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When Professors See Intelligence as Innate, Grades Go Down

The classroom culture that professors create can have a significant impact on how well students perform, a new study finds. | Gorodenkoff/Adobe Stock

Students perform differently in STEM classes depending on whether their professors believe intelligence is a fixed or changeable quality, according to an innovative analysis of 150 U.S. science faculty at one university.

The impact on motivation and grades in science courses was especially apparent among underrepresented racial and ethnic groups, including black, Latino and Native American students.

“We found that in classes taught by instructors who endorsed more of a fixed mindset of intelligence,” said Mary Murphy, a professor in the department of psychological and brain sciences at Indiana University Bloomington, “the achievement gap between racial and ethnic minority students compared to white and Asian students was nearly twice as large.”

By contrast, in STEM courses where professors believed intelligence is a malleable quality that can be developed over time, all students including underrepresented minorities earned significantly higher grades.

Murphy said that faculty mindset beliefs predicted the racial achievement gaps they saw in professors’ classes better than any other variable, including faculty gender, race, age, tenure status or teaching experience.

The analysis, published in the February 15 issue of Science Advances, is one of the first in the field to focus on faculty perceptions of student intelligence, versus students’ perceptions of this trait in themselves. Young and old faculty, males and females, and professors across racial-ethnic backgrounds were equally likely to endorsed fixed ideas about intelligence.

The findings add to decades of research aimed at understanding why black, Latino and Native American students in the U. S. continue to underperform relative to their white peers in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.

“Closing the [racial] achievement gap in STEM is very hard to do, but this research suggests one new avenue by which we might get some traction on these persistent gaps,” said Murphy.

Despite a long history of research aimed at understanding and ameliorating the weaker performance of racial minorities relative to their white peers in STEM fields, the phenomenon largely continues in the U.S. To explain this, some research has implicated subtle cues from professors whose beliefs about intelligence reinforce racial stereotypes; for example, that white and Asian students are more gifted in science fields.  

Murphy and colleagues previously identified faculty behaviors that conveyed either a fixed or a growth mindset about intelligence. “Some faculty explicitly communicate their fixed mindset, suggesting that if students do not understand the material quickly, they may not do well and should consider dropping the course,” Murphy said. “On the other hand, some faculty communicate a growth mindset by regularly providing students feedback and opportunities to self-assess and reflect on their learning, instead of offering only a few high-stakes challenges to prove their ability.”   

Murphy and her team collected self-reported data from 150 STEM faculty responsible for teaching 15,000 students over two years at a large public research university in the U.S. Faculty from all the university’s STEM departments – astronomy, biology, computer science, mathematics and physics – participated.

Murphy and her colleagues did not ask these professors whether they believed intelligence is determined by students’ race or gender, they emphasized. Instead, faculty were asked to endorse general statements about the fixedness or malleability of intelligence, including: “To be honest, students have a certain amount of intelligence, and they really can’t do much to change it.”

The university sent surveys to students after they had taken a course with these faculty, including questions such as, “How much did the instructor motivate you to do your best work?” and “How much did the instructor emphasize student learning and development?”

After analyzing these responses and evaluating students’ university-provided GPA data, Murphy and her team report that on average, all students performed more poorly in STEM courses taught by faculty who endorsed fixed intelligence beliefs. But black, Latino and Native American students received 0.19 fewer GPA points (on a 4.0 scale) on average in fixed-mindset classrooms, compared to white or Asian students.

This gap shrank nearly in half – to a difference smaller than 0.10 GPA points, on average – in growth-mindset classrooms.

“Faculty communicating that students can be successful if they engage in certain learning strategies is motivating to all students,” said Murphy. “But it may be particularly important for students from underrepresented racial and ethnic groups because these students’ intellectual abilities are negatively stereotyped in American educational contexts. When learning strategies are emphasized as the potential pathways to success instead of innate, fixed intelligence, these messages may have an even bigger effect.”

“Students in growth-mindset classrooms reported being ‘motivated to do their best work’ and felt their instructor really cared about their learning and development in classes,” said study co-author Elizabeth Canning, a postdoctoral researcher in Murphy’s lab.

Mary Murphy and Elizabeth Canning speak Friday at a 2019 AAAS Annual Meeting press briefing. | Robb Cohen Photography & Video

Canning emphasized that a growth-mindset classroom isn’t about “being friendlier or going easier on students; it’s about focusing on the learning process, rather than innate fixed ability.”

The researchers say their findings, which they believe would generalize to other places where stereotypes are at play in education, should motivate new efforts to talk to faculty about how their beliefs shape student motivation and performance.

“A lot could be done to create more growth mindset-oriented environments,” said Murphy, who, along with Canning, is already exploring some of these interventions in both the college setting and in schools with younger students. “We’re not going to see fixed mindsets disappear as we turn over a new generation of professors. We’ve got to educate faculty about how their beliefs shape students’ motivation and performance and give them tools to support students in the classroom.”

Murphy’s lab is working in collaboration with the IU Center for Innovative Teaching and Learning to create educational modules for first-time university instructors that review the influence of faculty mindset beliefs on student outcomes and provide evidence-based practices that convey growth-mindset beliefs to students in the classroom. She and her collaborators have also developed an institute in the Seattle area that trains K-6 teachers to create growth-mindset cultures in their classrooms.

“The overall message here is quite optimistic,” Murphy said. “It’s clear that helping faculty understand how to employ growth-mindset practices in their teaching could help thousands of students. After all, faculty set the culture of their classroom; they are the culture creators. This work shows professors have the power to shape students’ motivation, engagement and performance through the mindset culture they create.” 

The results of the study were presented Friday during a press conference at the 2019 Annual Meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Washington, D.C.


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Meagan Phelan

Science Press Package Executive Director