How Learning Environments Can Shape Learning Outcomes

Elliot Ransom
Feb 7 · 3 min read

New research from the University of Chicago Consortium on School Research (UChicago Consortium) shows the learning environments educators create can have a strong influence on students’ Academic Mindsets and Learning Strategies, and, ultimately, performance. Based on this research, we at UChicago Impact partnered with the UChicago Consortium to develop Cultivate, a survey and framework designed to support educators in creating the kind of learning environments that can change what students believe and how they perform.

This past fall, I joined my colleagues in bringing together a diverse group of education stakeholders, from school leaders to foundation leaders, to talk about how learning environments influence students’ grades. With the generous support of the I.A. O’Shaughnessy Foundation, we hosted a Breakfast Briefing on “Cultivating Learning Environments That Promote Positive Student Outcomes.”

Here are three key takeaways from the event:

1. How students perceive themselves as learners predicts their grades.

During her latest research study, Dr. Camille Farrington, Managing Director and Senior Research Associate at the UChicago Consortium, and her team found what students said about themselves as learners in their class — what they reported about their Academic Mindsets and Learning Strategies — predicted their grade for that class. Further, if they said different things about their Academic Mindsets and Learning Strategies across two classes, that predicted differences in their grades.

2. By listening to students, educators can cultivate classroom conditions that promote positive Academic Mindsets and Learning Strategies.

For over four years, Graham Elementary & Middle School (GEMS) in Ohio has been using the Cultivate Survey to plan and prioritize classroom improvements and help teachers use student voice to make shifts in practice that promote strong Academic Mindsets and Learning Strategies.

While analyzing her school’s Cultivate Data, Cassie Muller, a Math Teacher and Instructional Coach at GEMS, was surprised to see that so many students didn’t see themselves as mathematicians and felt they couldn’t grow their math skills. This prompted her to reflect on how she could set up her classroom and instruction to help foster a growth mindset among her students.

Ultimately, she decided to focus students’ attention more on the process of solving math problems rather than getting the right answer. Students started brainstorming and presenting new strategies for solving a math problem rather than using a universal approach to finding the answer. This gave students the opportunity to be creative with math equations and get excited about learning from failed attempts and wrong answers, rather than seeing failure as a reflection of their academic abilities. Cassie quickly noticed a shift in her classroom — students felt more confident in their ability to learn new math skills.

3. Digging beneath the surface of academic performance has expanded educators’ approach to supporting student learning.

According to James Kutnow, Dean & Director at GEMS, Cultivate has inspired new approaches for promoting strong academic performance that go beyond just curriculum design and testing. He and his team are now exploring how non-academic factors, such as classroom culture, may be influencing students’ Academic Mindsets and Learning Strategies and, in turn, their grades.

One of the first eye-opening insights Cultivate revealed was students’ lack of belief in their ability to succeed. This prompted James and his team to think about how they were communicating ability and achievement possibilities for all students. They discussed different ways they could foster a classroom culture that reinforced the importance of growth and learning rather than “just being good at something,” such as being naturally adept at math or writing.

My colleagues and I were thrilled to hear about the impact Cultivate has already had on classroom practices. We look forward to hearing from more educators on how Cultivate is supporting them in promoting strong student outcomes.

Elliot Ransom

Written by

Co-CEO of UChicago Impact. Working to help educators use research & data to improve practices that promote positive student outcomes.

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