Teachers' Fixed-Ability Practices: Measurement, Antecedents, and Implications for Students' Motivational Beliefs and Achievement
Mindsets (i.e., implicit beliefs about whether ability can be changed) are important for students’ learning, but relatively little is known about how they develop. Considering the gaps in the literature, the overarching purpose of the present study was to understand the role of teaching practices in the development of students’ mindsets and associated achievement-related motivational beliefs. This study set out to first develop a conceptualisation of, and a teacher and student questionnaire for, the assessment of fixed- ability practices (FAPs) – teaching practices that are based on the notion that ability is fixed. It aimed to examine the dimensionality of student-perceived FAPs (RQ 1), and whether teachers’ own motivational beliefs (mindset, teaching goal orientation, attribution for students’ achievement, and perceived student ability/expectation) predict their engagement in student-perceived and/or teacher-reported FAPs (RQ 2). Moreover, it aimed to examine whether student-perceived and/or teacher-reported FAPs predict students’ motivational beliefs (mindset, achievement goal orientation, achievement attribution, and ability self- concept) as well as achievement (RQ 3). To gain a greater understanding of why such relationships might exist, this study also explored how teachers justify their engagement in FAPs, and whether these justifications are related to their motivational beliefs (RQ 4). It also explored how students perceive FAPs, in particular, what messages they draw from these for their motivational beliefs (RQ 5). The research questions were examined in a mathematics context because maths is a subject in which fixed mindsets are particularly prevalent. A longitudinal mixed-methods design was used. Participants were 927 Year 7 students (aged 11-12 years) from 37 classes and 31 of their maths teachers in seven English secondary schools. Teachers’ and students’ motivational beliefs in maths were assessed with self-report questionnaires at the beginning of the first year of secondary school (Time 1), and students’ motivational beliefs were again assessed at the end of the school year (Time 3). During the middle of the year, FAPs were assessed with teacher and student questionnaires (Time 2). Additionally, classroom observations (Time 2) were conducted during maths lessons of four selected teachers. This was followed by video-stimulated recall interviews with these teachers and some of their students to reflect on FAPs. Lastly, students’ maths grades for the end of Year 6 and Year 7 were obtained from school records. Two-level factor analyses showed that student-perceived FAPs comprise five dimensions at iii the individual level: unsophisticated task differentiation, public evaluation, little promotion of self-regulation, differential value, and little promotion of risk-taking. There was no overarching FAPs dimension that represented all these practices well. At the classroom level, there was one uniform dimension. Corresponding FAPs scales for teachers had inadequate psychometric properties and were thus not used in subsequent analyses. Correlations between teachers’ motivational beliefs and students’ shared perceptions of FAPs were all non-significant. Hence, initially planned regression analyses were not performed to examine these relationships further. Longitudinal effects of student-perceived FAPs on students’ motivational beliefs and achievement were examined using Bayesian cross-classified multiple membership models, accounting for students belonging to multiple classrooms and teachers during the school year. Results indicated that students’ individual perceptions of teachers’ differential value led to stronger fixed mindsets and a reduced self- concept. Moreover, perceived little promotion of risk-taking led to more performance- approach goals. In addition, there were several notable trends. At the classroom and teacher level, students’ shared perceptions of FAPs led to an increase in performance-approach goals. Thematic analysis of teacher interviews showed that teachers provided multiple justifications for their practices involving beliefs, goals for students, practical considerations, and school policies. Engagement in more adaptive practices was usually explained by adaptive beliefs and values, while maladaptive practices were explained by maladaptive beliefs and values. Yet, teachers rarely referred to their mindset or goal orientation, and relationships between beliefs and practices were at times inconsistent. As expected, discussions with students indicated that they perceived FAPs negatively and that FAPs seemed to foster maladaptive motivational beliefs. Moreover, students’ initial beliefs seemed to influence how they perceived some practices. The qualitative and quantitative results were mostly aligned, but student interviews revealed additional potential influences of FAPs on motivational beliefs. The current study has made important theoretical, empirical, and methodological contributions to the field of educational psychology and, in particular, motivation. In addition, the findings have valuable practical implications as they may help teachers and other educational stakeholders understand how to avoid unwittingly setting up students to develop maladaptive motivational beliefs.