Education Opinion

The Challenge of Measuring Student Mindsets

By Robert Rothman — April 24, 2014 2 min read
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In my previous post I discussed the importance to deeper learning of academic mindsets--the belief among students that they belong in an academic community and can succeed if they work hard--and the ways that school structures and teachers can foster or impede such mindsets. I noted that while classrooms that are engaging students in deeper learning can address some of these issues, teachers are looking for ways to motivate all students to succeed.

One challenge in expanding practices that foster appropriate mindsets to more classrooms is the state of measurement. Measuring mindsets in valid and reliable ways is essential for students and teachers. For one thing, such measures make it more likely that teachers will address these attitudes and behaviors. (What gets measured gets taught, after all.) More importantly, students and teachers need high-quality information on the extent to which students are developing these dispositions so that they can adjust instruction according to student needs.

The state of the art of measurement is still young, however. At this month’s annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association, Angela Duckworth, the University of Pennsylvania psychologist, said most measures of student attitudes and dispositions “stink.” (She also used another term, which I won’t repeat here.) And, she added, like Tolstoy’s unhappy families, each measure “stinks” in its own way.

For example, student surveys that attempt to get at the extent to which students believe that their hard work in school will pay off are time-consuming and intrusive, and they don’t always yield accurate results. Students might be more likely to tell teachers what they think teachers want to hear, rather than what they actually believe, although research shows that in low-stakes situations students do tend to tell the truth.

There are technological methods that can measure student dispositions in a non-intrusive and more accurate way. For example, data from computers can show how long students spend on a problem and whether and how they seek help. Biometric devices can track students’ brain patterns and anxiety levels as well.

Yet as schools develop and implement measures of students’ mindsets, they might face strong opposition from some parents who think that it’s none of schools’ business what students believe. Recently, a U.S. Department of Education report that mentioned some of the biometric measures of persistence and grit generated a social-media flurry suggesting, erroneously, that the Common Core State Standards required measures of student eye movements. And years ago, in the early days of the standards movement, states such as Pennsylvania proposed standards for students’ “self-worth,” adaptability to change, ethical judgments, and the like, and met a wall of criticism from parents.

So scientists and practitioners need to move cautiously as they work to improve measures of academic mindsets. But the work needs to go on. The research is clear that these dispositions are critical to student success, and measuring these dispositions is essential to foster them.

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