Gates Foundation Awards UVA $1.2M for Learning Mindset Study


By Rachel Chapdelaine

The Gates Foundation awarded a $1.2 million grant to the Motivate Lab to conduct a study that aims to increase use of learning mindset-supportive practices in college access programs.

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has awarded $1.2 million to the University of Virginia’s Motivate Lab to expand the understanding of learning mindsets. Research suggests that mindsets, individuals’ beliefs about learning that shape how they respond to difficulty, are crucial for academic success. Learning mindsets, in particular, motivate students to challenge themselves academically, persist in the face of adversity and achieve at higher levels.

“Learning mindsets include a variety of perspectives and have a significant impact on how students and adults engage in learning new things,” said Chris Hulleman,  associate professor of education and public policy, director of the Motivate Lab and the lead investigator of the project. “For example, growth mindset is the belief that one can improve through effort, a purpose and relevance mindset is the belief that an activity has value, and a social belonging mindset is the belief that one fits in with peers, colleagues and teachers.” 

With the funding, researchers at the Motivate Lab, housed at the Center for Advanced Study of Teaching and Learning at the University of Virginia’s Curry School of Education and Human Development will conduct a 2.5-year study that aims to increase college access programs’ use of learning mindset-supportive practices. These practices ultimately serving to help students transition to and find success in postsecondary education.

Productive learning mindsets are particularly important during high school, when a student’s beliefs and perceptions about whether they belong or will succeed in college influence their achievement in school, their decision to apply to college and their persistence in higher education. Consequently, these decisions also affect their opportunity for upward mobility, as college graduates earn 75% more in wages than individuals with only a high school diploma.

According to Hulleman, the postsecondary access programs that assist and advise students in their pursuit of higher education can play a critical role in fostering students’ learning mindsets. 

“Learning mindsets, unlike other factors that contribute to academic achievement and persistence, can be influenced through supportive practices that target students’ perceptions and beliefs — and postsecondary access programs are in a great position to help promote learning mindsets at a pivotal moment in students’ lives,” said Hulleman. 

Most postsecondary access programs focus on helping students navigate the tactical and logistical aspects of transitioning to college life, but too often, said Hulleman, the psychological supports that are just as important to a successful transition are left out of the mix. 

“Along with equipping students with practical knowledge, leading innovators in the postsecondary access space have begun focusing on how to foster adaptive learning mindsets among students,” Hulleman said. “However, the strategies they use to do so have yet to be documented in a way that they can be readily shared among programs or directly connected to research evidence on learning mindsets. This project aims to bridge that gap by having experts in learning mindsets and social psychology collaborate with college success practitioners.”

The researchers will work with 10 to 20 college access programs to understand how students’ learning mindsets relate to challenges in applying and transitioning to college and how programs can better support their students. 

“By working with practitioners, we hope to identify appropriate, evidence-based strategies and develop a framework that both researchers and practitioners can use to test and promote adaptive learning environments in postsecondary access programs across the country,” said Hulleman. 

Megan Moran, a project associate in Motivate Lab and the project manager of the study, believes that providing practitioners with evidence-based strategies will advance the field of postsecondary access and success programming. Although these strategies will likely benefit all students, she said, the researchers will focus on identifying practices that help traditionally underrepresented students successfully transition to college. 

“Evidence suggests learning mindset-supportive practices are particularly effective at reducing opportunity gaps for underrepresented ethnic/racial minority and low-income students,” said Moran. “We are hopeful that by identifying the most promising practices and sharing them widely in the postsecondary access space, this project will contribute to improved academic outcomes and persistence for students in these groups, as well as increased educational equity.”

The study will also help bridge learning mindset work in K-12 and higher education. 

“By focusing on the critical transition period, we have the potential to identify ways to align promising learning-mindset supportive practices used in K-12 with those being employed in college and, in doing so, amplify their impact,” said Moran.

Practitioners and administrators in the postsecondary access space are encouraged to participate in the study. For more information, contact Megan Moran at mm2wj@virginia.edu.