Positive Mind-Set Tied to Engagement, GPA

Community college students perform better and are more engaged when they have a positive attitude, or "growth mind-set," about learning and improving.

April 9, 2019

A study released today by the Center for Community College Student Engagement reinforces past research that found students who have an academic “growth mind-set” and a sense of belonging in college have higher grades and are more engaged learners.

Seventy-one percent of community college students who responded to the CCCSE survey measuring student mind-set and engagement had a productive mind-set, or said they believed they could improve their intelligence in English courses. Those same students reported having a grade point average that corresponds to an A grade. Sixty-one percent of students reported they could change their intelligence in math, and those students also had an equivalent of an overall A grade point average.

Colleges are redesigning their academic and student experience programs as new research proves that students' mind-set has an impact on their academic success. These programs can be very powerful motivational drivers because many community college students have been told they don’t belong or are not smart enough to be in college -- and believe it, said Evelyn Waiwaiole, executive director of the center.

“Educating students about the power of mind-set can help them change the way they feel about past failures, which can lead to more engagement, and, in turn, more successful students,” she said.

Students mostly held a negative mind-set when surveyed on their ability to take a test in math, according to the survey. Forty-two percent of students disagreed or responded neutrally as to whether they could do well on tests. Forty-four percent of students disagreed or responded neutrally as to whether they could significantly change their intelligence in math. More than 82,000 students from about 160 two-year institutions responded to the annual survey.

Faculty mind-set may also play a role in the ability of students to perform well.

The survey found that 41 percent of faculty members are confident that all of their students can change their basic intelligence. But nearly 24 percent of faculty members responded that only some or none of their students could change their basic intelligence.

“A quarter of faculty believes none or some of their students can change their intelligence,” Waiwaiole said. “We want to change that number, because it’s pretty high. How do we change the people walking into those classrooms so they believe students can learn? That comes from professional development.”

A study released earlier this year by brain science scholars at Indiana University at Bloomington suggested students see more possibility for achievement when their instructors believe they can improve their intelligence.

“Faculty beliefs and behaviors shape the mind-set cultures within their classrooms,” Mary Murphy, a professor of psychological and brain sciences at IU, said in an email. “Faculty are the culture creators in their own classrooms, and these mind-set cultures may be even more influential, in some settings, than students’ own personal mind-set beliefs.”

Waiwaiole said the CCCSE survey did not examine a correlation between faculty mind-set and students’ own beliefs about their ability to grow their intelligence. More research is needed in this subject area, she said.

“Intuition tells you a faculty member influences how a student feels about going through a class,” Waiwaiole said.

Instructors at Seattle Central College, a two-year institution in Washington State, began offering workshops to their colleagues and other staff members in 2013 to help them learn how to improve students’ beliefs about learning, belonging and relevance of course subjects.

The workshops help faculty revise the way they talk to students about their abilities. For example, an instructor who praises a student by saying, “I knew you were a math person,” may have the best intentions, but they aren’t supporting that student’s growth, said Jane Muhich, a math professor at Seattle Central, who helped develop the workshops at the college.

“Are you praising the process or the person?” Muhich said. The emphasis is on an attribute and not the abilities of the students, she said.

Instead, Muhich said, a better way to frame completing a difficult math assignment for a student is to say, “You really worked hard and improved.”

Seattle Central faculty learn to emphasize that students can improve at math or any subject they find difficult and that it’s OK for them to seek help, she said.

The CCCSE survey also found that nontraditional students, or those aged 25 and older, had a more positive mind-set than traditional-age students. For example, 62 percent of nontraditional students agreed that they do well on tests, even if those tests are difficult, while only 55 percent of traditional-age students agreed with that statement. More nontraditional students responded positively that they will accomplish difficult tasks and are confident in their course work than their traditional-age peers.

“Even if you’re older and you feel you can’t do math, so much of life has prepared you so you feel you can overcome challenges,” Waiwaiole said. “Our data didn’t detail this, but the older you are, the better mind-set you have. I have to believe that some of it is because you’ve overcome life, and at 18 your life hasn’t been as broad.”

Share Article

Back to Top