Getting Inside Students' Minds

Getting Inside Students' Minds

Photos by Chris Wesselman.

In order to understand more about how different students approach learning, it is essential that we go beyond behavioral observations and begin to understand students’ internal experiences. This message, and the related question of how personal identity and experience interact with broader environments to shape learning outcomes, was discussed by a panel of psychologists at a recent event co-sponsored by the Workshop on Poverty, Inequality, and Education and Education’s Digital Future entitled Identity, Motivation, and Stereotype Threat: How do they matter for learning? Three panelists spoke on this topic:

  • Claude Steele, Dean of Stanford’s Graduate School of Education
  • Carol Dweck, the Lewis and Virginia Eaton Professor of Psychology at Stanford
  • Geoff Cohen, James G. March Professor in Education and Business and Professor of Psychology at Stanford

The panel featured short talks from each panelist followed by a question and answer session moderated by Deborah Stipek, Professor of Education at Stanford.

View Event Video (1 hr 33 min)

What is stereotype threat?

Professor Steele, author of the book Whistling Vivaldi: How stereotypes affect us and what we can do, helped define ‘stereotype threat’ for the audience. As he explained, the phrase refers to “any circumstance in which a negative stereotype about one of your identities is relevant to what you’re doing.” For instance, knowing negative stereotypes about the academic performance of minority students or athletes, a student may become afraid any mistakes on their part could work to ‘prove’ such stereotypes.

Professor Claude Steele speaking. Photo by Chris Wesselman.Importantly, people can experience stereotype threat even when no bias is shown by instructors or others. It is the internalized knowledge of stereotypes and the pressure and stress this can create in constantlytrying to refute them that can stifle risk-taking and generate barriers to learning.



What factors help students succeed?

In researching how to help students succeed despite internal stereotype threat or negative external factors (e.g., poverty, peer pressure), Professor Dweck has examined the psychological factors that lead to more effective learning. As she discussed at the panel session, when a ‘growth mindset’ is cultivated in students, their grades improve significantly more than when simply tutored in study skills or memory devices. A growth mindset refers to the belief that everyone can develop their learning abilities; success is the result of work and learning support, not some innate intelligence level.

Professor Carol Dweck explaining a point to the panel. Photo by Chris WesselmanInstructors can help students cultivate a growth mindset by giving ‘process praise’ (e.g., “the way you tackled that problem was really effective”) instead of intellect praise (e.g., “you seem very smart”).

In one study of university students, those sent to growth mindset training at orientation were significantly more likely to carry full course loads in their freshman year (a strong predictor of ultimate graduation rates). Dweck discusses all of these ideas in more detail in her book Mindset: the new psychology of success.

Key lessons and educator interventions

Professor Cohen, author of the recent article “The Psychology of change: self-affirmation and social psychological intervention” offered several lessons for understanding students’ subjective experiences and making positive interventions in their learning processes.

First, it is important to understand that students can experience the same classroom very differently. Though the physical landscape of the room may be the same for everyone, each student arrives with a different identity and set of experiences, meaning they experience the class through different subjective landscapes.

Professor Geoff Cohen speaking. Photo by Chris Wesselman.Second, there are simple interventions educators can make to positively impact the way students frame their learning experiences. For instance, when 7th-grade students in one study were instructed to affirm their own personal values prior to assignments, their failure rate was cut by half. Such ‘values affirmation’ exercises are thought to work by reminding students of the strength of their identity and existing capabilities, boosting confidence.

Instructors can also practice ‘wise criticism,’ by placing criticism in context. In another study, Cohen explained that the simple statement “I provide criticism because I have high standards and I believe you can reach them” prefacing assignment comments made students take the criticism less personally.

How broadly can we interpret these insights?

As many of the panelists’ studies were with middle- and high-school students, an audience member asked whether the resulting insights were relevant for college students as well. Professor Cohen replied that the evidence suggests educator interventions are most useful at ‘transition moments’ when students may be asking themselves whether they truly belong in a particular class or institution. Interventions at the college freshman level, then, may be particularly useful. However, researchers are still working on the most effective intervention content for adult learners.

An audience member asks the panel a question. Photo by Chris Wesselman.In a related question, another audience member asked how the practices discussed by Dweck and Cohen could be scaled up across multiple levels of education. The panelists replied that it is important to take the time to understand how, when, and why a particular intervention works before scaling up, otherwise there is a danger that the ‘psychological essence’ of the intervention could be lost. At the same time, it remains important to confront the larger structural and social issues (poverty, racism) that impact learning environments.

Share instances of stereotype threat you’ve experienced yourself or dealt with in the classroom. What are your techniques for giving ‘wise criticism’?

Noëlle Boucquey is a social scientist with a Ph.D. in Environment from Duke University, and is currently a postdoctoral fellow with Stanford’s Thinking Matters program and the School of Earth Sciences.

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