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Senior professor talking in front of large group of his students during a lecture in an amphitheater.

Professors can improve students’ learning habits by encouraging help-seeking behaviors and reminding them that they are capable of growth.

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Psychologists from Washington State University identified a relationship between how an instructor communicates with students following exams and how first-generation students engage in learning behaviors after receiving this email.

The study joins a growing body of research around the signals instructors give to students that promote learning and achievement and how faculty member behavior can be a barrier to student success.

The study, published in CBE: Life Sciences Education, shows that instructor behavior can motivate learners to change or continue their learning habits by encouraging development and growth. The intervention closed equity gaps between first-generation and continuing-generation students, promoting achievement around historically disadvantaged students.

What’s the need: First-generation students face disadvantages in their academic pursuits compared to their continuing-generation peers as they lack parental guidance around the hidden curricula of higher education. Past research finds that first-gen students are less likely to seek out help in office hours, ask instructors to clarify material or access academic resources.

Students are also less likely to use campus support services in part because there are cultural, organizational and power dynamics at play and sometimes because they’re working from a scarcity mindset, where resources are reserved for those with the greatest need. Despite being aware of resources, first-year students don’t use campus services and supports at the same rate.

In STEM classrooms, students perform better when faculty members welcome questions from learners. A professor’s sense of approachability and teaching strategies are also key factors in promoting students’ retention and persistence in introductory and gateway courses.

The study evaluated how messages from science instructors promoting a growth mindset could motivate students to seek help or invest in their own academic achievement.

The study: Researchers studied a large, introductory biology course across multiple sections at a research institution in 2021. The course was offered online that year due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The course is considered challenging and is a prerequisite to many majors in science and medical fields. The students in these sections are primarily first- and second-year students.

Students complete three major exams throughout the term, each worth 10 percent of their overall grade.

At the start of the semester, students participated in a survey on their personal mindset beliefs, their college GPA and their demographics. This identified first-generation students and also showed if students were part of an underrepresented minority (URM) group.

After the first exam (considered a critical time in the students’ development), half of the students (around 200) in the course were randomly selected to receive a standard email about grades being posted online, how scoring took place, and a reminder of the professor’s office hours.

The experimental group, an additional 200 students, received a longer email after the exam which included the above information but also the professor’s views on growth mindset, past experiences of students who had struggled during the first exam but succeeded in the class overall, and five pieces of practical advice on how to improve learning.

Students received one of these two different types of emails after the second exam, as well.

The results: Students who received the growth mindset email were more likely to view the course website and access lecture materials more often, as tracked by Blackboard learning management system data. Students viewed online course materials 12 percent more often after getting the growth mindset email, or around 40 times more during the term.

Researchers saw the greatest impact from the emails on the experimental group in the third exam, when all students who received the longer email earned higher grades. This was most prominently seen among first-generation students, who earned similar grades to their continuing-generation peers (compared to the control group, who were outperformed by CG students).

Students who received growth mindset messaging earned higher grades in the course on average and, similarly, the messaging helped close equity gaps in the total course grade for first-generation students.

The takeaway: Researchers believe this intervention provides a foundation for faculty members to support first-generation students without investing in a resource-intensive, large-scale institutional transformation such as advising or first-year seminar courses.

One important distinction in the research is that students’ performance did not change significantly prior to the third exam, suggesting that growth messaging may need to be repeated to be cemented into the students’ behaviors or that students or more likely to engage in help-seeking behaviors later in the term, when there’s more pressure to improve performance, according to the article.

Lead researcher Elizabeth Canning, part of WSU’s psychology department, and her team received additional grant funding to complete a larger, national study with 10,000 students to evaluate how the intervention can impact minority students in general.

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