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Fostering Positive Academic Mindsets in Students

In this report from the UChicago Consortium on School Research, Elaine Allensworth, Camille Farrington, Molly Gordon, David Johnson, Kylie Klein, Bronwyn McDaniel, and Jenny Nagaoka synthesize research on what schools can do to support students’ social, emotional, and academic development, with a special focus on student engagement. “Four learning mindsets are particularly important in supporting students’ academic behaviors, persistence, and performance on academic tasks,” say the authors. When students have these positive mindsets, they apply themselves and are much more likely to be successful in school:

  • I belong in this learning community.
  • I can succeed at my schoolwork.
  • My ability and competence grow with my own efforts.
  • The work has value for me.

Why would a student embrace these beliefs? Home and community influences are important, but so is the climate created by administrators and teachers. Conversely, if students believe they don’t belong, can’t succeed or get smarter, and aren’t working on worthwhile endeavors, they are likely to disengage and do less well.

Academic mindsets can vary through a school day. As students move from one class to another, they may feel more or less confident and accepted depending on learning conditions and instructional practices used by different teachers. Students at different stages of development enter classrooms with a wide range of psychological “backpacks.” In each situation, say the authors, students are asking themselves, “Is school something that ‘people like me’ care about and are good at?”

What are the PD implications of this complex interface of instruction, classroom climate, and student attitudes? “Teachers get better at their craft by reflecting on how their own classrooms might support or interfere with the development of positive student mindsets,” say the authors. “Over time, positive mindsets and active engagement in learning not only support deeper understanding and better academic achievement, but they also tend to increase students’ enjoyment of learning and development of positive academic identities.” The authors mention nine teacher actions that develop positive academic mindsets and turn around negative mindsets:

  • Setting predictable norms and routines that support respectful student and teacher interactions;
  • Sending clear messages about the nature and purpose of learning and the role of mistakes in the learning process;
  • Explicitly connecting new material to students’ prior knowledge;
  • Helping students “see themselves” in the work by connecting it to their interests, goals, and cultural identities;
  • Developing trust by listening to students and responding to their input;
  • Creating opportunities for student autonomy and choice as well as for collective learning;
  • Showing students models of high-quality work and conveying confidence that they can produce equally good work;
  • Providing frequent and specific feedback on students’ work and opportunities for students to apply that feedback to progressively improving their performance;
  • Ensuring fair grading practices that emphasize growth and improvement.

“Supporting Social, Emotional, and Academic Development: Research Implications for Educators” by Elaine Allensworth, Camille Farrington, Molly Gordon, David Johnson, Kylie Klein, Bronwyn McDaniel, and Jenny Nagaoka, UChicago Consortium on School Research, October 2018,

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