By Devora Shamah
For adolescents, academics happen in between rushing to class, negotiating friendships, managing work shifts, sports or clubs, and ultimately figuring out how school fits into who you are now and who you want to become or avoid becoming. For students who have struggled academically, the busyness that is teen life can be even more challenging. Creating school environments that allow youth to shift their understanding of school away from prior and feared future failures and toward future successes requires addressing both academics and social emotional skills within a supportive school environment.
School environments that support students are built by instructors and administrators. Good instructors who are accessible and passionate about their subject matter are important, as are staff members who greet students by name and make it clear that they know students as individuals. Advisors who reach out to students who are falling short and notice the achievements of students who become successful contribute to a warm, supportive school environment as well. But, sometimes even the best faculty watch students struggle. Often the tendency is to assume these students are unmotivated, don’t care enough about their education, or are unwilling to take on a challenge. Fortunately, motivation and mindsets are malleable characteristics[i]. To support students in building motivation around school or a mindset that makes challenges appealing the answers lie not in the content, but in the larger classroom and campus environments. Brief interventions that shift mindsets, build motivation, or make failure a normative part of learning utilize decades of research to nudge students toward success.
Some (here and here) have critiqued these brief interventions as shortcuts and/or ways to ignore the effects of poverty, family responsibilities, or other barriers beyond a student’s control. It is absolutely true that a set of lessons on the neuroscience of learning, a workshop on new strategies for studying, or a set of activities to build motivation will not solve the societal issues of our time. And the critics are right to bring attention to bigger issues that create unnecessary struggles for students. However, young people cannot wait for society to solve inequality, racism, or inconsistent schools. They need ways to engage with their education today, so they have the opportunity to earn the meaningful credentials needed to achieve their goals, support their families, and take their place as contributing community members.
Interventions around growth mindset[ii] and identity-based motivation[iii] are both examples of social-psychological interventions. Social-psychological interventions essentially work because they utilize what psychologists know about how we all make decisions, and they nudge youth to make small decisions that move them closer to success[iv]. These nudges help youth put education at the center of who they want to become instead of defining who they were, what Daphna Oyserman[v] refers to as an education-dependent identity. Oyserman notes, identity-based motivation interventions suggest a variety of motivational paths, each of which has the power to frame how students make sense of their experiences of ease and difficulty, whether they see current choices as connected to or irrelevant from their possible future selves, and whether they embrace strategies to get there or not.
We know many young people struggle with a host of challenges beyond their control: illness, mental health issues, poverty, parenting, and the list goes on. Implementing brief interventions of any kind won’t make these issues go away. However, social-psychological interventions have solid evidence behind them and improve outcomes[vi]. In concert with good teaching and supportive staff, social-psychological interventions are useful for students (and teachers) to increase motivation, think about learning, struggle with difficult problems, and ultimately help them make sense of their academic work.
At Gateway to College, students rarely attribute their struggles to the academic work or requirements. Tutoring, study groups, and excellent instructors are already in place at the community colleges Gateway to College students attend. What students do need in addition to their academic work is the opportunity to figure out why school matters to what they want to do, to build an identity as a successful student, and make all the small decisions that are necessary to keep them in school. Social-psychological interventions use the same psychology that marketers use. If educators can harness the same power that gets us to the mall in order to help students skip the snooze button, do their homework instead of going out with friends, rework a challenging problem again, and attend study workshops on campus, more students will have the skills and support they need to achieve the degrees and credentials they aspire to.
[i] Covington, M. (2000). Goal theory, motivation, and school achievement: An integrative review. Annual Review of Psychology, 51, 171–200.; Dweck, C. S. (2008). Mindset: the new psychology of success. New York: Ballantine Books.; Oyserman, D. (2009). Identity-based motivation: Implications for action-readiness, procedural-readiness, and consumer behavior. Journal of Consumer Psychology, 19(3), 250–260. http://doi.org/10.1016/j.jcps.2009.05.008
[ii] Dweck, C. S. (2008). Mindset: the new psychology of success. New York: Ballantine Books.
[iii] Oyserman, D. (2015). Pathways to success through identity-based motivation. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
[v] Oyserman, D. (2015). Pathways to success through identity-based motivation. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
[vi] Duckworth, A. L., Peterson, C., Matthews, M. D., & Kelly, D. R. (2007). Grit: Perseverance and passion for long-term goals. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 92(6), 1087–1101. http://doi.org/10.1037/0022-3518.104.22.1687; Dweck, C. S. (2007). The perils and promises of praise. Educational Leadership, 65(2), 34–39.; Oyserman, D., & Destin, M. (2010). Identity-Based Motivation: Implications for Intervention. The Counseling Psychologist. http://doi.org/10.1177/0011000010374775; Yeager, D. & Walton, G. (2011). Social-Psychological Interventions in Education: They’re Not Magic. Review of Educational Research, 81(2), 267–301. http://doi.org/10.3102/0034654311405999; Yeager, D., Walton, G., & Cohen, G. (2013). Addressing achievement gaps with psychological Interventions. Phi Delta Kappan, 94(5), 62–65. http://doi.org/10.1177/003172171309400514