Academic math mindset interventions in first-year college calculus
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Freshman calculus is in the policy spotlight. This gateway course’s well-documented high failure rates impede students’ timely completion of baccalaureate degrees. The Mathematical Association of America launched a large-scale study of calculus instruction documenting the breath and intensity of efforts to increase student success. Concurrently, economic studies reveal high returns on investment for mathematics-dependent majors. This study examines whether brief, low-cost interventions targeting freshman calculus students’ beliefs about (1) the nature of intelligence, (2) the course content’s relevance to their goals, and (3) whether they belong to the community of successful mathematics students, can increase their academic performance. To this end, I developed and implemented 3 academic “math mindset” interventions. Each consisted of a video of former calculus students ostensibly reflecting on their experiences and their development and adoption of 1 of the 3 targeted math mindsets: growth (“math intelligence increases with effort”), purpose (“math is relevant to my future”), or belongingness (“I am a valued member of the mathematics community”). The videos lasted between 2 and 4 minutes and were embedded in online homework assignments in 18 first-semester calculus courses. The study included 663 participants. My measures include a validated test of conceptual understanding of differential calculus and self-report surveys of regulation of cognition, task value, control of learning, and self-efficacy. I observed no large significant effects of the interventions on the outcome measures. Unbeknown to me, a similar intervention was administered to all incoming freshmen during the same year; this could have contributed to the lack of positive results. A growing research base has demonstrated the effectiveness of academic mindset interventions in raising K-12 students’ academic achievement and persistence. This study explored the possible effectiveness of such interventions on college freshman. It provides an important reminder that mindset interventions are not guaranteed to deliver positive results, even when they address crucial student beliefs, and that contextual factors play a considerable role in their effectiveness. It adds to the developing suite of mindset interventions that may produce positive outcomes under other circumstances, and it provides educators with useful insight about the practical applications of academic mindsets in calculus classrooms.