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Understanding Academic Mindsets

West | January 31, 2023

The following blog post is included as part of our REL West Winter newsletter. Please refer back to that newsletter for additional content on the topics referenced below. If you are not signed up for the REL West newsletter, please click here to sign up.

What we believe about ourselves has a direct impact on our ability to be successful. As we think about ways to support students and increase opportunities for their success, we must understand their academic mindsets and provide ways for them to increase their confidence and belief in themselves.

Academic mindsets are defined as key beliefs and perceptions which deeply influence students' behavior as learners, and which enable learning success. These mindsets affect motivation, strategies, and perseverance.1 Several examples of key beliefs and perceptions include ideas such as:

  • I belong in this learning community.
  • I can change my abilities through effort (a growth mindset).
  • I can succeed.
  • This work has value and purpose for me.2

There is a cyclical relationship between academic mindsets and behaviors and academic success. An ever-growing body of evidence suggests that students' academic mindsets can have a powerful impact on student engagement and outcomes in school. Scholars have argued there is a recursive cycle in which students' academic mindsets affect their academic behaviors. These academic behaviors affect their success in school, which in turn affects academic mindsets, restarting the cycle.3

Academic mindsets can also be influenced by external factors including stereotype threat, which is the fear of confirming negative stereotypes about a group to which the student belongs. This has been shown to be particularly salient among Black and Latinx students. In particular, the fear of confirming negative stereotypes about the academic ability or intelligence of their racial/ethnic groups has been shown to significantly undermine their academic success.4

At the same time, it is important to acknowledge that supporting student success is an adult responsibility, and that the racial and other disparities we see in student outcomes are not a function of some sort of inherent deficiency in students. Rather, student academic mindsets are a function of powerful system forces that are operating on children, rather than a feature of the children themselves.5 Moreover, it's clear that addressing student mindsets is not a substitute for effective instruction and mindsets will not, by themselves, somehow turn low-performing or underfunded schools into high-performing ones.6 Finally, there is substantial evidence that adult mindsets can also affect student success in powerful ways, ether positively or negatively.7

Understanding academic mindsets—both adult and student—and identifying interventions that lead to student success is a priority for REL West. This work is an important part of our efforts to achieve equity in classrooms throughout our region. Our most recent newsletter highlights some of the work we have engaged in around academic mindsets and self-affirmation and links to resources that are available for educators who are committed to supporting students in these areas.

1 Academic Mindset. Highlander Institute.

2 Academic Mindset. Highlander Institute.

3 Farrington et al. (2012); Snipes, Fancsali, & Stoker (2012); Yeager & Walton (2011); Borman (2017); Snipes & Jacobson (2022). Retrieved from

4 Steele, C. M., & Aronson, J. (1995). Stereotype threat and the intellectual test performance of African Americans. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 69(5), 797–811.

5 Steele & Aronson (1995).

6 Aronson, J., Cohen, G, & McCloskey, W. (2009) Reducing stereotype threat in classrooms: A review of social-psychological intervention studies on improving the achievement of Black students. Washington, DC: National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance, Institute for Education Sciences, U.S. Department of Education; Snipes, Fancsali, & Stoker (2012).

7 Okonofua, J. A., & Eberhardt, J. L. (2015). Two strikes: Race and the disciplining of young students. Psychological Science, 26(5), 617–624; Okonofua, J. A., Paunesku, D., & Walton, G. M. (2016). Brief intervention to encourage empathic discipline cuts suspension rates in half among adolescents. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 113(19), 5221–5226; Yeager, D. S. (2021, December). Teacher mindsets help explain where a growth-mindset intervention does and doesn't work. Psychological Science, 33(1), 18–32.


Jason Snipes

Jason Snipes

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