Instructor mindset affects students: Experimental design practice

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We know that when students have a growth mindset they tend to perform better in school (Yeager & Dweck, 2020). Do what instructors communicate about mindset matter?

Here’s an activity that will give students some practice in experimental design while also introducing students to the concepts of fixed and growth mindset and perhaps even inoculating them against instructors who convey a fixed mindset.

For background for yourself, read Katherine Muenks and colleagues’ Journal of Experimental Psychology article (2020). The activities below will replicate their study designs.

After explaining to students the difference between a growth and fixed mindset, ask students if they have ever had an instructor who said something in class or wrote something in the syllabus that conveyed which mindset the instructor held. For example, an instructor with a growth mindset might say, “This course is designed to help you improve your writing skills.” An instructor with fixed mindset might say, “Either you have the skills to succeed in this course or you don’t.” As students share examples that they have heard, write them down where students can see them.

Ask students if they think that these instructor statements could affect students. If so, how? Perhaps these statements could affect how much they feel like they belong in the course, or how interested students are in the course, or even how well students do in the course. Write down what students generate.

Point out to students that they just generated two hypotheses. 1. If students hear an instructor with a growth mindset, then they are more likely to feel like they belong (or/and whatever other dependent variables students suggested).  2. If students hear an instructor with a fixed mindset, then they are less likely to feel like they belong (or/and whatever other dependent variables students suggested).

Point out to students that the “if” part of the hypotheses gives us the independent variable (instructor mindset). Suggest that the experiment they will design has three levels to the independent variable: growth mindset, fixed mindset, and a control condition of no mindset. The “then” part of the hypotheses gives us the dependent variables, such as feelings of belonging and whatever other variables students think could be affected.

Ask students to spend a couple minutes thinking about how they could design an experiment that would test both of these hypotheses. Then invite students to group up with a couple students near them to discuss. Lastly, give students an opportunity to share their designs.

Remind students that conducting experiments is a creative endeavor and that there is no one right way to test hypotheses. In fact, the more ways researchers test hypotheses, the more confidence we have in the findings.

Share with students how Muenks and her colleagues did the first of their studies. They created three videos of what was ostensibly a calculus professor talking about their syllabus on the first day of class. The same actor delivered the same information; it was all scripted. The only difference was that for the growth mindset condition, the script included growth mindset comments sprinkled throughout, such as “These assignments are designed to help you improve your skills throughout the semester.” For the fixed mindset condition, comments included things like, “In this course, you either know the concepts and have the skills, or you don’t.” The control condition excluded mindset comments. Volunteers were randomly assigned to watch one of the three videos. Muenks and colleagues assessed four dependent variables: vulnerability which was a combined measure of belongingness (five questions, including “How much would you feel that you ‘fit in’ during this class?”) and evaluative concerns (five questions, “How much would you worry that you might say the wrong thing in class?”), engagement (three items, including “I think I would be willing to put in extra effort if the professor asked me to”), interest in the course, and anticipated course performance. (See the second study they reported in their article for additional dependent variables, including feelings of being an imposter and intentions of dropping the course.)

Volunteers reported that they would feel the most vulnerable with fixed mindset instructor, less vulnerable with the control instructor and the least vulnerable with the growth mindset instructor.

Volunteers reported that they would feel the least engaged with either the fixed mindset or control instructor and the most engaged with the growth mindset instructor.

Volunteers reported that they would be least interested in a course taught by the fixed mindset instructor, more interested in a course taught by the control instructor and the most interested in a course taught by the growth mindset instructor.

Lastly, volunteers expected that they would perform the worst in a course taught by the fixed mindset instructor and best in the course taught by the growth mindset or control instructor.

After sharing these results, explain that volunteers in this study reported what they think they would feel or do. For ethical reasons, we cannot randomly assign students to take actual courses taught by instructors who express these different views. However, if students were taking courses, researchers could do correlational research on student experiences.

In studies three and four, Muenk and colleagues did correlational studies where students were asked immediately after attending class for their impressions of their instructor’s mindset along with a number of other measures, including feelings of belonging, evaluative concerns, imposter feelings, and affect. After the course was over, students reported how often they attended class, how often they thought about dropping the course, and how interested they were in the course discipline. Student grades in the course were gathered from university records. While there is a lot in the results to unpack, in sum, instructor mindset had an impact. For example, student grades were worst when students perceived their instructor as having a fixed mindset, but this result seems to have been driven by student feelings of being an imposter.

End this activity with this question: Is it possible that being consciously aware of an (Leave it as a rhetorical question or challenge students to design the study as a take-home assignment.)



Muenks, K., Canning, E. A., LaCosse, J., Green, D. J., Zirkel, S., Garcia, J. A., & Murphy, M. C. (2020). 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. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 149(11), 2119–2144.

Yeager, D. S., & Dweck, C. S. (2020). What can be learned from growth mindset controversies? American Psychologist, 75(9), 1269–1284.


About the Author
Sue Frantz has taught psychology since 1992. She has served on several APA boards and committees, and was proud to serve the members of the Society for the Teaching of Psychology as their 2018 president. In 2013, she was the inaugural recipient of the APA award for Excellence in the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning at a Two-Year College or Campus. She received in 2016 the highest award for the teaching of psychology--the Charles L. Brewer Distinguished Teaching of Psychology Award. She presents nationally and internationally on the topics of educational technology and the pedagogy of psychology. She is co-author with Doug Bernstein and Steve Chew of Teaching Psychology: A Step-by-Step Guide, 3rd ed. and is co-author with Charles Stangor on Introduction to Psychology, 4.0.