There is a dizzying array of things to think about when signing up for classes and again later when you’re thinking about what to keep the first week of classes. You may have to consider requirements for your major or for the Common Ground and Shared Goals curricula at IU. You may try to sign up for classes that your friends are taking, especially if there might be group projects. And you may even look for which classes or instructors have given out the best grades in the past.
One thing you might not have thought much about yet is how your instructors view their students: specifically, their lay theories of intelligence. Lay theories of intelligence refer to how instructors (and even students themselves) think about the nature of intelligence. There are two lay theories of intelligence: entity and incremental. The entity theory of intelligence means you think that intellectual abilities are set and cannot be changed, or in other words, thinking that you either have the innate intellectual abilities for a certain topic or you don’t. For example, some people may think they are innately talented in business and marketing but believe they just don’t have it for physics.
In contrast, the incremental theory of intelligence means you think that intellectual abilities can be improved through hard work and dedication, or in other words, thinking that if you keep putting in the work, you can get there. For example, if someone encounters a class they find difficult, like organic chemistry, they believe they can work hard, complete the practice problems, and get extra help from the instructor to slowly build their knowledge of the topic and eventually do well in the class.
Recent and ongoing research in Indiana University’s Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences (e.g., Murphy & Dweck, 2010; Boucher & Murphy, 2017; in a business context: Emerson & Murphy, 2014, 2015) has found this to be an important factor for students, especially for those taking classes in domains where they might be stereotyped, such as men in English and writing classes, or women and students of color in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) classes.
In classrooms, instructors’ lay theories of intelligence can have a huge impact on students. For example, in a classroom with an instructor who believes in the entity theory, students could spend more time worrying about whether they have it or not and less time focusing on the class material. In addition, if they feel the professor doesn’t think they have it, these students might put less work into the class, drop the class, or even leave the major for a field where the instructors do think they have it.
On the other hand, in a classroom with an instructor who believes in the incremental theory, students could instead worry less about their abilities and be encouraged to continue working hard, even when they encounter obstacles. This is because they see improvement as being within their grasp as long as they’re willing to put in the effort.
Thus, students who believe they have it or who get the impression from their instructors that they have it can do just fine in entity classrooms. But those without those beliefs or who are told they may not have it could suffer academically. In incremental classrooms, however, there is room for improvement and growth from all students if they’re willing to work hard.
These theories are in line with the research findings. Women students were asked about whether their instructors think some students have it and others don’t or whether the instructors think anyone can succeed if they work hard enough. The ones that perceived their STEM instructors as having an entity theory of intelligence experienced greater feelings of threat based on their identities as women and fewer feelings of belonging in the classroom (Murphy, Garcia, & Zirkel, 2013). These women were also more likely to experience feelings of imposter syndrome, where they fear they don’t truly understand the material and attribute success in these classes to factors like luck instead of their own skill and knowledge. Moreover, these findings showed that these theories of intelligence can have a real impact on students’ behaviors. Heightened feelings of threat were linked to students being less likely to go to office hours and speak up in class, even to ask questions and get help (Zirkel, Garcia, & Murphy, 2015).
Therefore, when you’re thinking about which classes to take (or which to stay in) this Fall, keep in mind how your instructors think about the nature of intelligence. In many cases, students do well in entity classrooms, if they already believe they have it or if they feel like their instructors think they have it. However, if you’re worried about your performance (if it’s a required class or if it’s in a department where people like you might have stereotypes about doing poorly), you may want to consider whether your instructor will have an incremental theory of intelligence. In short, when you have an option, think about who will give the best type of instruction for you.