Academic attitudes ‘hold back minority science students’

Race-based student performance gap doubles when professors admit doubts about innate abilities

February 16, 2019
Source: istock

Ethnic minority students tend to have lower success rates in the sciences when taught by academics who believe that some learners have intrinsic limits on their intelligence, a US study has found.

The research, published in Science, was based on surveys involving 150 faculty and two years of performance data on 15,000 of their students at a large public US research university.

The results suggest that an additional factor, beyond well-recognised economic, social and structural handicaps, could be holding back students from ethnic minorities, according to the authors at Indiana University.

The study did not directly explore staff attitudes about race-based stereotypes, but instead just asked the professors if they agreed that “students have a certain amount of intelligence, and they really can’t do much to change it”.

Among those lecturers who indicated agreement, the gap in success between their white and Asian students, as compared to their other ethnic minority students, was nearly twice as large.

“Endorsing a fixed mindset about intelligence does not necessarily mean that you endorse racial stereotypes,” said lead author Mary Murphy, an associate professor of psychological and brain sciences at Indiana.

But Dr Murphy argued that academics who endorsed fixed mindset beliefs tended to prize only flawless performance, which those who adhered to a growth mindset theory tended to value and praise the process of learning, and use mistakes as learning opportunities.

She said that the faculty demographics of the institution that they studied were similar to the demographics of science faculty nationwide.

“There are several reasons to believe that our results would generalise to other parts of the world,” Dr Murphy said, “particularly in places where similar intellectual stereotypes exist about underrepresented groups.”

Dr Murphy and her team published the findings in the same week that a collaboration funded by the National Science Foundation announced an initial group of 15 public research universities that have agreed to participate in a three-year programme to change their recruitment, hiring and retention practices in the sciences.

The effort, known as the IChange Network, will include a period of institutional self-assessment, professional development services for existing faculty from underrepresented groups, and money to further diversify science and technology faculty. Organisers said that they hope to add 50 more universities over the next two years.

Also during the week, a group of 53 academic and professional societies in the sciences announced an initiative aimed at improving conditions for women. That effort was outlined at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, which is also one of the umbrella groups organising the project. The effort will focus on providing the participating academic societies with resources, guidance and model policies for improving their treatment of women.

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Reader's comments (1)

Is the belief on the part of some teachers that minorities have intrinsic limits on how well they do in science reflected in the grades given by these teachers on supposedly objective tests? Is that not outright racial discrimination and cause for instant dismissal?