By Emily Reynolds

As anyone who’s ever flunked a test will tell you, doing well at school or university isn’t just a simple matter of intelligence, ability, or even of how hard you’ve worked. In fact, there are plenty of things that can affect the way we perform, from the way we take notes to how we revise to how much sleep we get while we’re studying.

And according to a new study published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, something else might have an impact on our educational achievements: our assumptions about our professors. If we believe they have faith in our ability to change and improve, suggest Katherine Muenks from the University of Texas at Austin and colleagues, we’re likely to enjoy classes more, as well as achieve higher grades.

The research focused on participants’ beliefs about mindset. Those with a fixed mindset believe that intelligence or ability is innate and can’t be changed; those with a growth mindset believe that ability is malleable, and that if we work hard or adopt new strategies we will grow and learn.

Research has shown that our own mindset is likely to have an impact on how we behave, how motivated we feel, and what we achieve. But the new study looked at how students’ perceptions of their STEM professors’ mindset affected their experience and engagement in classes.

In the first experiment, participants watched a short video clip from the first day of a university calculus course in which a professor expressed his beliefs about what it took to do well in the class. In one condition, the professor expressed beliefs suggesting a fixed mindset (“You either have the skills or you don’t”), in another expressed growth mindset beliefs (“The assignments are designed to help you improve your skills”), and in the third expressed no mindset beliefs.

Those who watched the fixed mindset video anticipated feeling significantly less belonging and less engagement in the class than those who were shown the growth mindset video, and expressed more concerns about being evaluated negatively. Meanwhile, those who watched the growth mindset video anticipated higher engagement in and effort towards the class than either the fixed mindset group or the control group, and expected to perform significantly better than their fixed mindset group counterparts. In a second study, replicating the first, growth mindset group participants also reported lower levels of impostor feelings and less likelihood of dropping the course.

The third study looked at how students felt about their professors’ mindset beliefs in the real world. Participants who were enrolled in STEM courses at three US universities completed a survey reporting their perceptions of their professors’ mindset beliefs, and provided their personal mindset beliefs and SAT scores. They then completed surveys measuring engagement and psychological experiences as in the previous two studies. As expected, those who saw their professors as having fixed mindset beliefs had greater concerns about the course, greater feelings of being an impostor, and increased negative affect in classes.

A final longitudinal study replicated these results, also finding that participants who felt their professor had fixed mindset beliefs were more likely to skip class than those who felt their professor had a growth mindset. There was also an indirect effect on actual performance in class: those who believed their professor had a fixed mindset felt less of a sense of belonging, which in turn predicted lower grades.

Mindset beliefs are clearly hugely important, both in terms of how people experience the classroom and their outcomes at the end of a course. But while changing student mindset beliefs may go some way to improving learning, it’s not enough — as the team suggests, the learning environment itself might need to change. Staff could be informed of the potential impact of their mindset beliefs, for instance, and be encouraged to help students adapt to particular courses or new skills.

Other studies have also suggested that women and first-generation university students are at greater risk of experiencing impostor syndrome, particularly within STEM courses. Building confidence and reducing impostor feelings and psychological vulnerability could therefore improve not only student outcomes but diversity in STEM fields more generally — a serious incentive for teaching staff to think about their mindsets.

– Does my professor think my ability can change? Students’ perceptions of their STEM professors’ mindset beliefs predict their psychological vulnerability, engagement, and performance in class.

Emily Reynolds is a staff writer at BPS Research Digest