Mindsets and Motivation: Modeling Psychological Determinants of Achievement in the Post-secondary Classroom

Odom, Clarence, Higher Education - Curry School of Education, University of Virginia
Inkelas, Karen, Curry School of Education, University of Virginia

This dissertation expounded on Dweck’s social-cognitive theory of mindsets and achievement motivation through the investigation of how college students operationalize mindsets as part of an intrapersonal attribution framework of motivation. The growth and fixed mindset frameworks suggest that students’ implicit theories concerning the malleability of intelligence (i.e., their belief that intelligence is either something that is permanent or something that can be cultivated) shape divergent patterns of motivation that consequentially lead to varying achievement outcomes. While Dweck’s motivational model of achievement has received considerable attention at the K-12 level, an empirical investigation of these causal links had yet to be considered at the collegiate level prior to this study. To determine whether mindsets influence the motivation and achievement of college and university students, a three-stage study was conducted utilizing a targeted and random sample of 2,000 first- and second-year students enrolled in introductory science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) courses at a highly selective, public, research extensive university in the Mid-Atlantic. Responses from 501 participants to a self-administered survey, combined with demographic and academic information provided by the institution, composed the sample data set.
The initial stage-one analyses of this study considered whether the effects of mindsets on college students’ motivation and academic achievement conformed to the specified parameters hypothesized in Dweck’s original model. Structural equation modeling (SEM) – including confirmatory factor and latent variable path analyses – was run to test and validate Dweck’s conceptual model according to the sample. Results from the stage-one analyses suggest that while students do demonstrate various growth or fixed mindsets, these beliefs only serve as a proximal determinant of achievement strategies through the direct influence they have on effort beliefs and not, as hypothesized, through goal orientation. The inability to demonstrate a significant relationship between goal orientation and achievement strategies, coupled with inadequate measures of goodness-of-fit for the specified model, provides little evidence of the validity of Dweck’s model at the postsecondary level.
Stage two of this study attempted to increase the absolute fit of Dweck’s model while simultaneously providing an explanation of the spuriosity of the goal orientation factor. A hypothesized alternative model that appended measures of academic self-perception (operationalized as self-concept and self-efficacy in domain specific STEM courses) to Dweck’s original model was estimated and tested. Path analysis results suggested that the hypothesized relationships are unable to improve the absolute fit of the model and therefore do not add to the explanatory power of Dweck’s original specifications.
Finally, results from the stage-one and stage-two path analyses informed specifications for a modified model of mindsets and achievement motivation that retained many of the initial specifications of Dweck’s conceptual model while excluding the goal-orientation construct. Goodness-of-fit and likelihood ratio tests for the stage-three path analysis provided significant grounds for recommending the modified model as the best tenable explanation of the effects of mindsets on college student achievement. The recommended model implies a direct causal influence of mindsets on students’ belief in the utility of effort. These beliefs, in turn, influence the strategies students adopt in academic achievement scenarios, both directly and indirectly through the mediation of students’ attributions for failure outcomes. Finally, the achievement strategies students adopt directly influence the end-of-course grades students received in introductory STEM courses.
Results from this study revealed that, although mindsets do influence achievement motivation at the post-secondary level, the implied causal influence of these psychological determinants does not conform to the specified parameters hypothesized in the motivation literature. These findings advance the understanding of the links between students’ internal psychological processes and their academic achievement by providing empirical evidence regarding the true nature of mindset frameworks at the post-secondary level. Furthermore, these findings have the potential to improve faculty practice by offering instructors an avenue through which they can organize the pedagogy to leverage the influence of mindsets on motivation and achievement: a consideration that warrants further research. Though these findings are limited in their generalizability, results from this study provide strong support for attending to the psychological influences of motivation in the student learning narrative at the post-secondary level.

EDD (Doctor of Education)
higher education, mindsets, academic achievement, SEM, self-beliefs, self-concept, self-efficacy, academic self-perception, structural equation modeling, growth mindset, implicit theories of intelligence
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