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Customized peer-modeled mindset intervention for STEM

Designing a Mindset Intervention to Help Underrepresented Students Thrive in Introductory College Science Courses

Cameron A. Hecht, Anita G. Latham, Ruth E. Buskirk, Debra R. Hansen, and David S. Yeager


Demand for professionals with skills in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields continues to grow in the United States. But many undergraduate STEM majors drop out or change majors before graduating. This attrition of STEM students is especially pronounced among underrepresented minority and first-generation college students.

Some of the barriers to success for underrepresented minority and first-generation college students in challenging STEM courses are structural. For example, students from lower-income families may need to work one or more jobs to cover tuition and living expenses, which leaves them less time to devote to coursework. Students’ mindsets, or their assumptions, beliefs, or perspectives that shape how they interpret and respond to their academic environment, are also potential barriers to success.

Students’ mindsets can be the accumulated result of prior experiences with discrimination or under-representation. They can also be a cause of ongoing underperformance. For example, when students perform poorly on the first exam of a gateway science course, they often form the belief that they simply don’t belong in the sciences. This belief, in turn, can lead to a pernicious cycle of worry, failure, and disengagement from STEM courses.

Mindset interventions, which shift students’ beliefs about themselves as learners and about their classroom experiences, have been incorporated into undergraduate STEM courses, including biology, developmental math, and physics, with increasing regularity in recent years. They have shown promise for improving undergraduate students’ academic outcomes and promoting diversity in STEM.

Mindset interventions are often short, self-administered exercises crafted by social psychologists to target and address students’ most pronounced fears and are easy to administer. However, for mindset interventions to be the most successful, they must be customized for each course to address the specific challenges students face as well as incorporate the resources available to them in the course.

This research brief reports on a recent paper [1] in which the authors designed a protocol to develop customized mindset interventions for specific college courses. The protocol – designed by a research-practice partnership team of three biology instructors and two social psychologists – resulted in a peer-modeled mindset intervention.

The protocol used a targeted series of questions, rooted in social-psychological theory, to elicit advice from former students of an introductory biology course. This process, which was filmed and edited to focus on specific topics, allows peers to model the changes in thinking that helped them to be successful in the course.

Using a randomized controlled trial design, half the students in the same introductory biology course received the intervention to test its impact on students’ experiences and outcomes in the course. At key points during the semester (i.e., before exams), current students watched a short (~7 minute) video and then completed a short writing activity to reflect on what they saw and heard. Each of these three intervention activities took about 15 minutes to complete.

Key Findings

  • The authors designed a protocol to develop customized peer-modeled mindset interventions for specific college courses, in which current students hear from former students about the changes in thinking that helped them to be successful.
  • The authors used the protocol to create a customized intervention for three sections of Introductory Biology I at a large, public university. See figure for a brief description of the intervention activities and representative responses.
  • The intervention improved students’ experiences and outcomes. It improved students’:
    • approach to studying,
    • feelings of belonging,
    • performance in the course; and
    • persistence in biology
  • These intervention effects were strongest among first-generation college students and underrepresented racial/ethnic minority students, groups that have historically been underrepresented in the STEM fields.
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Policy Implications

This research provides a formalized approach to guide the process of customizing mindset interventions for specific college-level courses. This customization is essential to maximizing the impact of mindset interventions.

The intervention approach highlights the positive impact of students hearing the right story at the right time from a trusted source. Importantly, these mindset interventions show promise for improving experiences and outcomes for students who have been historically underrepresented in the STEM fields, which may help to broaden participation in these fields.

The positive contributions of the mindset intervention are reflected in the words of the instructors who contributed to the protocol development and who saw the positive outcomes firsthand. One focused on the impact of students hearing from a trusted source: “it’s the power of peers who mirror and validate their own experiences. We [instructors] can talk for hours about changing study strategies, but when they see a kid in a video saying ‘I got a C- on my first exam and I didn’t know what hit me,’ they pay attention because it speaks to them.” Another noted the positive impact of hearing from students like them who used existing resources: “We provide students with resources but listening to others who have actually used some of these resources and become successful in the course is very helpful.” Finally, this instructor was most impressed by the potential for the intervention to broaden inclusion and participation in STEM: “I also think that a major contribution is that the effects were documented to be greater on first-generation college students and under-represented minority students in our classes.”


[1] Hecht, C.A., Latham, A.G., Buskirk, R.E., Hansen, D.R., & Yeager, D.S. (2022). Peer-modeled mindsets: an approach to customizing life sciences studying interventions. CBE - Life Sciences Education. https://doi.org/10.1187/cbe.22-07-0143

Suggested Citation

Hecht, C.A., Latham, A.G., Buskirk, R.E., Hansen, D.R., & Yeager, D.S. (2022). Designing a mindset intervention to help underrepresented students thrive in introductory college science courses. PRC Research Brief 7(9). http://dx.doi.org/10.26153/tsw/43385

About the Authors

Cameron A. Hecht (cameron.hecht@utexas.edu) is a National Science Foundation postdoctoral scholar at the Population Research Center, The University of Texas at Austin and a postdoctoral fellow with the Behavioral Science and Policy Institute (TxBSPI), UT Austin; Anita G. Latham is an associate professor of instruction, Ruth E. Buskirk is professor of instruction, and Debra R. Hansen is an assistant professor of instruction, all in the Biology Instructional Office, College of Natural Sciences, UT Austin; and David S. Yeager is an associate professor of psychology, faculty affiliate at TxBSPI and faculty scholar at the Population Research Center.


This research was supported by the National Science Foundation under award number 1761179; the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (award number R01HD084772, David S. Yeager, PI) and P2C HD042849, awarded to the Population Research Center, UT Austin; and the Jacobs Foundation under award number 2019-1320-14. Cameron A. Hecht is supported by the National Science Foundation Postdoctoral Research Fellowship under grant number 2004831. The content is solely the responsibility of the authors and does not necessarily represent the official views of the National Science Foundation, the National Institutes of Health, or the Jacobs Foundation.