Doctoral thesis on how students' mindsets affect learning outcomes

Elin Svensen defended her Ph.D. in sociology, social work, culture, and society at the Faculty of Social Sciences on December 8.

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Portrett av Elin Svensen
Elin Svensen defended her doctoral thesis on December 8, 2023.

Research shows that students face challenges in school with different mindsets. Students with a more fixed mindset believe that innate talent is most crucial for learning. They will have less faith in effort and give up more easily.

On the other hand, students with a growth mindset believe that abilities and talents are constantly developed through what they learn in school and elsewhere. They will have more faith in effort and face challenges with an attitude that they can solve them through hard work, by asking for help, and finding the right strategy. Mindsets are influenced, among other things, by teachers and family.

Mindset is related to gender, social background, and learning outcomes

In her doctoral work, Elin Svensen has investigated whether mindset, i.e., students' beliefs in their learning capabilities, is related to background factors such as gender and parents' education, and whether it is linked to how much students learn in school. She discovered three important things:

  1. Students' attitudes towards learning vary with gender and social background. Boys and children of parents with lower education have less belief in the possibility of learning through effort, good strategies, and help from others.
  1. Attitudes towards learning opportunities in school are also related to the grades students achieved in primary school; both boys and children of parents with low education had a higher predicted degree of a growth mindset when they start high school if they achieved high grades in junior high. (These are correlations, not causal relationships.)
  1. Students' mindset when they start high school is related to the results they achieve. Even among students with the same grades from primary school, students who have a more growth mindset when they start high school will, on average, achieve better results.

In addition, she, along with Maximiliaan W.P Thijssen, investigated whether some classrooms in junior high seem to "produce" a more growth mindset among students than other classrooms in the same school. They found meaningful classroom effects on the degree of a growth mindset, and that such classroom effects predict choices and results in high school.

Analyzed data from the U-Say project

Svensen's doctoral project used data from a large survey in high school in the U-Say project. Over 11,000 students who started in Vg1 in two counties in 2017 answered questions, including what they think about intelligence, whether it is an innate trait or something that can be developed.

The survey responses were linked with data on grades from primary school and on grades and completion in high school for students who consented to this. In addition, information about parents' education and income, among other things, was obtained from Statistics Norway (SSB).

Svensen has used the data from U-Say to conduct quantitative, descriptive analyses on the relationship between students' beliefs about the possibility of learning and their school results.

Can provide teachers with a better understanding of motivation and how students can learn more in school

The research results can be used by teachers to understand more about students' motivation and belief in their learning capabilities. Students with a growth mindset will have different approaches to challenges and setbacks in school than students with a more fixed mindset. By being aware of how to strengthen students' belief in their learning capabilities, students can learn more in school.

Far too many students give up when they face adversity, thinking that they will never be able to do it or that it is too difficult for them. Students with a more growth mindset are less likely to give up when they encounter difficult challenges and instead think that they can achieve it through hard work, asking for help, and finding the right strategies.

The results can also be used in policy development. Often, there is a focus on improving students' basic skills in school by training them in more subjects. It may also be important to invest in strengthening students' belief in their learning capabilities to increase their motivation for learning.

Collaboration between the county municipality, the Research Council, and the University of Stavanger (UiS)

The doctoral project in social sciences has been conducted as a public sector Ph.D. and is a collaborative project between Rogaland County Municipality, the Research Council, and the UiS School of Business and Law. Svensen is employed in the Education Department of Rogaland County Municipality and works with statistics and analysis in upper secondary education.

Written by: Silje Marnburg Ellefsen

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