From Deficit to Asset Framing: How Shifting Faculty Mindset Framing Can Positively Affect Student Motivation and Belonging

Casey Wright
Western Michigan University
Melissa Haswell
Delta College

Melissa Haswell, Delta College

Casey Wright, Western Michigan University

published Feb 23, 2023 11:59am

Student's cultural wealth and faculty mindset framing are often overlooked aspects of educational practice that if addressed, could lead to meaningful change and academic success of students. To shift toward an assets-based view of students and cultivate student belonging we encourage asset framing of students through the cultural wealth, or the knowledge, skills, and contacts, they bring to STEMM classrooms.

It is often posited that academic success is predicated on the "grittiness" of students. Grit can be defined as "expressing a passion and perseverance for pursuing long-term goals" which provides students with the ability to achieve long-term goals even in the face of adversity (Allen, Kannangara & Carson, 2021, p. 75). Grit is often associated with mindset or the perception that students have about their ability to learn. Mindsets, or implicit theories, related to learning generally emphasize the "fixedness or malleability of human characteristics like intelligence or personality (Canning, et. al, 2019)." The majority of research on grit and mindsets related to learning and academic success have focused on students. Thus, leaving the "blame" for lower levels of academic persistence and success squarely on the perceived characteristics of students. However, several recent studies have examined the influence of faculty mindset on student success. This new research indicates that faculty behavior and classroom culture which stems from faculty mindset affects persistence and leads to larger racial achievement gaps in STEM courses and programs (Canning, et. al, 2019).

Grit and Mindset in Students

Grit and mindset have both been used to predict the level of engagement, motivation, performance, and achievement; however, there is also a fair amount of criticism for reliance on grit as a predictor (Allen, Kannangara & Carson, 2021). Recent research argues that grit is constructed of two-lower order facets, perseverance and consistency of interests (Allen, Kannangara & Carson, 2021). When these constructs were examined separately in students, perseverance levels predicted grades, while overall grit and consistency did not (Allen, Kannangara & Carson, 2021). In addition, conscientiousness, the ability to self-regulate and have impulse control, was also found to be a better predictor of academic success than overall grit. Further, cognitive ability and study habits are also better predictors (Allen, Kannangara & Carson, 2021). It has been suggested that previous research on grit and academic success did not address cultural sensitivity, thus leaving a gap in understanding of overall grit as a predictor for specific cultures (Allen, Kannangara & Carson, 2021). In fact, 'grit' has been shown to be a poor predictor for African-American students, while Mexican Americans and Asian Americans show some relationship between grit and academic success (Allen, Kannangara & Carson, 2021; Crede, Tynan, & Harms, 2017). Unfortunately, there is limited research on how to cultivate grit or the cultural differences of grittiness and its relationship to cultural values, historical discrimination, or sociopolitical influences. Mindset provides an alternative perspective to grit and useful insights into student success.

The categorizations for mindset consist of the binary options of either fixed/deficit or growth mindset. Fixed and deficit mindset are often lumped together, but there is a slight difference between the two. Fixed mindset beliefs are founded on the idea that intelligence and skill development are fundamentally innate qualities with little room for malleability or growth (Canning, et. al, 2019). While a deficit mindset relies on the same notions as a fixed mindset that certain groups are lacking these skills which can further marginalize groups who are most likely underserved or marginalized already. In contrast, a growth mindset emphasizes persistence, skill development, and mentoring (Canning, et. al, 2019). Persistence and self regulation as related to grit, as well as the development of a growth mindset, have been successfully cultivated in students. When developed, they increase academic success and enhance the sense of belonging a student feels at their institution. (Allen, Kannangara & Carson, 2021)

Faculty Mindsets

Introductory STEMM courses have been widely categorized as "gatekeeping courses" in which faculty weed students out of their courses. This practice ends up creating inequities by focusing on the "cream of the crop," who are often white, privileged students. For example, white males with average academic preparation, who intend to obtain a STEMM degree, end up passing introductory courses with a C or better have a probability of 48%. By contrast, female students from marginalized groups have a probability of obtaining a STEMM degree of 35% (Hatfield, Brown, & Topaz, 2022). Interestingly, current research indicates that racial achievement gaps in STEMM courses are greater for faculty with deficit mindsets than faculty who have growth mindsets (Canning, et. al, 2019). Lower course performance was shown in Black, Latino, and Native American students when compared to white students in a class taught by faculty with a deficit mindset (Canning, et. al, 2019). Students perceive faculty mindset as a reflection of their own abilities, motivation, and sense of belonging in their STEMM courses, and ultimately in the STEMM pathway towards a degree (Muenks, Yan, Telang, 2021).

Educators assume that "students, parents and community need to change to conform to this already effective and equitable system" (Yosso, 2005). This assumption is often based on enhancing the grit and fixing the mindset of students, while little emphasis is placed on the mindset of faculty. Therefore, a racialized assumption about education is reinforced by deficit thinking which has permeated from American culture into the education systems (Yosso, 2005). Students of color, female students, and those of lower socioeconomic status are already perceived to have deficits due to biases that are either conscious or subconscious and need "fixing" (Yosso, 2005).

Asset Framing of Students through the Community Cultural Wealth Model

Yosso's (2005) community cultural wealth (CCW) model can help STEMM educators move from deficit expectations about the knowledge students from low-income, racially, and ethnically marginalized backgrounds bring to their classrooms toward asset-based mindsets about students. The CCW model can also help STEMM educators consider how systems work to marginalize these students by positioning them as lesser than white students. Rather than viewing students as lacking in preparation or lacking in normative cultural knowledge and skills, consider how the sets of knowledge, skills, and abilities belonging to white middle-class people are just the ones valued by those privileged in society. The CCW model encourages us to challenge and decolonize the white-centric culture of STEMM higher education by attending to aspirational, familial, social, linguistic, resistant, and navigational capital that students bring to our classrooms. Below, we describe these facets of the community cultural wealth model, offer some considerations for STEM educators, and how we can cultivate these assets to foster a sense of belonging for these students.

Aspirational Capital – "the ability to maintain hopes and dreams for the future, even in the face of real and perceived barriers" p. 78

Consider that students who have experienced marginalization by race, class, gender, sexuality, and/or disability in your college science classroom have maintained hope while facing a system designed without them in mind. The strengths students have from aspirational capital are crucial for perseverance through many failed experiments as a scientist. To support this capital in STEMM courses, growth mindset activities help students to develop reflection skills and training on how to set SMART goals (Poe et al., 2021; Woods, 2020). Students who take courses that incorporate goal-setting and other growth mindset practices are able to develop a sense of belonging among their peers and with connection with their instructor, as well as develop skills that help them to be more successful in their STEMM courses (Brooks & Korzaan, 2021; Poe, et. al. 2021; Fuesting, et. al., 2019; Muenks, et. al., 2020).

Linguistic capital – "intellectual and social skills attained through communication experiences in more than one language" p.78

Students bring skills to our science classrooms through their knowledge of how to learn and communicate in different languages. Bilingual and multilingual students bring linguistic to science classrooms and how their ability to move between languages and cultures allows them the ability to navigate into scientific culture and scientific language. This capital can support scientific communication. We can support linguistic capital by helping students to see the value of their language skills through interventions prior to beginning our courses. For example, a social belonging intervention prior to beginning STEMM courses was particularly important for supporting English language learners in their first semester of college to complete courses in STEMM (LaCosse et al., 2020).

Familial capital – "cultural knowledges nurtured among families that carry a sense of community history, memory and cultural intuition" p. 79

Students with strong connections to their cultural knowledges can bring in rich perspectives and motivation for learning. Students can benefit from bringing issues important to their communities into scientific spaces so they can consider how scientists should approach these challenges in the future. The caring and social responsibility tied to these knowledges can be carried through into scientific work and into the classroom environment which historically has lacked these qualities. Activities that highlight student's background-specific strengths have been shown to benefit students from low income backgrounds and increase their academic persistence (Hernandez et al., 2021).

Social capital – "networks of people and community resources" p. 79

Consider how students of color bring an understanding of community to your classroom. Recognizing the peer contacts that students have made and nurtured to attain a space in the classroom, these networks are crucial to nurture to support all of the students that come after them. This strong understanding of community is crucial for team-based science. For example, in an engineering context, creating a classroom culture that cultivates perceptions of possibilities to grow academically can be fostered by helping students with setting goals, classroom context is more important and can help students to see productive mindsets among their peers and instructor (Muenks et al., 2021). Course-based interventions such as incorporating learning assistants, have also been shown to enhance student sense of belonging (Clements et al., 2022). The peer engagement and mentoring processes of these programs have helped to support both students to learn in groups.

Navigational capital – "skills of maneuvering through social institutions" p. 80

Consider how students of color have cultivated skills of navigating institutions that were not designed with them in mind (Yosso, 2005). For example, students engage in code switching by adjusting their appearance and speech to better fit with expectations from within white-dominant spaces (Yosso, 2005). Consider supporting this capital by providing students resources such as being available to help regularly. Teaching them about where to go on campus for help, how to send appropriate emails, where the cultural centers and tutoring centers are. Consider how your students may need to access resources differently based on their ability and language needs. Instructors can work to better support these students by making your course materials accessible by accessing training through disability services. Think about ways to connect students to institutional resources by helping students connect to on-campus social networks for students, success coaches, and other peer networks (Bell, 2021). Instructors can support students by being available and providing feedback to help them recognize their skills to navigate institutions (Rainey et al., 2021). We can support students by guiding them through the disciplinary structures we have navigated to become scientific professionals (Norman et al., 2022).

Resistant capital – "those knowledges and skills fostered through oppositional behavior that challenges inequality" p. 80

Bell (2021) encourages us to consider how our curriculum can maximize the success of all students. Consider how students have resisted the overwhelming structural and systemic pressures to push them out of STEMM education spaces. Students may have endured, and continue to endure daily racism, sexism, and ableism just to be present in our classrooms. For students of color they have built skills to learn while under pressure to adhere to whiteness. They bring with them the tenacity and persistence to continue to show up anyway. We can support this resistant capital in students by fostering a growth mindset. Helping students to recognize academic adversity as normal, temporary, and surmountable can be especially helpful in courses such as introductory chemistry which are widely known to be "weed out" courses (Hammarlund et al., 2022).

Faculty Mindset as a Starting Point for Equitable Systemic Change

By considering the assets that students bring to our classrooms we can begin to cultivate classrooms, laboratories, and campuses that foster student sense of belonging. Traditional approaches to addressing inequities in STEMM education have focused on eliminating bias; however, training alone will not address the issue of systemic racism (Bell, 2021). We must recognize and address the pervasive whiteness of higher education by first addressing the limiting beliefs we have about our students (Burciaga, 2015). While these interventions are crucial at an individual and learning environment level, we should be careful not to limit our work to ourselves or our classrooms. We can support lasting change by engaging in departmental or cross-departmental effort to begin to change systems. We can engage in discussions with others in your STEMM discipline about how to present our disciplines as accessible and welcoming while recognizing the history of exclusion that STEMM disciplines share. We can work on our campuses to instill lasting policies to protect and foster equitable participation in STEMM by striving for shared governance in academic institutions, faculty and other members of the campus community (Bell, 2021). By building solidarity on our campuses, we can re-imagine STEMM higher education as a space to cultivate the capital students bring to our classrooms.


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From Deficit to Asset Framing: How Shifting Faculty Mindset Framing Can Positively Affect Student Motivation and Belonging -- Discussion  

This is a very important post and will deserve a whole chapter in our book, with specific exemplars of how faculty refelction can alter approaches to deep teaching! Thanks


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