and inclusive instructional environments.



John: Research on the impact of mindset has often centered on the mindset of the student. In this episode, we discuss the impact faculty mindset has on student achievement.


John: Thanks for joining us for Tea for Teaching, an informal discussion of innovative and effective practices in teaching and learning.

Rebecca: This podcast series is hosted by John Kane, an economist…

John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer…

Rebecca: …and features guests doing important research and advocacy work to make higher education more inclusive and supportive of all learners..


John: Our guest today is Elizabeth Canning. Elizabeth is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Psychology at Washington State University. Her research focuses on how to create equitable and inclusive instructional environments. Welcome, Elizabeth.

Elizabeth: Thank you.

Rebecca: Today’s teas are… Elizabeth, are you drinking tea?

Elizabeth: I’m drinking water today.

Rebecca: Alright, still a good choice. The base of tea, of course.

Elizabeth: Yeah. [LAUGHTER]

John: And I have a restricted set of tea because I brought most of my tea back up to the office, but I’ve been sent home with COVID. So I do have a ginger peach black tea still here though.

Rebecca: That sounds like a pretty standard fare.

John: It is.

Rebecca: I made it out to that tea shop I’ve discovered. And so I have a new one called Yunnan Jig…

Elizabeth: Ooh!

Rebecca: …and it’s a golden-tipped black tea.

Elizabeth: That sounds delicious.

Rebecca: It is very delicious.

Elizabeth: Exotic teas.

John: We’ve invited you here today to talk about your 2019 study that examined the effect of instructor mindset on racial achievement gaps in STEM disciplines. Could you tell us a little bit about this study?

Elizabeth: Yeah. So this study was a study that we did while I was a postdoc at Indiana. It was in collaboration with Dr. Mary Murphy, Katie Muenks, and Dorraine Green. We were really interested in instructor beliefs about intelligence… so whether they believe that intelligence is something that is innate, something that you’re just born with, you can’t change it very much, we call that a fixed mindset. And what we also call a growth mindset is this belief that intelligence can grow over time and change with effort, strategies, help-seeking, things like that. And we were interested in whether instructors’ beliefs about intelligence then predicted the experiences that students have in their classes, and then how well they do in their classes. So we sent a survey out to the whole university, and we didn’t expect a whole lot of responses because faculty are busy and all of that. But we actually got a lot of responses. We had 150 STEM faculty respond to our survey. And so with that, we were able to link their survey responses to the grades in their courses over a two-year period. And we ended up with this fantastic rich data set that we were able to look at students’ grades in their courses.

Rebecca: How prevalent was the fixed mindset amongst the faculty that you surveyed?

Elizabeth: Yeah. So it was pretty normally distributed, shockingly so I think. A lot of people think that fixed mindsets might be more rare. Other people think fixed mindset might be extremely prevalent, but it was pretty normally distributed. It’s a continuous scale so if you graph it, it’s a pretty normal curve. So we’ve got the most people in the middle. And then we’ve got some people at each extreme. But what’s interesting when you look at it, though, is especially on this scale, most people, they won’t go extreme, like the very, very tip of the fixed mindset scale. But they’ll do the next level over. It’s like, “I’m not gonna be that person, but I’ll be right next to it.” So it’s interesting to think about that when you think about the profession of being an instructor, and part of your job is to educate people. But yet we’re finding a significant amount of people have this mindset that intelligence or abilities can’t change.

Rebecca: So you talked about it being a normal distribution, was there any variation amongst race or gender, ethnicity, age, or STEM discipline?

Elizabeth: Yeah. So we get that question a lot. Like, can we predict who it is that has the fixed mindset? Well, this is the only table I’ve ever published that had every single line in it non-significant. [LAUGHTER] So we tested pretty much everything in our data set—whether mindset differed by gender, by faculty race, by age, by teaching experience, tenure status, anything that we had in our data set—and we found no differences by mindset. So it seems like having a fixed mindset or having a growth mindset is prevalent among all faculty regardless of these characteristics. We also looked within departments because a lot of people want to think that it’s, “Oh, it’s those economists or…” [LAUGHTER] looking at you, John. Or, “It’s those computer scientists, or the physicists, or the mathematicians.” But we didn’t find any differences by discipline. So faculty in any kind of discipline can endorse a fixed mindset or a growth mindset. And this suggests that these mindsets are not going to resolve itself on its own. Like if this was a generational thing, then we would expect it to resolve over time, or we could go into a specific discipline and educate faculty, but it seems to be pretty widespread, regardless of these characteristics.

John: That was one of the most surprising things in your study, to me. I was expecting that this would vary, particularly with age, but also perhaps with gender as well. And I was thinking that maybe this would be better over time. One of my favorite quotes from Paul Samuelson, an economist who died a while back, was, “funeral by funeral, the science makes progress,” and I was kind of hoping that that might occur with growth mindsets here, too. But it doesn’t look like that’s going to happen.

Rebecca: So we’re left with saying, “Great…” [LAUGHTER]

John: When you were looking at the effect of instructor mindset on student grades, were you also controlling for the characteristics of the students as well?

Elizabeth: Yes. So we controlled for a number of things in our analyses, we wanted to put anything in the model that might predict student performance. So we controlled for whether the student was the first in their family to go to college, their first-generation status. We controlled for their prior achievement level, so their prior GPA before they enrolled in that class. We also controlled for a number of course characteristics. So whether the course was, at this university, a 100 level, 200, 300. So, like, an entry-level class versus more of an upper-division class or upper-level class. We controlled for a number of faculty characteristics as well, like whether they were tenured, their age, how long they had been teaching. And so all of that was in the model to control for those variations in terms of what predicts their grades. Because a number of things we know predict grades, like class size. If it’s a bigger class versus a smaller class, we know that’s a pretty robust finding. And so we controlled for that in all of the analyses.

John: What was the overall effect, controlling for all the other student and instructor characteristics, of instructor mindset on student grades?

Elizabeth: So students, on average, received a higher grade in faculty’s classes where they endorsed more of a growth mindset. And this was, again, controlling for all of those things, regardless of student characteristics, class characteristics, and faculty characteristics. We also looked at this by student race, so we found an interaction with student race. So it’s not just that everybody on average is receiving or earning higher grades in the growth-mindset courses. This is particularly true for students with racial- ethnic minority status. So Black, Hispanic, Native American students performed better in the courses that had faculty who endorsed more of a growth mindset. When we look at the achievement gap between White and Asian students compared to Black, Hispanic, and Native American students, we see that this racial achievement gap is twice as large when the faculty endorsed more of a fixed mindset, compared to when they endorsed more of a growth mindset.

Rebecca: Can we talk a little bit about differences in assessments or the way that courses are structured between the fixed-mindset faculty courses versus the growth-mindset courses, because I think your paper talked a little bit about that as well, right, Elizabeth?

Elizabeth: We couldn’t dig into the specifics of it just because of the scale of this project, but we’ve done a lot of follow-up to see: What is it that faculty are doing in these classes? Because students are obviously picking up on it. It’s not just the belief that you hold near and dear to your heart, this is something that is being communicated to students in some way. And what we know from our other research is that it’s communicated in a lot of ways depending on the instructor, depending on the class. So it can be communicated in your course policies, like how you design your syllabus, how many assessments you give in your class. So, fixed-mindset professors are more likely to have a midterm and a final, and that’s your only opportunity to display your abilities in that class. Whereas the growth-mindset professors are more likely to have weekly quizzes where you can improve over time and see that improvement over time. And mistakes are less deadly in those classes, so to speak. So it’s in the way they design their courses, but it’s also in subtle ways. So what they say in class, how they talk to students who are struggling in their office hours, it’s in their attitude, it’s in a lot of different behavior. And students are pretty perceptive, they can pick up on it pretty quickly.

John: So we can significantly reduce racial achievement gaps if instructors have growth mindsets. Is instructor mindset something that’s changeable?

Elizabeth: Yeah, I think so. We know a lot from trying to change students’ mindset beliefs, it’s actually pretty malleable. You can teach people the science behind how our abilities grow over time, the changes that occur in your brain in terms of neuroplasticity, and faculty are pretty receptive to that. Most faculty want to do things that are going to benefit their students, most faculty want to be good instructors. And so it might just be finding ways to communicate that. In some of our research, we’ve found a disconnect between what faculty think their mindset is and how they’re communicating that, to what students are actually perceiving. And so it might just be communication, making sure that you’re very explicit about what you believe in your class, standing up on the first day and saying, “Here’s what I believe about abilities and intelligence, you don’t have to be, quote-unquote, ‘smart’ to do well in this class. Here are other ways to do well in this class, like learning and improving and using different strategies and things like that.” We also know that there are very critical times where these messages matter more. So there are times during the semester where students are searching for information about their abilities. So when you hand back that first exam grade, or that first assessment that you give in your class, that’s the perfect time to communicate your mindset beliefs, particularly if they’re a growth mindset. Because students are searching, “What does this mean? Does this mean that I’m good at this? Does this mean that I’m not good at this? Am I going to do well, should I drop this course?” It’s a time of uncertainty for students. And so, for faculty to communicate those beliefs during that critical time, it can set forth sort of the snowball effect for how they should view their learning and improvement throughout the semester. There’s a number of ways that faculty can do this in their classes. But back to your original question about, “Can we change faculties’ mindset?” I think so. I think there’s a lot of literature suggesting that we can do that.

Rebecca: And there’s been a lot of money pumped into making these STEM pipelines in the first place. We want them to be effective. So investing in this education around mindset and learning might be a really good use of funds.

Elizabeth: Yeah, one of the things that I think was really shocking about this paper is the faculty that reported their mindset beliefs, there were 150 of them. But when you look at all of the students that they touch, over a two-year period, how many people they teach, it becomes a really big number pretty quickly. So in this sample it was around 15,000 students that these 150 faculty taught over a two-year period. And so, instead of intervening with 15,000 students, you might intervene with 150 people and see similar or maybe even greater effect.

Rebecca: I know from our experience, John, with working with faculty around mindset and around helping students learn how they learn, that faculty who demonstrate a growth mindset are often very willing to share what they’ve learned about learning with their students. And so having an intervention with 150 people then reaches many of those students, because that information ends up being communicated out in a more distributed way.

John: One thing I’m wondering is whether you can separate out, in these results, the impacts of the way in which people teach from the messaging that’s coming up indirectly in other ways? It strikes me that that may not be possible, in that the instructors with a growth mindset provide lots of opportunities for students to make mistakes and learn from those mistakes, while those who have a fixed mindset are more likely just, as you said, to use a small number of exams as high-stakes assessments. Is it possible that some of the effect is just from better teaching practices and using more evidence-based teaching approaches that give students these opportunities for more retrieval practice, more spaced practice, and so forth?

Elizabeth: I think that’s very possible. However, we’ve done some follow-up research where we randomized faculty messages within one course. So it’s the same professor, it’s the same structure, some students are getting growth-mindset messages from that instructor, some students are just getting control messages, and we’re seeing really great effects at that level. And so it has to be more than just the way their course is structured. It’s more about the messages that they’re giving students and how to frame mistakes, how to frame ability. We’re providing it at a specific time like I mentioned earlier, and so it’s probably a combination of both. But with this new experimental evidence at the student level, or at the classroom level, we’re seeing that it’s more than just their teaching ability, or the way that their course is structured.

John: What you just described reminds me of a podcast we had done a while back with Angela Bauer at High Point University in Episode 49. In that episode, she talked about trying to reduce some of the achievement gap in their introductory biology classes. And they first introduced some active-learning activities, but there was still a non-trivial achievement gap remaining. So they introduced some growth mindset messaging, and that seemed to remove the remaining racial achievement gaps. So that provides a little bit further evidence that growth mindset messaging can play a significant role in helping to reduce these achievement gaps.

Rebecca: One thing that’s really powerful about that idea, though, is that it may not really take a lot to make a change.

Elizabeth: Yeah.

Rebecca: It doesn’t really seem like that much of a financial investment, or even a time investment to make a difference, or at least chip away at the problem a little.

Elizabeth: I think that’s what makes this so appealing to people is because it’s subtle, and it’s also something that can be done pretty easily. So you’re not changing the curriculum, you’re not flipping your classroom that requires extra work and time. Faculty are already overloaded with the expectations of what they’re supposed to be doing with teaching in terms of all their other responsibilities. We have implemented mindset messages at a pretty really basic level. So putting messages in a syllabus, putting messages in an email, maybe a couple videos in the class, for instance. And that’s really it. As long as it’s done in a way where it’s at a critical time, it’s more meaningful for students, and it’s done sincerely, then it’s not a whole lot of extra work.

John: From a faculty member’s side though, for those who may have a fixed mindset who believe that students’ ability is fixed, a conversion to a growth mindset may very well, and that’s consistent with your results, change the way in which they structure their courses. Because if you believe that students can learn by making mistakes and practice, you’re probably going to redesign your courses to build more of that in and that’s, again, very consistent with what you found. And it will be a bit more work typically for instructors unless they can do it in a way in which there’s some degree of automation.

Elizabeth: Yeah, I think there’s a lot of discussion around rigor, and if you have a growth mindset that it means you’re too soft, and you’re not having a difficult class. So it brings up all these questions about course difficulty and rigor. And I think our perspective and some of the follow-up work that we’ve done in this paper, and in other papers, that the perspective of what is difficult or what is rigorous really depends on who you ask. So if you ask a faculty member how difficult their class is, or what it means to have a difficult class, that’s going to vary quite dramatically from the students’ perspective. So what we’ve seen is that students actually find the growth-mindset professors to be a little bit more difficult or challenging than the fixed-mindset professors, and it’s for that very reason that they have more work to do in the class. [LAUGHTER] They have to make improvements, and they have to redo assignments, and the workload is maybe even a little bit higher, versus a fixed mindset class that might have a midterm or a final, there’s less, quote-unquote, “work” to do in that class. And so it really is in the eye of the beholder what class is difficult and what that means in terms of student achievement.

Rebecca: There’s a difference in regular accountability…

Elizabeth: Yeah. [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: …and therefore feels like a lot more work when you’re being held accountable on a regular basis. [LAUGHTER]

Elizabeth: Yeah, I’ve done some follow-up work, because a lot of people will also think that it just comes down to being nice. If you’re nice and warm and friendly, then people are going to do well in your class, and if you’re not, then people will not do well in your class. And so I’ve done an experiment where we have manipulated that. There’s a laboratory study that we’ve done, where we manipulate whether the message is a fixed-mindset or a growth-mindset message. And then we manipulate whether that message is delivered in a way that’s warm and friendly and positive, versus cold and unfriendly. So this results in four different ways of messaging. The best is always going to be sort of this warm, friendly growth mindset, and the worst is always going to be the cold, unfriendly fixed-mindset. But what’s really interesting is what happens to the two in the middle. If you have the growth mindset but you’re cold and unapproachable, versus a fixed mindset and warm and approachable, How do those two shake out? And what we’re finding is that, very consistently, it’s the mindset message that matters more than the warmth or approachability. So they do interact, of course, it’s good to be warm and friendly. But the message itself also matters. So we can tease these things apart. They are different things, and they have different effects.

John: Since we’ve got you here, we were looking through some of your other research, and you’ve done a number of studies that have looked at the impact of utility-value interventions. Could you talk about what those are, and what you’ve found involving those?

Elizabeth: Yeah. So a lot of the research I’ve done on utility-value interventions was conducted in collaboration with Dr. Judy Harackiewicz at Wisconsin, Madison. And so, utility-value intervention is an intervention that’s directed at students. The way that we implement it is we have students write a short essay. They pick a topic that they’ve covered in class, and they write about how that topic is useful or relevant to them personally. And the way that we’ve done this, we’ve had them do it a couple different times throughout the semester. So they’re reflecting on what they’re learning and they’re connecting it to their own personal goals, their life, and it makes the material that they’re learning more relevant to them. And what we’ve found is that this intervention is particularly beneficial for underrepresented racial minority students who are also the first in their family to go to college. So this group is doubly disadvantaged, they’re disadvantaged due to race, they’re also disadvantaged due to social class. These students have the largest achievement gap in most STEM courses, and they really connect with this intervention. What we found in this research, these students have a particular motivation for going into science. They want to give back to their communities, they want to help their friends and family out after they’re done with college. They have specific goals that may not be met in science courses, or may not have this direct connection to what they’re learning in science. And so, by providing them with this opportunity to reflect on that and connect the material to those goals, we’re seeing that they make marked improvement in terms of their grades in the class. Whenever you do an intervention where you have students write something, and you get really rich data because you can look at what they’re writing about. So we analyzed over 1,000 different essays that these students wrote and we said, “What are they writing about?” We ran them through the linguistic analysis, and they’re really connecting it to those goals. These students are more engaged in the assignment, they’re writing longer essays, they’re more specific in their writing. And that then contributes to learning more in the class, which results in higher grades.

Rebecca: Sounds like, again, a very easy intervention to make or to build into classes. I know that I’ve been doing more of that in the classes that I’m teaching and seeing really good results and having really great conversations as a result with students as well.

Elizabeth: Yeah, I think there’s a difference between simplicity and ease of this type of intervention, because it does require the students to put in some effort, they have to write an essay. It also requires some grading on the part of the instructor if that’s not already in your class. So it is a little bit extra, quote-unquote, “work”. But I think it can be done in automated ways to benefit students.

John: And in these studies, you’ve also looked at the effect of student-identified value versus when it’s communicated from the instructor instead. Could you talk a little bit about the relative impact of directly-communicated utility-value interventions from the instructor or those that come from the students?

Elizabeth: Yeah. So from a really practical perspective, we wanted to know, “Do students have to write the essay? [LAUGHTER] Do we have to grade all these essays? Or can we just stand up in front of the students and sort of give them this information, kind of summarize how what they’re learning is relevant to a number of domains?” Because that would ultimately, in a practical sense, take less time. So we did an experiment where we manipulated this, and what we found is that students benefit the most when they get both. So they have a little bit of scaffolding from the faculty member, where they’re given some ideas of how the information might be relevant or useful to them. And then they write about it in their own words and get really into specifics. So a professor can stand up there and say a bunch of ways that it might be relevant, but every student is unique, every student has different goals, every student has different interests. And so, it really needs to be personalized to them. And the process of putting it in your own words and reflecting on it is also useful, right? That’s part of the learning process. You get into the specifics of it and write about it. So, we ended up concluding that it’s both. There’s some scaffolding involved from the faculty member, but then the students really need to generate something for themselves too.

John: I think you also looked at this in terms of the differential effect in two-year and four-year institutions, and you found somewhat different results between a community college and a four-year institution. Could you talk a little bit about that difference?

Elizabeth: Yeah. So a lot of this research has been done, or the data have been collected from four-year institutions, particularly four-year research-intensive institutions. And so, I wanted to see how this could translate to other types of colleges, particularly in the two-year context, because a lot of first-generation students go to two-year colleges. That’s a gateway to a lot of different career paths. And so what we did is we went around to a whole bunch of different two-year colleges, we connected with the instructors there, we tried to tailor it for their students and their context. But ultimately, what we found is that there needed to be a lot more scaffolding in terms of the writing process. So because the intervention was done with students at four-year colleges, we kind of made assumptions about how ready students were to think about utility and think about relevance. And a writing intervention in those contexts just wasn’t appropriate. So we didn’t find the same findings, we actually found that the control essays were more beneficial than the utility-value condition, in these interventions that control is summarizing course material. And that was actually really beneficial for students in this context because they weren’t already doing that in these courses. Whereas in the four-year college, that was sort of the status quo, and they were able to take that next step to make that course material relevant to them. So in working with their instructors, what we concluded is that you can do this intervention in a different way. It doesn’t necessarily have to be writing. It could be done in small group discussions, it can be done in presentations, it can be done in a lot of different formats that might not present a barrier of writing ability or writing practice. A lot of students in two-year colleges take concurrent writing courses in addition to their science courses. And so removing that barrier of writing, I think, would have been necessary in that context.

Rebecca: It’s a nice helpful reminder, I think, for faculty to be thinking about ways to have reflective practice that doesn’t always involve a lot of reading too. [LAUGHTER] Like, if we’re doing presentations, or if we’re reflecting in a video, or reflecting in conversation. These are all other places that provide some variety, too, so that we’re not always grading the same things or having to intake the same kinds of information. That can also be overwhelming to faculty too. So mixing it up is helpful I think. [LAUGHTER]

Elizabeth: Yeah, I think it also speaks to, you know, one-size-fits-all interventions just are not appropriate. So we publish these papers and we say, “Wait, we found these really amazing findings.” But that’s in one context, maybe with one instructor, maybe at one institution, and every student body is different, every class is different. And so, you really need to figure out the needs of your students and meet them where they are, and also take a step back and look at the purpose of the intervention. Maybe it can be implemented differently. Maybe if you take the philosophy of it and customize it for your context, that’s going to be the more appropriate approach.

John: We always end with the question, “What’s next?”

Elizabeth: Well, right now I’m still working on mindset messages. We just got word that we might potentially be getting a nice grant to look at this. And so what we’re going to be looking at is growth-mindset interventions directed at students crossed with growth mindset messages from faculty. The idea is that when you try to get students to believe in a growth mindset, it’s going to be most effective when the environment is supportive of that message so that it’s supported by the faculty member in that class. So we’re going to be looking at that over the next few years in a bunch of different contexts, in a bunch of different institutions.

Rebecca: Sounds like more beneficial, useful, and exciting information.

John: And again, as Rebecca had said earlier, these are really relatively simple and easy-to-use interventions that I think could be much more widely adopted. Well, thank you.

Elizabeth: Yes, thank you for having me. It was great to talk with you.


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Rebecca: You can find show notes, transcripts and other materials on teaforteaching.com. Music by Michael Gary Brewer. Editing assistance provided by Anna Croyle.