3 Psychological Findings Every Teacher Should Know

by Ali Horowitz
Originally Published: 

Student psychology can often seem as bewildering as it is beautiful. But in labs across the country, academic psychologists have been studying classroom dynamics to identify the patterns of behavior that have the greatest impact on helping students flourish. Here are three crucial findings we think every educator should be aware of.

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1. Students’ mindsets matter.

Maria just started middle school. She has always enjoyed science, but lately the curriculum has gotten more challenging, and she’s become aware that fewer scientists are women than men. She earns a C on her first exam, a grade lower than she’d ever received at her old school. How might Maria interpret the situation?

It turns out that her beliefs about the nature of intelligence can greatly influence her academic outcomes.

If Maria has a fixed mindset, she believes that intelligence is an unchangeable trait. She is likely to take her grade as diagnostic and indicative that she is not cut out for middle school science, and she is therefore less likely to put in effort and try harder next time. She cares about appearing smart to others, and worries that she’ll feel even worse if she takes more time to study and still doesn’t improve her grade. Why bother? Her focus on what others think leads her to seek out opportunities to play it safe, rather than take on challenges.

In contrast, if Maria has a growth mindset, she believes that intelligence is incremental. Thus, she is more likely to bounce back from her grade, taking it as an indication that she should study more (or differently) next time, rather than as a definitive forecast for the rest of her performance in the class. She recognizes that learning is a process and academic skills take practice. She likes to push her limits and take on challenges.

Fostering growth mindsets is one of the simplest and most effective ways to help students thrive in school. How can we help students to embrace growth mindsets? A direct way is to cite the science. Being made aware of these mindsets and their outcomes can help individuals reframe their experiences and change their beliefs.

Researchers have found that simply reading an article that says your brain is like a muscle and needs exercise to grow strong is enough to get students to endorse growth mindsets. A less direct way is through praise and feedback. Emphasizing the process (“You worked really hard on this!”) rather than the product (“You’re a really good singer!”) helps motivate students to value learning and progress rather than focusing on grades and approval.

2. Leaders’ expectations have impact.

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A little attention can go a long way, and our expectations about others’ potential can subtly create self-fulfilling prophecies.

Imagine you’re teaching fractions to two third graders. Both are bright, but they struggle with the concepts. You know that the parents of one child are brilliant math professors, and the parents of the other child are famous poets. Although the students’ performance in the moment should not be influenced by external factors, you can’t help but expect that the child of math professors will follow in their footsteps and be a promising mathematician. These long-term beliefs may lead you to, unknowingly and unintentionally, pay a little more attention to this child than the other by giving him or her more time, feedback, and encouragement. Although subtle and subconscious, these behaviors may lead the child expected to excel to indeed excel, in part because of the additional support received.

This phenomenon was demonstrated in a famous classroom study. Researchers tested elementary school students at the beginning of the academic year and reported to teachers which of the students were expected to show the greatest academic growth. As predicted, these students demonstrated greater gains in IQ than their peers at the end of the school year. What is remarkable about this finding is that the initial test was rigged and never diagnostic at all—the students who were labeled “academic bloomers” had actually been selected at random, so they began the year with no skill or other advantage over their classmates. Instead, the expectation of greater success became a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Teachers’ beliefs about their students can subtly impact students’ opportunities and learning. A teacher who believes in a student’s capability is more likely to support that student’s development by demonstrating patience, providing more individual attention, calling on the student more, and recognizing and rewarding his or her gains. These actions are very subtle, and of course most teachers would never intentionally treat any individual student differently. Awareness of how our own perceptions may impact students’ achievement, however, can help teachers make an extra effort to ensure that all of their students can be “academic bloomers.”

3. Stereotypes can threaten progress.

There’s a dazzling scene in the movie 8 Mile in which Eminem, a talented and now very successful rapper, freezes up at a rowdy rap battle when he becomes aware that he is the only white person present. He knows that white people are stereotyped as being bad at rapping, and his fear of confirming this stereotype paralyzes him when he tries to perform.

This scene embodies a phenomenon known as a stereotype threat. We all belong to social groups that are stereotyped in some way, whether it be according to our race, gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status, or other demographics. When we come face to face with situations that risk confirming these stereotypes, it can make us feel very uncomfortable and affect our behavior. For Eminem, the pressure of being judged against his social group’s expected outcomes was enough to cripple his (actually exceptional) ability to perform.

Stereotype threat can also manifest in classroom settings, especially for students sensitive to stereotypes that their social group is lower performing. For example, females with the same math abilities as men perform worse when made aware of the stereotype that women are bad at math. Students from stereotyped groups may experience increased burdens on academic evaluations because their scores are perceived to represent not only their individual performance but also the abilities of their social group.

Luckily, there are strategies for reducing this anxiety. One is to minimize the salience of demographics in testing situations. One study found that black college students performed worse than white classmates on scholastic aptitude tests, but only when students were asked to identify their race before beginning the test (typical of many standardized tests and surveys). When demographic information was entered after the test, performance between black and white students did not differ.

Another strategy is to encourage students to self-affirm their values. A very simple exercise giving students the opportunity to reflect on their values at the start of the school year has been shown to help students persevere and reduce the impact of stereotype threat, compared to students who did not go through the exercise.

A third strategy is to give students an alternative explanation for their feelings. Simply rationalizing test-takers’ anxious symptoms by attributing them to other distractors (e.g. “If you’re experiencing increased heart rate, it’s probably due to this noisy fan”), external situations (“It’s normal to feel anxious when starting a new class”), or even acknowledging stereotype itself (“If you’re feeling anxious, it’s not a reflection of your own capabilities”) also helps increase student performance.

All of these findings indicate that school experiences and achievement outcomes go beyond curriculum content. The ways that both students and teachers perceive classroom settings influences students’ performance in the moment, affects longer term expectations, and impacts students’ choices and reactions to future challenges. Understanding how these factors contribute to students’ academic experiences can help teachers guide students to achieve their fullest potential.

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