STEM professors’ beliefs on intelligence may widen the racial achievement gap

Racial minorities can suffer lower grades if their teachers see intelligence as fixed

professor in lecture room

GET SMART  STEM professors who believe that intelligence can’t be changed may unknowingly lower the academic performance of all students, and underrepresented minority students in particular, a new study finds.


WASHINGTON Beliefs among some university professors that intelligence is fixed, rather than capable of growth, contribute to a racial achievement gap in STEM courses, a new study suggests.

Those professors may subtly communicate stereotypes about blacks, Hispanics and Native Americans allegedly being less intelligent than Asians and whites, say psychologist Elizabeth Canning of Indiana University in Bloomington and her colleagues. In turn, black, Hispanic and Native American undergraduates may respond by becoming less academically motivated and more anxious about their studies, leading to lower grades.

Even small dips in STEM grades — especially for students near pass/fail cutoffs — can accumulate across the 15 or more science, technology, engineering and math classes needed to become a physician or an engineer, Canning says. That could jeopardize access to financial aid and acceptance to graduate programs.

“Our work suggests that academic benefits could accrue over time if all students, and particularly underrepresented minority students, took STEM classes with faculty who endorse a growth mind-set,” Canning says.

Underrepresented minority students’ reactions to professors with fixed or flexible beliefs about intelligence have yet to be studied. But over a two-year period, the disparity in grade point averages separating Asian and white STEM students from black, Hispanic and Native American peers was nearly twice as large in courses taught by professors who regarded intelligence as set in stone, versus malleable, Canning’s team reports online February 15 in Science Advances.

Canning also presented these findings on February 15 at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

This is the first study to link teachers’ mind-sets to students’ academic performance. Related research suggests that women and racial minorities achieve fewer advanced degrees in fields where, according to academics, success hinges on innate brilliance (SN Online: 1/15/15).

In the new investigation, researchers examined links between the mind-sets of 150 college STEM faculty — including professors, lecturers, post-doctoral instructors and graduate teaching assistants — and grades earned by more than 15,000 undergraduates taking courses from those instructors at a large, public university. Classes included more than 1,600 black, Hispanic and Native American students.

Professors rated how much they agreed with statements that people in general, and their students in particular, have a certain amount of intelligence that can’t be changed. Ratings ranged from 1 (strongly agree) to 6 (strongly disagree).

Instructors with fixed mind-sets about intelligence were found to be distributed evenly across STEM disciplines. Those beliefs also did not appear to be linked to the instructors’ race, sex, age or teaching experience.

All students, regardless of race, tended to perform worse in courses led by professors with fixed mind-sets about intelligence, compared with students taking courses taught by professors with growth mind-sets. But grades declined most among black, Hispanic and Native American students taught by fixed mind-set instructors.

On average, Asian and white STEM students earned 0.14 GPA points higher on a 4.0 scale than underrepresented minority STEM students. But in courses taught by faculty with a moderate to extremely fixed mind-set about intelligence, the racial achievement gap grew to 0.19 GPA points (an average GPA of 2.71 for underrepresented minorities versus 2.90 for Asians and whites). In courses taught by faculty endorsing a growth mind-set, the racial achievement gap shrank to 0.10 GPA points (an average GPA of 2.96 for underrepresented minorities versus 3.06 for Asians and whites).

These findings “call for a more in-depth study of what professors with different mind-set beliefs are doing in their classrooms and how this [affects] the motivation of their students, including underrepresented minorities,” says psychologist David Geary of the University of Missouri in Columbia, who did not participate in the new research.

Canning and her colleagues are now studying ways to help teachers develop growth mind-sets about their students’ intellectual potential. One strategy, for instance, has teachers conduct frequent assessments to identify what students have mastered and where they need more work. University faculty who follow that practice will develop an appreciation for students’ ability to gain insights into complex material given more personalized instruction, Canning suspects.

Bruce Bower has written about the behavioral sciences for Science News since 1984. He writes about psychology, anthropology, archaeology and mental health issues.

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