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Monday, July 13, 2015

Fostering a Growth Mindset Is Key to Teaching STEM

Written by David Miller

Sure, STEM can be hard, but telling kids "not everyone can do it" may make both boys and girls less inclined to try.

We're used to reassuring our kids: "It's OK – not everyone can do difficult math."

But believing such messages may deter both boys and girls from choosing to pursue degrees in physical science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields, according to a new national, longitudinal study published in Frontiers in Psychology.

Instead, the key to piquing their interest in STEM may be telling them it's OK if they find the subjects hard to master. "Students may need to hear that encountering difficulty during classwork is expected and normal," argued Lara Perez-Felkner, a coauthor of the study and assistant professor of higher education and sociology at Florida State University.

The study used data from 4,450 students in the United States who later entered college to probe why some students shun math-intensive fields. The researchers' reasoning: If a student thinks math is too difficult, they become reluctant to try it.

"Most people believe they can do some mathematics, such as splitting a dinner bill with friends," said Samantha Nix, lead author and doctoral student at Florida State University. "But fewer believe they can do mathematics they perceive as 'difficult.'"

High school students who believed they could master the toughest math concepts were more likely to major in math-intensive fields at the college level. Similar results were found for students who believed "most people can learn to be good at math" – something psychologists call a "growth mindset."

Beliefs still mattered even after statistically correcting for some other factors such as demographics and science coursework. However, these controls were somewhat limited. Math grades were omitted, for instance.

Performance on a difficult math test was used as a control. But students had "almost no probability" of correctly answering the test's problems. This fact limits how well the test can measure individual differences in math performance, since everyone was bound to bomb it.

Nevertheless, the encouraging results echo experiments in actual classrooms that better control for prior mathematics background.

Gender gaps in beliefs were modest. In 12th grade, boys rated their math abilities higher than girls did by 0.2 points on a 4-point scale, for instance.

Despite the mostly gender-neutral findings, popular press ran with a story about girls lacking math confidence. "Misperception discourages girls from studying math-intensive science," proclaimed the study's press release. "Why do girls doubt their maths ability in the first place?" asked another outlet.

Some gender gaps in STEM are large. Men outnumber women 3-to-1 among college graduates in math-intensive STEM majors. But accounting for gaps in confidence did not explain the much larger gaps in majors, the study found.

Advancing inaccurate clich├ęs like "women don't pursue science because of lack of confidence" does little to address the low numbers of women in STEM.

Nevertheless, related studies suggest beliefs concerning hard work may still affect boys and girls differently in some contexts. Messages about how the mind grows with hard work especially improved middle school girls' performance on a high-stakes math test, according to a prior experiment.

Professors prizing innate "genius" may also discourage women more than men, warned Andrei Cimpian, associate professor of psychology at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. "Women's personal growth mindsets – although undoubtedly beneficial – may not be sufficient to buffer them against an environment that cherishes innate talent," he says.

Across 30 academic fields, philosophy and math professors were the most likely to say that success in their fields depends on innate talent, according to a recent study Cimpian helped lead. Fewer women were found in fields that idolized "brilliance" over hard work. This remained true even after statistically correcting for other factors such as the math performance of graduate school applicants.

"It is crucial to look not just at what's in people's heads but also at the ability beliefs that are 'in the air,'" Cimpian concluded. Teachers who believe that math intelligence is fixed can both comfort and demotivate students with messages such as "It's OK– not everyone can be good at math."

Encouraging students to work their way through difficult math problems may actually help them change their mindset – and improve their outcomes. Struggling students' grades improve when they hear that intelligence can grow with hard work, according to a new study on "mindset interventions" involving 1,594 students in 13 high schools in the United States. Students spent roughly 45 minutes reading and then doing two writing exercises related to an article about the brain's ability to grow.

Improvement in grades was roughly one-tenth of a letter grade – a modest, but still impressive, improvement considering the intervention lasted less than an hour.

My research has looked at how opportunities such as sketching engineering designs shape basic spatial skills such as mentally rotating objects. These skills are important to success in math-intensive careers, yet often neglected in education.

"Oh, but you can't teach those skills," teachers often say when I've discussed my research with them. Contrary to such beliefs, I found that 12 hours of spatial instruction improved students' spatial skills and grades in a challenging calculus-based physics course. In fact, a quantitative review of 217 related studies found training spatial skills was "effective, durable, and transferable."

Teachers who continue to believe that "your basic intelligence can't change" – despite evidence to the contrary – may rob students of opportunities to learn and grow. Computer science and math instructors who endorse such beliefs, for instance, report being more likely to advise struggling undergraduates to drop their classes.

We need to abandon dangerous ideas that some people just can't do math. Neuroscience and educational research flatly contradict such beliefs. As the new study suggests, valuing hard work over innate "genius" might even spur students to tackle new challenges.

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