How Faculty Attitudes Can Help Close the Racial Achievement Gap in STEM

February 27, 2019

A new study co-authored by RSF grantee Mary Murphy (University of Indiana, Bloomington) and published in Science Advances investigates how university professors’ attitudes on intelligence may influence the racial achievement gap in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) fields.

Today black, Latino, and Native American students are not only underrepresented in the STEM disciplines at universities, but also score below their white and Asian peers in terms of academic achievement. While this achievement gap is largely determined by a number of socioeconomic factors, Murphy and coauthors explored how STEM professors’ attitudes and behaviors in the classroom could either mitigate or exacerbate that gap. In their study, they looked at data on 150 faculty members and more than 15,000 students across a range of STEM disciplines at a large public university. Faculty members were asked to respond to the question “To be honest, students have a certain amount of intelligence, and they really can’t do much to change it” to indicate whether they believed intelligence was innate (which the authors called a “fixed mindset”), or whether they believed intelligence was malleable and could be developed through persistence and mentoring (which the authors called a “growth mindset”). 

In looking at student academic achievement, the authors found that students of all races performed better in classes taught by professors with “growth mindset” attitudes toward intelligence. Furthermore, the achievement gap between white and Asian students and black, Latino, and Native American students was significantly smaller in those classes:

Source: Inside Higher Ed

The authors further found that faculty mindset beliefs predicted student achievement and motivation above and beyond any other faculty characteristic, including professors’ gender, race/ethnicity, age, teaching experience, or tenure status. As they write, “Professors’ beliefs about the nature of intelligence are likely to shape the way they structure their courses, how they communicate with students, and how they encourage (or discourage) students’ persistence.” 

Read the full article in Science Advances.

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